The brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman took place seven days after my 5th birthday.
Only recently have I become interested in the “Trial of the Century;” The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson. I can’t remember when I first heard about him and the murders but I didn’t grow up knowing him as the football star he was. I connected his name with the Bronco chase and the trial, as many others did.
My desire to learn more about the trial of Simpson started with the 10 episode FX show “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and peaked with ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “O.J.: Made in America.”
My review this month will focus on the ESPN documentary and reasons why I think it’s worth your time to turn on your TV and watch all seven and a half hours, even if you watched the trial unfold over its 252 day period.
Race issues then and now
This documentary not only opened my eyes to details surrounding the murders and trial but also to broader issues still relevant today.
Although these murders took place more than 20 years ago, the issues of race and conflict between urban and suburban neighborhoods that were happening when Simpson was growing up, attending the University of Southern California and as a grown adult are similar issues we see now in 2016.
Young viewers, like myself, not knowing much about the murder trial going into watching this series will learn just how much Simpson distanced himself from the African American community once he became a star.
The documentary touched on a number of times where it was clear he didn’t see himself as a person of color, he saw himself as a great football player and business man.
Harry Edwards, best known for co-organizing the “Revolt of the Black Athlete” in the late 1960s, attempted to recruit Simpson to join other well-known African American athletes to protest racial inequality.
Simpson didn’t want to be a part of that and Edwards said in the documentary, Simpson’s response was “I’m not black; I’m O.J.”
At the peak of his celebrity, a majority of his friends were rich, white business men and he lived in the very white community of Brentwood, L.A.
Not many people treated him like an African American man, they treated him like the well to do person he was. Even down to the Bronco chase where officers allowed him to drive around for hours before returning home.
“If O.J. Simpson were black, that **** wouldn’t have happened,” former WCBS helicopter pilot Zoey Tur said in the documentary, referring to the bizarre police escort he received.
This part of his story becomes more interesting because the defense’s entire case rested on race and racism within the LAPD, suggesting foul play in the collection of evidence.
This plays out in front of your eyes as you watch Simpson distance himself from the African American community, until he needed them on his side to win the case.
“Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck,” Robert Shapiro, one of Simpson’s “Dream Team” lawyers, told Barbara Walters during an interview following the not-guilty verdict.
For those who were adults at the time of the trial and watched the events unfold, recent topical events may seem all too familiar to what was relevant in the early 90s, during the time of the trial. For those who were closer to my age and still growing up in the 90s, this series gives us the chance to see that current issues facing law enforcement, urban communities, minorities and the entertainment industry are examples of history repeating itself.
Documenting his life, not just the trial
Another reason this five part series is worthwhile is the fact that they show every high and low of Simpson’s life from him winning the Heisman to the murders and to being sentenced to 33 years in prison for robbery and kidnapping.
For someone like me, I knew he played football, knew a little about the murders and remember hearing in 2008 that he was finally in prison but this documentary touches on so many details of his life. Details that not many bothered to cover before.
Following his acquittal on Oct. 3, 1995 I would not say he was a free man by any measure. Yes, he was not sitting in prison (where he should have been) but his life was never the same.
The documentary details the deterioration of his relationships to his mostly white neighborhood and a number of his friends who couldn’t look past the the evidence the jurors in the trial seemed to.
Many chose to no longer be friends with him.
One of them featured in the series was Simpson’s former friend and LAPD officer, Ron Shipp. He was approached by the defense who wanted to call him as a witness. But you learn in the documentary he told them, “O.J. killed her. I’m not on board.”
Shipp did testify but not in defense of Simpson. In fact, the defense went after Shipp and worked to discredit him and his testimony.
The documentary also shows those who stuck by Simpson no matter what, including long time, childhood friend Joe Bell said “Listen, I just flat out, categorically deny the fact that he could do that. Period.”
Life after “The Trial of the Century”
Then in 1999, Simpson moved to Florida “in large part due to a state law that prevented his home from being seized to help cover the civil damages,” according to his biography on biography.com. Those civil damages coming from the $33.5 million case in February 1997 where he was found liable for the wrongful deaths of Brown and Goldman.
Near the end of the documentary, viewers are introduced to O.J.’s life from the time he moved until 2008 when he was sentenced. It shows details of how significantly different his life was and the downward spiral that is O.J. Simpson.
The characters of O.J.’s life
A third and my final reason why this 30 for 30 is worth watching are the first person accounts they included to tell the story. From his agent, two jury members, officers, lawyers, friends of Brown’s, Goldman’s family and many others this documentary doesn’t fall short on people who were close to Simpson at one time or another.
It is one thing to tell the story using facts and information but it is another thing to hear the story from the mouths of those involved. It gave life to this documentary.
Many of the characters spoke on topics I was thinking while watching and that made it even more real, I felt connected in a way to the story.
The series included so much information but also left me wanting more. I find true crime stories intriguing and next, I may find a book on the trial to read.
I don’t watch many documentaries but this was by far one of the best I ever have and I would recommend it to anyone whether you were there when the trial was happening or not, it’s worth the seven and a half hours.