Roughly 10 years after O.J. Simpson was arrested, charged and acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, an epitome of European female aesthetics, and her male acquaintance Ron Goldman, the legendary running back’s name bubbled up in a 2004 sketch from “Chappelle’s Show.”
With the fourth pick in the “Racial Draft,” the delegation representing white people choose Colin Powell, the black military and political star of Republican President George W. Bush’s administration. The pick ignited protest from the delegation representing black people, who relented only after the whites also agreed to take Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s black secretary of state, and allow Eminem, the white rapper, to be claimed by black constituents instead.
The white delegation countered. It would acquiesce only if the blacks agreed to take O.J. Simpson. The blacks did.
“Unbelievable!” exclaimed one of the two white commentators as he discreetly dapped up his white colleague. “O.J. Black, again!”
Now, a generation removed from the crime and trial, the theater of Simpson’s court case is riveting the nation again. Last Saturday, ESPN unveiled “O.J.: Made in America,” its exhaustive five-part, seven-hour documentary. Earlier this year, FX unfurled a 10-part, 10-hour dramatic miniseries, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” It was based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 bestselling book “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which is selling swiftly again.
Until now, it had been years since I last considered Simpson. That was when he was arrested and convicted in Las Vegas in 2008 in what seemed like a shockingly bad Guy Ritchie kidnapping-and-robbery script. It involved Simpson’s own memorabilia. Nonetheless, he caught 33 years. He was 60 then. It rendered him all but done, another one in roughly every 15 black men behind prison bars.
So with this suddenly rekindled O.J. obsession, I asked myself: Why? Was it simply our ease in the media of packaging and selling an anniversary — 20 years — of what turned out to be a seminal, televised criminal trial to a new generation that either missed it or was too young to comprehend it? “My younger colleagues at CNN are always coming up to me and saying, ‘I can’t believe this. Did this really happen?’ Toobin, now the CNN senior legal analyst, told Vogue earlier this year. “I assure them that it did.”
Was it our insatiable appetite to chew on the gristle of murder behind celebrity doors? Was it that Simpson appeared to become the biggest celebrity or athlete — or celebrity-athlete — to fall from what was considered grace?
Grace, i.e. money, fame and, in Simpson’s case, acceptance in places where someone who looked like him and came from where he did could not be embraced before he arrived.
That was when I recalled the brilliance of Chappelle’s dozen-years-old satire. It reminded that while Simpson was not the first black celebrity or celebrity-athlete to fall from that celebrated place called grace, he may have been the first to be seen as squandering it so spectacularly.
This isn’t a morbid fascination television has zeroed in on right now. It’s not, after all, about how a woman was brutally terrorized as a domestic-abuse victim and later murdered along with another man. This is absorption rooted in societal rubbernecking. Some people still can’t believe what they just saw.
In some ways, the attraction to the life of Simpson is not unlike what we witnessed last week in the immediate wake of the death of Muhammad Ali. Black people, or those black people and others who sympathize with black people’s plight as expressed in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, celebrated Ali’s life for rejecting grace — or white privilege as it is. Simpson, however, will forever be remembered for fumbling away that exemption.
Simpson didn’t transcend his race; he escaped it like it was a would-be tackler.
He came from the black working-poor side of town, but his athleticism trumped that and landed him in an exclusive white university in Los Angeles.
He wound up playing professionally in blue-collar Buffalo, but his stardom and clean-shaven good looks gave him reception in the elite entertainment industrial complex of Hollywood.
Simpson traded black life for white life and national prominence for worldwide recognition.
I often have recalled my first night in Barcelona on the eve of the 1992 Summer Games. A small group of us, including former longtime Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon and the late sports columnist Bryan Burwell, walked into a night club where O.J., then covering track and field for NBC, appeared shortly afterward only to be quickly immersed by a throng of women from everywhere but the United States. They knew him just the same.
Simpson became a safe black man. He was the antithesis of Jim Brown, the black NFL running back whose greatness he sought to supplant and whose stridency he had no interest in following.
Simpson became the sort of black athlete the media long loved to promote. He was non-confrontational, not unlike the behavior that was expected of and acceded to by many black Americans in post-Reconstruction, pre-Civil Rights era America. He was an antidote for white America to promote racial peace and unity despite its maintenance of separateness.
He wasn’t part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement of his time, the black power movement. He wasn’t part of the anti-war movement like Ali. He wasn’t part of any movement except that which carried him into Los Angeles’s haughtiest society.
As law professor and critical race theorist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw observed of Simpson in “Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case,” shortly after he was acquitted of double murder: “Simpson and perhaps a few other African Americans reinforce wishful beliefs that American society has reformed, in spite of the marginalization of masses of African Americans who live lives largely separate and remote from the majority of White Americans.”
Simpson became an illusion not unlike a trick a magician pulls on stage. His truth wasn’t what you saw. And many among us are still looking for it.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.