Tragic Kingdom: The Lingering Obsession with O.J. Simpson

We're still addicted to the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson.

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Complex Original

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Early during the first episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a limo driver apologizes to Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s Simpson for marveling at him. "I’ve never picked up a celebrity," he admits earnestly. Laughing it off, Simpson recalls the first time he met a celebrity—legendary center fielder Willie Mays—and how it altered his life.

"That’s what I wanna be when I grow up," he remembers thinking. This was the genesis of the O.J. Simpson saga, the most grossly enthralling cautionary tale in the history of popular culture.

O.J. Simpson was the American Dream, a statuesque iconoclast built in the image of the beloved Heisman Trophy he won in 1968. (And, to top that, he actually had a fucking statue of himself in the yard of his Brentwood home.) He was a Hall of Fame athlete, a walking brand who loved every second he spent in the spotlight until he lost control of his image. "The Juice" found himself at the center of "The Trial of the Century" for allegedly murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, and the public devoured the narrative. It was a circus, the prototype for race, news, sports, and pop culture coalescing into entertainment. The story continued after Simpson beat the double murder, spanning more than a decade until his 2008 conviction on robbery and kidnapping charges. And it’s still not over. The stay on O.J. Simpson fascination persists because he’s the epitome of destroyed celebrity. The reason he’s now the subject of multipledocumentaries and an FX miniseries is because no one could make up the events of his life if they tried.

"I’m not black, I’m O.J.," a distressed Simpson tells his defense attorneys during the third episode.

He’s being held at the Los Angeles County Jail after turning himself in and simply cannot believe this is happening to him. He’s "The Juice," and "The Juice" can’t get arrested or go to jail. But status dilutes perception, fooling the rich and famous into thinking they’re safe from certain treatment. By blending charisma and charm with his success as an athlete, Simpson transcended sports. He was a celebrity, one who sold rental cars for Hertz with his smile and racked up acting credits after literally going Hollywood, and he was intoxicated by his own persona. Simpson believed his celebrity insulated him from judgement and allowed him to transcend race. He assumed that fame took precedent over race, or, to be blunt, he forgot he was black until he landed in jail. Then, suddenly, race was the crux of his defense.

Positioning O.J. Simpson as a leader, or even a prominent figure, within the black community would’ve been a fool’s errand on his defense’s part. But, to its benefit, the murder case happened in the wake of Rodney King’s beating at the hands of the LAPD, the acquittal of the officers involved, and the subsequent L.A. Riots. Accusations of institutional racism had mangled the LAPD’s reputation, and with race in America already at hair-trigger sensitivity by the middle of the 1990s due to their actions, the Simpson trial let off a banana clip of racial tension. Opinions on the guilt or innocence of an American hero who had run from the topic of race like he was headed for the end zone was split along black and white lines. Race drove the story, but the excess, the grandiose ridiculousness, made it an event.

Gawking at train wrecks has become the masses’ guilty pleasure. We know we should turn away, but we can’t. It’s too engrossing; too wonderfully hideous. Fights on Basketball Wives, Love & Hip-Hop, and Bad Girls Club? We eat them up. Everything Kardashian-related, be it a wedding, the birth of a child, or a doctor visit, is fodder for reaction, love them or hate them. Simpson’s case made him Patient Zero for current media sensationalism, and the entire exhibition, trial included, was the dawn of reality television as we know it.

Simpson made a career out of running. He led USC to victory over UCLA in 1967 on a 64-yard touchdown scamper. He was the first player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, and the only member of the seven-person 2,000-yard club to do it in 14 games. But Simpson and former teammate Al Cowlings evading the LAPD at low-speed when he was due to surrender to authorities remains his most (in)famous run. The chase added a bizarre layer to one of sports’ most momentous days, and the way it robbed Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals—a Friday night game at Madison Square Garden with 20,000 people in attendance—of its spotlight was unprecedented. Ninety-five million people watched as the now-discontinued white Ford Bronco led police through Los Angeles, each of them wondering if Simpson was going to kill himself on live television.

Its coverage became the model for handling everything from active shooter situations to comparable displays like former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner’s 2013 murders and manhunt, drama better than the end of True Detective’s second season that culminated in his death after nearly two weeks of pursuit.

In August 1994—two months after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and the chase—Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was released. Derived from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay, it was a satirical, LSD-fueled criticism of the media’s crime fetish and proclivity to bend stories to fit specific agendas. Its final scene features news footage of some of 1994’s biggest headlines, including Erik and Lyle Menendez, Lorena Bobbit, and, finally, O.J. Simpson in court. 

Because Simpson was already famous before his arrest, the media developed a unique love affair with the story. And this was before the trial even started. Once the proceedings began, so did the real spectacle.

A courtroom is a stage for theater of the highest order. And, because Judge Lance Ito allowed cameras in the courtroom, it became reality TV that appealed to everyone—even the lowest common denominator. With the trial televised for 134 days, it (and Simpson’s celebrity) turned everyone involved into reality stars/household names. His coalition of defense attorneys (primarily Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, and F. Lee Bailey), which was nicknamed "The Dream Team." Prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. Kato Kaelin, the IRL Floyd from True Romance. Even Judge Ito. This played out between the inception of The Real World and Survivor, and it was more gripping than both. In a 2014 Variety column, writer Brian Lowry highlighted the cascading effects of televising the Simpson trial:

Flip to HLN during any high-profile trial, and witness the comical sight of multiple lawyers shouting at each other — their heads crammed into little side-by-side squares — to see how far the crime-equals-showbiz nexus has descended down this particular rabbit hole.

There were two trials running parallel to each other: one in downtown L.A.’s Criminal Courts Building, the other in the court of public opinion. The occasionally sordid details of Simpson’s personal life became public information, souring "The Juice"'s image. His life became Greek tragedy, a modern day version of Oedipus Rex or Antigone. But he’s no tragic figure, because he’s responsible for his eventual demise.

O.J. Simpson is an anomaly. Over 100 million people watched him get away with murder in the eyes of many, then he trolled everyone through what writer Nathan Rabin called a "'theoretical' confession" and still ended up in jail for trying to reclaim allegedly stolen sports memorabilia. He went down in flames over some dumb shit. The interest in him remains because he went from the Pro and College Hall of Fame to Lovelock Correctional Center; from "pro to con," as Wale once put it. He was convicted 13 years to the day of his acquittal, an outcome that couldn’t have been scripted any better. Simpson became a victim of hubris; the avatar for karma, and now his name, once a symbol of prosperity, is used in anecdotes about comeuppance. The demolition of the Rockingham mansion where he resided at the time of the murders is metaphoric. O.J. Simpson is the archetype for the fate you don’t want, and that’s why people still care.

The People v. O.J. Simpson is an apt title. His image and ego were based on how the public viewed him, and he was dismantled in the eyes of the very people who built him up. Yet even behind bars, Simpson is an icon. We’ll relive the theatrics through the 10-part miniseries and a new, five-part 30 for 30 like the story is unfolding before our eyes once again. We’re still tuned in. We’re still intrigued. We’re all guilty.

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