I have never heard a black person speak about O.J. Simpson with any reverence outside of J.J. Evans on an episode of Good Times. And while that show was populated by black faces, what came out of their mouths stemmed from the minds of the white writers in the room. Simpson was not Muhammad Ali, or Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, or hell, Warren Moon, if you’re from Houston.
Even before Simpson’s infamous and zeitgeist-shifting murder trial, he proved to be a polarizing figure among Black people because he didn’t ever seem to associate himself with black people and blackness. Simpson was loved by white people in a way not shared by blacks—not unlike Jason Derulo’s catalog. The term “transcending race” is a myth, but one can seek to distance themselves from their identity should they secure a certain amount of fame and wealth that might appear to remove some barriers largely attributed to racism.
Simpson got his wake up call during his murder trial, and like a long-lost relative that only comes around when they need money and a good meal, his defense strategy was largely rooted in noting his race and how racism permeates our justice system. For many blacks who know this and are victims of it, it was the best way to win back our support and kinship, even if temporarily. So, while I may not have understood the gravity of the Simpson trial in its totality as a child, I did understand that feelings on Simpson’s trial and its verdict were likely shaped by your race and experiences with racism.
Similarly, your interest in the trial verdict 20 years later is, too, likely fueled by your race and how experiences associated with it shift your worldview. That’s why whenever I am asked as a writer and cultural critic why we are so obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial two decades later, my first inclination is to ask who’s we?
During that time and perhaps a few years after, I’ve witnessed black people discussing the trial in the context majorly of “He either did it or knows who did.” And after he found himself arrested for and convicted of stealing sports memorabilia, with the sentiment, “This stupid motherfucker got off the first time and look at him.” In terms of black pop culture, there was a line about Simpson’s guilt in the first Barbershop, but beyond that, Simpson more or less faded with time with us.
He served as a symbol of a black man getting away with things we typically only see white folks getting away with. But the idea of him getting away with something he did greatly irritated white people, and it is why white people have primarily led the charge in revisiting the trial some 20 years later.
In a recent roundtable with The Hollywood Reporter, Nina Jacobson, a producer on FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story had this to say about depicting the trial on TV: "I was scared of taking on O.J. overall, as a white person, knowing this was a polarizing case. We made every effort to have an inclusive team, but ultimately, the people who began the project, it started with a bunch of white people. And we know that the case means different things to different people.”
To be fair to Jacobson and all parties involved, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is a well-produced, well-written, and finely acted program. Through it, many of us learned things about the trial and the characters behind it that we did not know back in the 1990s. One imagines we’ll all learn even more after ESPN’s seven-and-a-half hour documentary, O.J.: Made In America, makes its debut this weekend. Already, it has been hailed as ESPN’s finest work.
That may very prove to be true, though I am thus far mostly impressed by how the doc’s director, Ezra Edelman, has commented on the ongoing allure of the trial. Speaking with Rolling Stone, Edelman said of the trial, "If that's one of the most impactful events of the past 50 years, that's kind of sad. That's not to diminish what happened, but the basis of that question speaks more to the rabid fascination of the thing itself.”
Edelman also seems to understand some of the frustration I have about the revisiting of the trial: "People always wonder why so many people, mostly blacks, celebrated like that in the wake of the jury's decision. To me, it was 'How was it that so many white people were angry?' The feeling of victory, this continuing pattern of injustice—of course they celebrated. Yes, it was fucked up, and in some ways, the tragedy is that it speaks to how little they've had to celebrate. This was a victory—that was the tragedy to me. And I wanted to have white viewers understand that."
On a fundamental level, I understand the significance of O.J. Simpson and his murder trial. In many ways, it ushered in a new kind of celebrity, changed how we covered the news—notably how we have made criminal trials a medium of entertainment. Moreover, the trial offered us our first glimpse into the kind of folks who would go on to eventually strangle pop culture.
Still, I think on a large scale, much of the interest about that trial still seems centered on white people’s anger that Simpson was not found guilty. The thing about looking backwards is that while that can be useful, if you're not applying it to what's happening right now, what is the purpose? At present moment, the second verse seems to be the same as the first.
If any change had happened, there would be greater concern and effort behind so many black men, women, and children presently dying at the hands of the state and seeing their killers majorly let off by the system. There would be larger, widespread outrage over George Zimmerman literally auctioning off the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin. There was not nearly as much compelling evidence against Simpson as there was Zimmerman. And yet, it is business as usual when the tables are turned. “We” only look back and linger when the victims are white.
For some of us, this revisiting of the Simpson trial won't do anything but teach us something we've already had to understand: that white people have repeatedly gotten away with criminal acts—particularly against racial minorities— through their power and privilege, and when a black man of means finally games the system in similar fashion, it enrages them. Meanwhile, blacks are exhausted, because for every O.J. Simpson, there is a million us still being trampled on by that system—to the collective uninterest of the greater population.
Looking 20 years into the past will not move the conversation forward even if the lens in which some of us look at this trial finally changes. I sure hope Edelman’s film is successful in getting white viewers to understand that. If not, I’ll watch more O.J.—but fuck him, and fuck anyone who feels emotionally invested in a 20-year-old trial but not any of the injustices happening today.