Thursday, June 23, 2016

Lost Man – O.J.: Made in America

O.J. Simpson with his award as college football's outstanding player of 1968, in Jan 1969. (Photo: Bill Ingraham)

If there's one prevailing image of O.J.Simpson – a leitmotif forever defining his life – it is of a man constantly on the run. It doesn't matter whether he rapidly escaped the projects of Potrero Hills, in San Fransisco, as an adolescent, or dazzled crowds with a game tying 64-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 1967 playoff between his team USC and UCLA (an unforgettable play that inspired Arnold Friberg's famous oil painting, O.J. Simpson Breaks for Daylight), Simpson is always seen in perfect flight. As a striving track athlete, he broke records with his speed at the NCAA track championships in Provo, Utah, in 1967. When he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the NFL in 1969, he would set new marks for rushing. (In 1973, he became the first player to break the 2,000-yard rushing mark in scoring 2,003 total yards with 12 touchdowns.) Because of his lightning reflexes, he even acquired the sobriquet 'Juice' because of the electricity he generated on the field. He was swift of feet moving through a brief film career that included clunkers like Capricorn One (1978) and the popular Naked Gun trilogy in the Eighties, just as he was rapidly bounding through airport departure lounges in numerous Hertz television ads. O.J. Simpson never seemed to stand still so we could get a fix on him. Not at least until he went on trial for murder in 1994 in the death of his estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

In Ezra Edelman's riveting five-part ESPN documentary, O.J.: Made in America, we get a penetrating examination of a star athlete who captured the public's imagination with the swiftness of his charm. But behind that mask of winsomeness was a lost man and a cipher who became a tragic projection of America's greatest stain – racism – where through his veil of celebrity, he could manipulate his image (and, in turn, be manipulated by others) into anything he needed it to be. O.J.: Made in America is a searing piece of political journalism and it has some of the runaway stature of Norman Mailer's best work and maybe Randy Shilt's ...And The Band Played On, where the larger social themes emerge out of the drama and with a startling immediacy. Although it was purely coincidental that O.J.: Made in America premiered on television days after the death of Muhammad Ali, you can't separate one from the other. If Muhammad Ali was a powerful and discomfiting figure who dramatically brought the issues of racism and celebrity into the forefront of popular culture (and even rubbed our faces in it while boasting about his strength and beauty as he knocked out Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson), O.J. Simpson in Edelman's work becomes the anti-Ali, a star who desperately chose to become the invisible servant of a nation that offered him celebrity success if he could be a black man who wished to be white. At Ali's funeral, there were many who preferred to remember him as floating like a butterfly rather than stinging like a bee. That's possibly because he not only – as Cassius Clay – took on the religion of segregation, the Nation of Islam, and changed his name, but he also stood up to the Vietnam War and refused to be drafted. As a proud black man, he wouldn't go fight in a country where "they didn't call me nigger." Ali relinquished his championship title, and urged other black athletes to stand up for their rights (as John Carlos and Tommie Smith did when they raised their black-gloved fists at the award-winning ceremony of the 1968 Mexico Olympics). He even risked going to jail for his actions. The celebrity of Muhammad Ali was borne out of the defiance of one man holding America accountable for its broken promises. But O.J. Simpson, who sped through the doors that Ali opened, ignored the country's dashed ideals and went for the gold. Unlike Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, where the author visibly railed against being both ignored and turned into an expedient symbol, in O.J.: Made in America, we see the reverse happening. O.J. Simpson is a visible celebrity athlete who turns into an invisible man by allowing himself to become an expedient symbol for whatever and whoever will make him accepted and loved.

Rather than begin his documentary with a highlight reel of the O.J. we came to know, he confronts us with the more unfamiliar contemporary image of Simpson in prison during a parole hearing discussing his daily duties while serving out a thirty-three year sentence for armed robbery. Like Martin Scorsese in Raging Bull, who confronted us first with the bloated, overweight boxer Jake LaMotta rather than the sleek compact fighter in his youth, Edelman also strips O.J. of his familiar celebrity disguise so that we can see the man emotionally naked. But, unlike in Raging Bull, where Scorsese ultimately boils down LaMotta's life and career into a cameo of brutality, Edelman uses his moment to open up – for close to eight hours – the varied ways in which O.J. Simpson's constructed mask built his success and later became a cloak that hid his most murderous impulses. Including interviews with many of Simpson's intimate friends and associates, Edelman manages to reveal what appears to be a growing consciousness in a number of people who slowly came to see a disturbing portrait emerge out of the pop construct they bought into. Even as we watch Simpson's meteoric and exciting climb to fame, it's unsettling to recognize that we may have also bought into this fantasy. Contrasting the most tumultuous moments in the Sixties – including the 1965 Watts riots, the assassinations and the rise of black power – Edelman draws an unsettling picture where Simpson seems to be on another planet totally unconcerned with the events tearing apart the country. As he gets feted at celebrity lunches and trades barbs with Bob Hope, there's blood flowing in the streets. One of many scintillating contrasts that Edelman provides is watching a whole community of Watts burning down in an effort to be acknowledged while O.J. Simpson is seen learning to fit in as he runs a football.

O.J. Simpson (centre) and his 1994 defense team: Alan Dershovitz, Robert Blasier, Johnnie Cochran, Jr. and Robert Shapiro.

The paradoxical racial history of Los Angeles is right at the heart of O.J.: Made in America because the city casts both illusion and reality. According to Jeffrey Tobin, whose 1996 book, The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, inspired the absorbing and uneven dramatic mini-series, The People vs O.J. Simpson, recently told  NPR, "The history of Los Angeles is a history of real racial struggle, and I think because Los Angeles is not the South, because Los Angeles is famous for Hollywood and beaches and good times, I think people outside who didn't grow up there and didn't study it have not realized just how painful the racial history has been, and particularly the relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and African-Americans." Edelman traces that relationship with both delicacy and intelligence by delving inside the violence of police raids into the black community with Operation Hammer, and the tragic death of Latasha Harlins in 1991 (where a 15-year-old black girl was shot in the head by a Korean-American store owner who mistakenly thought she was shoplifting and received only five years probation for the shooting). The Harlins incident happened just two weeks after the famous Rodney King beating which was videotaped. Edelman sets these incidents up like a prelude to the O.J. trial where the jury would acquit Simpson largely as payback. The irony, of course, is that O.J. Simpson (who had spent his career running from the black community and his association with it) would symbolically be embraced by that community as their tool for getting even for the previous injustices from the white community. While most of us are familiar with all the highlights of the trial that O.J.: Made in America covers – from the ill-fitting gloves to the Mark Fuhrman bombshell – Edelman delves into this intricate landscape with a new authority. From the fact that the proceedings were televised with everyone playing their role for the camera, we now understand the stakes involved when the defense uses the race card and deflects the focus from the victims of the murder to the perceived corruption and racism of the Los Angeles police force. If the documentary is quite successful, too, at showing that the prosecution had strong enough evidence (from the history of spousal abuse to Simpson's blood trail) to convict O.J., it also demonstrates how their carelessness cost them the case.

While many are comparing O.J.: Made in America more favourably to the earlier docudrama, the comparison isn't entirely fair. The People vs O.J. Simpson often teetered between trash and compelling drama, but that precariousness somehow reflected the whole prurience of public and media attention at the time. The casting was alternately terrific (Sarah Paulson caught prosecutor Marcia Clark's eagle sharpness and her naiveté) and poor (Cuba Gooding Jr., as O.J., had too much personality to be playing a man hiding behind his own skin). John Travolta turned in a bizarrely mannered Kabuki performance as Robert Shapiro while David Schwimmer, as Robert Kardashian, did the best acting of his career. The People vs. O.J. Simpson toyed with the issues that O.J.: Made in America dives right into, but it wasn't negligible. O.J.: Made in America goes even further by taking us right to the ironic conclusion of O.J.'s fall when he gets convicted in Las Vegas for a dubious crime as if to make up for the punishment he avoided years earlier. With a deft assurance, Edelman uncovers how Simpson lost the coveted white community when it was clear that he murdered the prize white wife – and then got away with it. He also shows how he lost the black community after the trial because he was no longer useful as a tool for vengeance. What makes O.J.: Made in America so unsettling in the end is not just how it shows an American hero falling from the peaks of stardom, but how (despite his talent) he was never anything more than a projection of who everyone wanted him to be.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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