On The Code Switch Podcast: 'I'm Not Black, I'm O.J.!' | KUOW News and Information

On The Code Switch Podcast: 'I'm Not Black, I'm O.J.!'

Jun 29, 2016
Originally published on July 5, 2016 7:35 am

One of the most notorious, oft-watched moments in the O.J. Simpson murder case was his nationally televised slow-speed escape from police on the freeways of Los Angeles in a white Ford Bronco. It's a testament to Ezra Edelman's riveting, unsettling five-part ESPN documentary O.J.: Made In America that the filmmaker finds a new lens through which to view it: the real-time collision of a city's sordid racial history with one black celebrity's seeming lifelong project to sidestep the tidal forces of race in America.

In the documentary, friends and acquaintances recall O.J. telling them, "I'm not black, I'm O.J.!" We see a young O.J. Simpson pointedly eschewing racial politics when other prominent black sports heroes — Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali — were using their platforms to denounce racial injustice.

We marvel as O.J. becomes the first black athlete to serve as the pitchman and face for major national brands like RC Cola and Hertz Rent-A-Car, while noting that his ads were otherwise devoid of black people — and deliberately so.

We see middle-aged O.J. ensconced in the tony, almost exclusively white Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, a proud, well-liked member of all the right, white clubs — clubs that were otherwise averse to letting black folks in.

At his estate, O.J. charms local police officers by inviting them over for barbecue, in the same city that burned during the Watts riots of the 1960s and again after the Rodney King beating in 1992.

And so, we get to the Bronco chase in 1994, a fleet of LAPD patrol cars trailing O.J. with a kind of deference not typically extended to black folks, let alone the primary suspect in a gruesome double-murder. If O.J. hadn't succeeded in outrunning the poverty of his childhood and his blackness, he'd managed to get pretty damn close.

A helicopter pilot filming the chase for local news that day told Edelman that she had covered dozens of police chases before, and had never seen the LAPD handle a situation like that with such restraint. "If O.J. Simpson were black," she says, "that s*** wouldn't have happened. He'd be on the ground getting clubbed."

I remember watching this case unfold as a teenager and the exasperation and ambivalence with which many old heads in my life viewed O.J. They had no affinity for this dude who they saw as having no particular affinity for black people.

And anyway, they seemed certain that there was no way Simpson would get off, recalling the many times, some within their own lifetimes, that even the insinuation of the crimes Simpson was accused of — that is, crimes against a white woman — might have cost a black man his life, with or without a criminal trial.

Remember, it had only been a few decades since a young boy named Emmett Till was kidnapped, beaten, his body dumped in a river, for allegedly speaking to a white woman with insufficient deference. Simpson was accused of something far more heinous, and many observers were adamant that the physical evidence had him dead to rights. (In the documentary, someone darkly muses that if the murder victim had been Simpson's black first wife, Marguerite, the case would have generated far less public fascination.)

Edelman shows the way Simpson's defense team — and especially Johnnie Cochran, the flashy LA attorney who spent his career crusading against police violence — decided to make the Simpson case a proxy fight over racial animus in the LAPD. And whatever their feelings about Simpson in particular, this was the kind of real talk that black folks in my life, and around the country, were ready to hear. LAPD officers were widely seen as villains who had tormented black Angelenos for decades with the imprimatur of the state, and O.J.'s "Dream Team" didn't have a hard time painting him as deeply sympathetic in comparison.

O.J. being O.J., though, his lawyers had to basically manufacture aspects of blackness out of whole cloth to pull this off. In one incredible scene from the documentary, his defense team literally redecorates his house to make it look like O.J. spent a lot of time socializing with black folks. They take down the copious pictures of O.J. with his country club golf buddies, and put up ones of him with his kids from his first marriage — and The Problem We All Live With, the Norman Rockwell painting of a 6-year-old black girl named Ruby Bridges escorted to school by U.S. marshals while white anti-integration protesters scream at her in the background.

The defense team was gifted with a radioactive prosecution witness, a police detective named Mark Fuhrman who had been extensively recorded using racial slurs and boasting about brutalizing black folks and planting evidence. Once Fuhrman's past came to light, and the jury was allowed to hear a portion of the tapes, it was essentially game over for the prosecution.

Almost any high-profile criminal trial with race at the center quickly becomes a proxy fight over race in America, broadly. We fervently hope that the adjudication of the particular set of facts in question in the courtroom might also bring some clarity to the big social and policy questions swirling around them. Of course, these trials are not set up to do that, and any courtroom resolution is doomed to be unsatisfying.

But the Simpson case is especially confounding, being so profoundly anomalous that it's hard to imagine what broader lessons can be drawn from it. It involved a black defendant given broad deference by the police trying to put him away. It's a case involving a black defendant in which the prosecution did not do everything it could to keep black folks out of the jury. It's a case in which the defendant's blackness became an asset and not a liability.

And ultimately, it was a high-profile case involving race that left many white folks shaken, angry and afraid, while black folks danced in the street, centered on a black man who, for most of his adult life, had studiously avoided associating with the types of folks out there joyously shouting his name.

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

This is Code Switch from NPR - race and identity remixed. I'm Gene Demby, and I want to talk to you guys about something I've been obsessed with for a few weeks now - a new seven-and-a-half-hour ESPN documentary about the O.J. Simpson murder case called "O.J.: Made In America." It's directed by Ezra Edelman, and we're going to hear from Ezra shortly.

But before we do all that, I just want to talk to you guys about what's fascinating to me about what this documentary explores about O.J. Simpson - the juice. "O.J.: Made In America" is the strange, fascinating, disturbing story of O.J.'s relationship to his blackness. And it suggests that for many years he did not want the public to see him as black.

If you know anything about the O.J. case, beyond the fact that two white people were killed, O.J. was tried and acquitted, you know that race has something to do with it. But O.J.'s relationship to race, as the documentary suggests, is really, really complicated. To understand that, we need to go way back, before the so-called trial of the century, before June 17, 1994, when he was in that white Ford Bronco being chased by cops at slow speed for several hours, before he even met a beautiful 18-year-old blonde woman named Nicole Brown at a Beverly Hills nightclub.

Nearly two decades before all of this, O.J. Simpson was a beloved sports hero and a celebrity, a respected brand, a household name, the guy in the Hertz car commercials, at a time when it was hard to imagine a black man as the face for big-name products on national TV. That's how he ended up living in one of the fanciest white neighborhoods in L.A. - that's Brentwood - in the same city where the Watts riots happened, where Rodney King was beaten and riots broke out again, a city where the cops had a long history of being objectively terrible to black people.

So how did O.J. achieve all that while still being black? It seems that to O.J., and to a lot of people in his life and even around the country, O.J. wasn't really black. And that wasn't an accident. In the documentary, O.J.'s friends say that's how O.J. wanted it. He would tell people I'm not black. I'm O.J. That was, until the murder trial. And then suddenly, it was really, really important for that jury and the whole world to see O.J. as black, which meant his defense team had to get really creative.

I talked to Ezra Edelman, the filmmaker behind the documentary "O.J.: Made In America," about how O.J. seemed to have spent his life out-running his own blackness and how his dream team of lawyers tried to bring it back. We're going to hear that conversation right after a break. You are listening to CODE SWITCH.

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DEMBY: Thank you for listening to CODE SWITCH. Check out the NPR One app for your phone for an exclusive preview of the next episode of Invisibilia. Find the brand-new episodes of Invisibilia, stories from your local station and more great podcasts on the NPR One app. It's on your app store now.

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DEMBY: This is CODE SWITCH, and we're back. I'm Gene Demby. Today, we're talking about O.J. Simpson's complicated relationship to race and the new ESPN documentary "O.J.: Made In America." It's important to say that we don't know what was going on in O.J. Simpson's head. But Ezra Edelman, the director, reached out and Simpson, who is currently serving 33 years in jail for other crimes, declined to give him an interview.

But we do know this - O.J. grew up in a rough part of San Francisco where his neighbors were other struggling black families that had left the South in search of a better life. O.J. left San Francisco to play football at the University of Southern California. That's where O.J. starts becoming O.J. He wins the Heisman Trophy. He joins the NFL where he becomes a superstar. Then he leaves football and shows up in Hollywood films and TV shows and commercials.

And along the way here, O.J. didn't just leave his poverty behind. He seemed to be leaving his blackness behind, too. By the time he married his second wife, Nicole Brown, the backdrop to his whole life was almost entirely white - country clubs, tennis, Hollywood insiders, CEOs.

And all that civil rights advocacy in the '60s that you see from black athletes like Jim Brown and Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali who were out there protesting for black people, O.J. wanted nothing, nothing to do with that. So where did that drive come from and how was that connected to race? I put that question to the filmmaker, Ezra Edelman. And just a quick heads up, ya'll, later in this conversation, you're going to hear some racially charged language.

EZRA EDELMAN: Well, I'm going to resist the opportunity to play psychiatrist. But I do think by the choices that he made it seems very clear that there's this pattern of, for lack of a better phrasing, moving on up. I mean, I look at his life in some ways as, like, these rungs that he keeps progressing from one to the next to the next. And so whether it's first, yes, transcending the poverty, then it's transcending the blackness. And at a certain point it's, like, oh, transcending being an athlete. And then it's like, oh, maybe at a certain point it's transcending being, you know, just a sort of celebrity because of his athletic gifts and fame, which is now I want to be a serious actor.

There's a sense of his continual desire to be legitimized or to further legitimize himself. And you wonder, you know, I wonder - it's impossible to know - how someone who had everything come so easy to him and he was so gifted, preternaturally so, and the world was just laid at his feet in many ways because of those gifts, not just his athletic gifts but his looks and his charm...

DEMBY: And his charisma, yeah.

EDELMAN: Yeah. I mean, all of that I think allowed him to sort of, you know, go through the world in a very easy way. And I think that you wonder what happens after you are the best at this thing, and, you know, everyone kisses your [expletive] because of it. And then even if you attain this fame, you don't get to be that in this other arena. Oh, I'm not a good actor or I'm not as smart as these other people in business. And what does that do to you when you still have the same ego and you still have the same ambition? Where do you go in your head to try to sort of still be that guy? These are the questions I'm trying to explore without having any answer for you. I think that that's something that we're really trying to just present his sort of evolution as a character in the world and to have a viewer sort of absorb it to make their own - to draw their own conclusions.

DEMBY: I want to ask you this question about the idea that O.J. transcended - could - was trying to transcend race. It seemed to be, like, the template that, you know, Michael Jordan used later or tried to use later. Tiger Woods definitely tried to use it - tried to employ this thing. And so he was like a - just deeply apolitical, at least in his public life. I don't think I appreciated the extent to which O.J. was the first dude to...

EDELMAN: He was the pioneer.

DEMBY: Yeah.

EDELMAN: He was the pioneer. He broke the mold. But here's the thing. Before the Hertz ad, again, the dude was in Chevrolet commercials and RC Cola commercials before he played a down in the NFL.

I mean, like, I'm fascinated by that. How does a guy end up in national TV ads before he's played freshman football as a black athlete? And there's no black athlete who's ever been a corporate sponsor in that way. Like, I'm amazed by that. And to your point, he really did create this paradigm that begat Michael Jordan who begat Tiger Woods.

I look at O.J.'s sort of trajectory as, you know, you look at sort of our culture. He created this idea of - I'm going to protect mine. I'm all about me. I'm all about sort of furthering my image to make myself palatable to everyone in America, to be safe so I can be famous and I can be rich. And that's something - that is a model that people use going forward.

DEMBY: And we see that literally in the Hertz ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

O J SIMPSON: When you're in a rush, take it from O.J. Simpson, there's only superstar in rent-a-car, Hertz.

DEMBY: You see O.J. darting through this airport.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

SIMPSON: Before you get there, your form's filled out, car's preassigned.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Go, O.J., go.

DEMBY: So there was this conscious decision in the production of that commercial that there could be no other black people in the ad besides O.J. Simpson because they needed to make O.J. safe for white people. What do you make of that?

EDELMAN: It seems bizarre in 2016 that someone would have to go out of their way to make sure that, you know, this wouldn't be interpreted a certain way, in 1975 that we're talking about. So the question is - are you surprised that this was something that they even thought about? Is that surprising to you.

DEMBY: I guess that isn't terribly surprising that you're, like, OK. We need to have - literally surround him, like, put him in a universe full of white people. I guess it was surprising - I guess, I understand this, like, context of the documentary now but, like, that he would go along with it. There couldn't be just one other negro, like (laughter), in the background somewhere, you know.

EDELMAN: Oh, but I think that - I'm sure that made O.J. feel good. I mean, look, you can interpret the statement that he makes when he's leaving his house on June 17, 1994, when he looks around and says - what all these [expletive] doing in Brentwood? Well, what's that all about?

DEMBY: O.J. says that to the police after he finally surrenders himself to them when he's back in Brentwood after the conclusion of that long, slow-speed police chase.

EDELMAN: After he's already been arrested and all those people were in - around his house.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA")

PETE WEIRETER: He asked me to stay with him throughout the process. I promised him I would stay with him. I say it's time - I got to handcuff you now. You need to be handcuffed. I'm sorry. This is the way it works.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK, you guys. We're going to bring him through.

WEIRETER: And as we take off, Simpson is amazed at the crowds.

DEMBY: Lots of black people.

EDELMAN: Black and white.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA")

WEIRETER: He just couldn't believe there was this many people there.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Free O.J. Free O.J.

EDELMAN: In Brentwood which is a - it's basically an all-white little area and a sleepy area. And there was all these young, especially black folks there, cheering him on. And so when he leaves, you know, in the car, he - one of the first things he says to Peter Peter Weireter, who is the negotiator - and he says what are...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA")

WEIRETER: What are all these [expletive] doing in Brentwood?

DEMBY: Was he - I mean, was he oblivious to, like, the massive outpouring of, like, support by black people on the streets?

EDELMAN: I mean, look, he's calling people. He's on the phone with the police. He has a gun. I'm sure he's not in the most stable of mindsets.

DEMBY: True.

EDELMAN: So that he might not have noticed all those people, or, you know, who they were demographically, would not shock me.

DEMBY: During the police chase, you see his celebrity sort of coming to bear on the way they treated him. Zoey Tur - I'm going to just - I just want to lay out that scene. So Zoey Tur is the helicopter pilot who was the first person to find O.J. Simpson in his white Bronco on the freeway. She says this is not the way police chase with anyone else would look.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA")

ZOEY TUR: I've covered so many of these things. This was not usual police behavior. If O.J. Simpson were black, that [expletive] wouldn't have happened. He'd be on the ground getting clubbed.

EDELMAN: In fact, she had shot a whole video that she sold with police chases that ended in policemen - you know, cars ramming into suspects' cars and getting them on the ground and beating them. You know, and that really is about celebrity.

And you wonder, you know, obviously, O.J.'s sort of way of going into the world and distancing himself publicly, as far as, you know, talking about matters of race - that was distinct. But you wonder - if you were black and a celebrity, how normal that treatment is.

I'm sure there are plenty incidents where black people who are celebrities might get profiled and pulled over before - then they realize who they are. And then, you know - but, in that way, I think it was more O.J.'s celebrity. And, by the way, not just his celebrity, but the - it's like his celebrity was predicated on this goodness - everyone loved him - wasn't just he was famous.

DEMBY: Yeah, he'd engendered...

EDELMAN: And so that...

DEMBY: ...A bunch of goodwill, right?

EDELMAN: Yeah. And that's spoke to the shock that we all felt. It was like this couldn't - this is impossible that this dude is capable of these things because he's never publicly shown anything to make us think that he has that side...

DEMBY: Right.

EDELMAN: ...Despite him playing the most, you know, violent game we have in our culture...

DEMBY: Right.

EDELMAN: ...Other than boxing. And so you wonder how much it's, you know, the pure celebrity of him. I think it was more that than any chumminess he had with the police, for instance, as far as the treatment he received on June 17. But it's one of the reasons why this thing is so bizarre.

DEMBY: One of the scenes that - I mean, I can't stop talking about this scene - was this moment in which the defense takes the jury - the jurors - the jury is mostly black - to OJ's house. And the defense team has basically rearranged his house in a way to look like a black person's house. Like, O.J. didn't have many pictures of black folks in his house at all. And so defense team comes into his house, puts up pictures of O.J. with black folks, puts up portraits, Norman Rockwell painting "The Problem We All Live With" - Ruby Bridges desegregating the school - on his wall. And I guess that came from Johnnie Cochran's office.

EDELMAN: That's correct

DEMBY: And so, just that moment was so - like, they had to dig in the crates to find pictures of O.J. with black people - was so bananas. I mean, that was like he didn't even have pictures of black folks just, like, laying around. They had to search for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA")

CARL DOUGLAS: When you would walk up the grand staircase, there was a large wall with pictures of the family, pictures of friends, pictures of O.J.'s career. Problem was the overwhelming majority of pictures were of Caucasian friends and colleagues of his. We had an African-American jury. And we wanted to make sure that the home setting would reflect the themes that we wanted to reflect.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We took all of his white friends down, put all of these black people up, pictures he had probably never seen before because that's what we were told the jury would identify with. We made him blacker.

EDELMAN: I mean, look, in some ways, it's like - it speaks to the savviness, if not deviousness of the defense. And so it's like you do what you need to do to, you know, win the case. To me, like, the pictures are weirdly a lot less egregious than the painting because those were still pictures that O.J. was in, and they existed. Like, I don't know if they were buried underneath the basement. They were just - they were there somewhere, so they were there to be put up. So obviously, it's - you know, it's devious to take down all those photos which were the ones that O.J. wanted to display prominently, you know, on that stairwell in his house.

And so that obviously is a misrepresentation of, you know, O.J.'s world and his house and how he presents himself to the world. But it's almost like - going back, it's the appropriation of the struggle and of the movement and of a girl like Ruby Bridges walking into her school in 1960 in New Orleans, and you're putting that up at the top of his staircase as if O.J. gives a [expletive]. That's what's messed up about that. You know, the fact that the defense even, like, would go there and would know to go there. It's brilliant. It's hilarious, but it's brilliant.

DOUGLAS: Marcia saw the wall, and she said Carl, you know damn well he has never had this many black people on his wall in his entire life. I said Marcia, what are you talking about? How dare you accuse us of such things.

MARCIA CLARK: I was miserable. I was angry. That is very dirty pool.

DEMBY: I found the scene so fascinating and dark just because I mean O.J. had a black family, right? I mean, you would think that he would have pictures...

EDELMAN: But by the way, that's the whole thing about all this conversation. We keep talking - it's like - you know, and a lot of people say O.J. didn't want to be black or white. It's like O.J. was black. I don't think you would ever hear him say - I mean, like, he says it publicly in that I'm not black, I'm O.J. But it's more about how sort of weirdly narcissistic and egotisticle and all about himself he is. But I don't think you would - sitting there talking to O.J., he wouldn't say I'm not black. He's black. He knows he's black. And so, like - but - it's just, like, the choices that he made publicly, you know, belied that notion.

DEMBY: So, I mean, do you think - do you think he knows he's black? I mean...

EDELMAN: Yeah.

DEMBY: It seemed like he was engaged in this, you know, decades-long project to minimize that as much as possible.

EDELMAN: Oh, I - look, this is where I wish I could be drawing upon, you know, all those hours of conversations I had with him. But yeah, I think he always knew he was black. I think he might have had this weird ambition and notion of himself as being - you know, transcending race and thinking that he just doesn't want to be defined by his blackness more so than someone - him being like I'm not this. Even with the sort of lengths that he went to publicly sort of distance himself and to not be defined by his blackness, I don't think that O.J., for instance, wanted to be white. I don't believe that. I think he - O.J. just wanted to live and do whatever the hell he wanted to do. And if that was living in a white world, I don't think he was, like, trying to lighten his skin. I don't believe that he went to that extent. I just think it was something he didn't want to be burdened by or talk about in any form, any time in any way.

DEMBY: So the title "O.J.: Made In America" how do you want the title of the documentary to be interpreted or understood?

EDELMAN: That in a real simplistic fashion that this is a story that is much bigger than O.J., first and foremost.

DEMBY: Sure.

EDELMAN: But that everything in terms of who O.J. was and his ambition sort of - you know, he was created by us - and this story is as much us as it is him. And it can only be explained by his relationship to this country in which he grew up in. But - you know, I think even speaks to everything that sort of happened between his life but everything that happened in terms of why people were so fascinated with the trial. There are so many of these things, everything that it touches on that are so profoundly and uniquely American. Everything about this story - about race and celebrity, our culture and everything else - it's such a profound American tale. So that's why it's called "O.J.: Made In America."

DEMBY: Ezra Edelman is the director of the ESPN "30 For 30" documentary "O.J.: Made In America." Thank you so much for doing this, Ezra. I appreciate your (unintelligible).

EDELMAN: Thank you, Gene. I appreciate it.

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DEMBY: This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby. Our producer is Walter Ray Watson. Our editors are Alicia Montgomery and Tasneem Raja. You can find us on Twitter - @NPRCodeSwitch. You should definitely, definitely subscribe to our podcast wherever podcasts can be found. We want to hear from you. Email us at codeswitch@npr.org. We're back next week, y'all. Be easy.

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DEMBY: NPR's Invisibilia is back with a new season of stories about the invisible forces that shape human behavior. This week, host Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller journey to an Ohio prison to explore whether our personalities are as stable as we think. You can listen and subscribe to Invisibilia at npr.org/podcast and on the NPR One app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.