Running out of Juice: The bizarre world of OJ Simpson

Last week’s parole hearing is just the latest chapter in the extraordinary life of OJ Simpson, the disgraced former NFL star, convicted felon and man widely considered to have got away with murder.

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OJ Simpson murder trial Time magazine cover, October 1995. Credit: Time, Myung J. Chun

OJ Simpson cut an odd figure during the video conference for his parole hearing at the Lovelock correctional centre in Nevada last week.

During the 90 minute live streamed hearing Simpson went from protesting his innocence to discussing the merits of cookies and cream and name checking fellow felon, the convicted rapist Mike Tyson.

Far from being diminished after a near decade in prison, 70-year-old Simpson looked delighted to be back in the limelight, smiling and bowing to the courtroom as the four parole commissioners unanimously ruled to release him from prison in October after serving nine years of a 33-year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping.

OJ Simpson still divides opinion to this day, some 22 years after he was acquitted of the brutal murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

During the ruling parole commissioner Susan Jackson described receiving “hundreds of letters” of both support and opposition for Simpson. Those in opposition made specific reference to the 1995 murder trial – nicknamed the Trial of the Century.

A staggering 150 million people, equivalent to 57% of America, watched the jury deliver the not guilty verdict in the 1995 trail. Sitting in their homes, community centres, churches or out on the streets, supporters of Simpson cheered next to others who wept in dismay, a sign of the polarising impact of the trial on US society.

Two decades later and OJ Simpson continues to hang over the public consciousness, like a bad dream at the corner of the mind that cannot be forgotten. Enough time had passed for people to want to revisit the subject in 2016, which saw the release of dramatisation The People vs OJ Simpson and the epic eight-hour documentary, OJ: Made in America.

Winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2017, the longest documentary to ever win an Academy Award, OJ: Made in America is a forensically researched analysis of the fall of OJ Simpson, from his college football days to his arrest in a seedy Las Vegas hotel room in 2007.

Directed by Ezra Edelman, the documentary probes the racial tensions that haunt American society and underpinned the murder trial. It takes the viewer from the infamous beating of unarmed black man Rodney King by white LAPD police officers that sparked the 1992 LA Riots, to the less well publicised murders of African American women Latasha Harlins and Eulia Love.

Featuring testimony from Simpson’s childhood friends, his former agent, the police officers and lawyers involved in the murder trial, as well as the jurors themselves, OJ: Made in America is a devastating exposé of American culture and its role in breeding a man who was able to get away with murder.

The man, the ego

The fact that OJ Simpson’s obsession with his own legacy proved to be his undoing feels somewhat fitting. Rather than being sent to prison for the horrific murder of his ex-wife and her friend as his children slept upstairs, Simpson was finally put behind bars for trapping a group of memorabilia dealers in a Las Vegas hotel room and demanding they return key pieces from his NFL career.

However, in order to fully understand the extent of Simpson’s fall from grace, the documentary takes the viewer back to 1970s America.

Here Edelman shows a fresh faced OJ Simpson who crossed the racial divide, garnering love from black and white men alike after becoming the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in 1973 as running back for the Buffalo Bills.

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NFL’s Greatest Players (2010)

Affectionately nicknamed The Juice, Simpson was an instant star, with the good looks, charisma and athleticism required to be an all-American hero. He blazed a trial for African American sportsmen, securing high profile endorsements with the likes of car rental company Hertz and Chevrolet, as well as film parts in The Naked Gun franchise and thriller Capricorn One.

Importantly the documentary also shows how OJ Simpson believed he transcended race. He shunned the politics of the Black Power movement, preferring to move to the up-market, largely white LA suburb of Brentwood and settle in his Rockingham mansion.

In love with the idea of celebrity, Simpson moved in glamorous circles. It was during an evening at The Daisy nightclub in 1977 that he met 18-year-old waitress Nicole Brown and immediately decided he was going to marry her, even if that meant casting aside first wife and mother of his children, Marguerite.

The couple married in 1985 in a dazzling ceremony at Rockingham, the mansion decorated like a shrine to Simpson. The documentary shows the walls of the house lined with hall-of-fame style memorabilia, including a silkscreen print of OJ Simpson by none other than Andy Warhol.

Simpson’s commitment to the cult of celebrity continued all the way into the murder trial. When the LAPD first named Simpson as a person of interest in June 1994, he staged an audacious getaway straight out of a Hollywood film.

With a gun pointed at his own head, “suicidal” Simpson forced best friend Al Cowlings to flee in the now infamous white Ford Bronco SUV, with a convoy of LAPD officers in pursuit. Simpson would, no doubt, have been delighted to hear that several TV stations interrupted coverage of the 1994 NBA Finals to broadcast the car chase live.

Sarah Sphar
Credit: Sarah Sphar/Flickr

Masculinity

Edelman’s documentary depicts Simpson as a classic narcissist, a man obsessed with himself and preserving his own image at all costs. Caught up with this narcissism is a deep seated ruthlessness and desire for control, especially over his wife Nicole whom he clearly regarded as a trophy.

Despite his own infidelity, the documentary shows Simpson’s fixation with the possibility Nicole had been with other men, particularly a rumoured affair with NFL player Marcus Allen. The connection to Allen appeared to most unnerve Simpson, primarily because of the threat the NFL star posed to his masculinity as a younger and better version of himself.

Even though the pair finally divorced in 1992 due to “irreconcilable differences”, Simpson was not prepared to draw a line under this marriage. The documentary recounts incidents of stalking, where Simpson would hide outside his ex-wife’s house and watch her with other men, before phoning her the next day to give a blow-by-blow account of her activity.

Nicole was failed by the police before her murder even took place. The victim of sustained domestic abuse, very little was done for Nicole despite repeated reports to the police. The fact that Simpson pleaded no contest to spousal abuse in 1989 was not enough to convince the jury that Nicole Brown Simpson was harmed by her husband’s hand.

Rather, the jury’s willingness to cast aside evidence of domestic abuse only highlighted the deep-seated misogyny in American culture and the temptation to take a male perpetrator’s word above that of a female victim time and time again.

Race

One of the most important issues revealed in OJ: Made in America is the country’s toxic relationship with race.

The documentary perfectly captures the tensions between LA’s African American community and the police, and the feelings of inequality and injustice whipped up into a perfect storm that culminated with the OJ Simpson trial.

For the black community the wounds caused by seeing LAPD police officers repeatedly acquitted of the murder and abuse of African Americans were just too raw.

The LA riots had erupted just three years before the murder trial, sparked by the acquittal of four white LAPD officers for a brutal assault on black motorist Rodney King despite significant video evidence. 

Edelman’s commitment to detailing the racial tensions, particularly in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, gives important context to the trial. It also explains why one juror, an elderly African American woman, described wanting justice to swing in a black man’s favour for once, even if Simpson might be guilty.

The irony of this show of solidarity is that in the years preceding the trial Simpson had tried everything he could to distance himself from the black community. The documentary even shows Simpson’s trial lawyers replacing all the photos in Rockingham of OJ with white people, so as to make him seem “more black” to the jury. Footage of Simpson trying to fit in with the the African American community post-trial, after his white friends had abandoned him, showed a man visibly ill at ease.

The people that believed and empathised with OJ Simpson were the very community that he had shunned in the thirty years before he needed them, further highlighting the extent of his opportunistic nature.

Opinion has since shifted. Whereas in 1995, 71% of African Americans thought Simpson was innocent according to a Washington Post poll, when asked again in 2015 some 57% said they thought he was guilty. This is compared to 72% of white Americans who believed OJ Simpson had got away with murder in 1995, a figure which rose to 83% when questioned again by the Washington Post in 2015.

A fantastic and thoroughly satisfying watch, OJ Simpson: Made in America depicts in searing detail exactly why Simpson is a product of his country. Simpson is shown as a parable of the American Dream turned sour, a man who traded greatness for infamy and believed his legacy was worth more than any human life.

It will be interesting to see how America reacts to the impending release of OJ Simpson in less than three months’ time. The once beloved NFL hero turned pariah, who called into question the very fabric of American society, continues to wield a strange fascination in the national psyche.

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