Race, Class, and Gender in "O.J. Made in America"

O.J. Made in America (2016) is a 464-minute five-part documentary produced and directed by Ezra Edelman for ESPN Films. Race, celebrity, and American sports culture are the central themes of this production. O.J. Simpson’s rise to fame, from his days at the University of Southern Carolina (USC), to his time with the Buffalo Bills, and San Francisco 49ers, is juxtaposed with the history of race relations in America using Los Angeles as a nexus. O.J. Made in America ends with O.J.’s 2007 arrest for armed robbery in Las Vegas, Nevada. Edelman does a superlative job of contextualizing the relationship between African Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) from the Great Migration, the Watts Riots in the 1960s, the shooting of Eula Love, to the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots that followed in the early 1990s. Edelman’s film demonstrates how class intersects with race but gender is largely a muted theme in this project.

O.J.’s biography is utilized to illustrate the intersection of race, celebrity, and American sports culture as coupled with an examination of the American legal system. O.J. makes the transition from the inner city to the white world of celebrity, sports, and entertainment. He is posited as someone who transcended race. America’s fascination with O.J. and celebrity has to do with the fact that O.J.’s life is a story of not only racial transformation but one of overcoming a difficult upbringing. America’s intoxication with celebrity is evidenced with the theatre of the macabre evident in the throngs of cheering crowds who made their way to O.J.’s Brentwood address carrying signs that said “Free the Juice” during the infamous Bronco ride. O.J. was unceremoniously catapulted back into blackness once stories of spousal abuse and murder of a white woman began to dominate cable news. He was still black before the law.

This film is also about the inner workings of the American legal system. Edelman suggests that the prosecution relied upon keystone cops (who failed to effectively question O.J. about an alibi, used the “n” word but lied on the stand, and contaminated the crime scene) who made a series of blunders that were exploited by the defense team. Furthermore, Edelman’s work reveals how on several occasions the prosecution team was merely out-maneuvered by some of the best lawyers in the country at the time; thereby illustrating that the job of a defense attorney in an adversarial system such as ours is to defend or advocate for his/her client by creating reasonable doubt. The burden of proof is with the state not with the defense in a legal system that is really not about justice. It is a system about besting one’s adversary if it is to be considered a fair system.

Edelman likely believes that Simpson received a fair trial because he could afford an effective defense; but, white animosity following the not-guilty verdict as paralleled with black jubilation is an indication that there are still two America’s despite O.J.’s class stature: one black and one white. Many African Americans believed that O.J. was set up, while whites were convinced of his guilt. O.J. Made in America does a good job in articulating why many blacks bought into a conspiracy theory regarding the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Given the history of race and the criminal justice system in LA it seemed credible to many blacks that O.J. may have been set-up. Latasha Harlin's assassination by an irate Korean convenience store worker detailed in this film bears a striking resemblance to the killing of Trayvon Martin. O.J.’s 33-year sentence for armed robbery is described in the documentary by one interviewee as “white justice.”

Gender is overshadowed by the filmmaker’s fixation with race. Gender as a social system intersects with race and class. O.J.’s class privilege and male privilege worked in tandem to shield him from public derision and arrest for domestic violence. Edelman only alludes to the homosocial relationship between O.J. and Al Cowlings (noting that O.J.’s father was gay and that this fact likely facilitated homophobic tendencies in him) as coupled with a surface level exploration of the masculine (homosocial) culture of football in America. O.J. did not have effective models of masculinity in his childhood so he turned to the streets and football as a guide. He learned as one interviewee states from “the pimps” how to treat women. Sports as a masculinity making resource for men in American culture, in many respects, functions as a violent gender regime. Michael Vick served time in jail for animal abuse but Ray Rice only received probation for brutally assaulting his wife. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the United States today. Intimate partner violence accounts for 15 percent of all violent crime in the U.S., and every nine seconds in the U.S. a woman is assaulted or beaten.

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