For the past five years or so, I have made a point to watch a baseball
movie over the 4th of July weekend. Independence Day is my
favorite holiday, I love baseball, America's past time, and as an American
Studies major, I celebrate this country's relationship between sport, leisure
and culture—a rich, diverse and complex one.
But this year, a
different movie has taken hold of my thoughts and imagination. It's one not
without controversy. Many people wonder why I would spend 7 hours and 43
minutes watching it. If you've seen parts of this "30 for 30" film,
you know why. It's haunting. It's a look into America's original sin.
It's humanity at it's worst. It's OJ: Made in America.
"OJ: Made in
America" is split into five episodes and has been airing on ESPN since
early June 2016. I caught Episode 3 with my brother as we switched back and
forth between it and Game 6 of the NBA Finals (there are a lot of ads in
playoff games). And since that first viewing, I have tried to make sense of the
man, the narrative that he carries and the cultural climate of the past and
present. Here are but a few thoughts of what I've thought about. Please
share your own.
Pay attention to the
very opening scene. The three-minute interview between OJ and two employees at
Lovelock Correctional facility symbolically captures what will unfold—"a
saga of race, celebrity, media, violence and the criminal justice system." I
also think it speaks to the genius of the director, Ezra Edelman.
OJ is asked to account
for how he has spent the past five years in the penn. He speaks about the
responsibilities he had when he first arrived and what he is doing
today—working in the gym and cleaning the equipment. As he begins to boast of a
team he coaches inside the prison, a familiar OJ—the one that America loved
emerges. He brags in an unassuming way about the success of "his
guys." His story, however is interrupted by the female employee. She asks
him "How old were you when you were first arrested?" Her question is
totally unrelated to the prior one. It has nothing to do with his report
and yet it does. OJ's first arrest has everything to do with who OJ was,
is and will be—as much as he would like to forget.
I enjoy reading the inside of an album/CD cover: lyrics, who wrote the song, the
dedication, the names of band members their instrument: drums, keyboard,
guitar, base, percussion, etc. However, one item on that list was once
confusing to me: vocals. I had not thought of the voice as an instrument. That
realization, that truth helped me to understand that in many songs, the voice
isn't the only instrument that tells the story. We can also learn the meaning
of a song from a violin that "speaks" the lyrics. For example, in
Springsteen's hit "Bobbly Jean," the final minute plus features
Clarence Clemons on the saxophone. That sax is telling the final chapter of the
story. My imagination gets to figure out what that is.
I say that because the music used in
"Made in America" is as haunting as the story is. It's brief at the
introduction, and upon the conclusion of each of the five episodes, the screen
fades to black and music with a strong trumpet resumes. It says so much,
without words. Listen to it.
For his sheer
giftedness in athletics, it's hard to believe that OJ's golf swing is as raw
and ugly as it is. It's almost painful to look at, but nearly every episode
features OJ on the course, playing with friends, breaking racial barriers at
certain clubs and exercising that swing. It's safe to say OJ played a lot of
golf—enough to be considered, well...a golfer.
Golfers know certain
rules in the game are sacrosanct, and one of them is honesty. You keep your own
score, but if you're playing competitively, you are asked to tell those you are
playing with what you shot, or where you lie (meaning, I've hit three balls
that are fair so I'm lying three, hitting four). Several of OJ's friends
describe how dishonest OJ was when he played golf. He had a hole in the pocket
of his pants and would let a different ball drop through them if he hit out of
bounds or in the rough. His golfing buddies each shared the same story as well
as the same response. I didn't know what to say to him or I
never called him on it.
I believe when you are dishonest in one area
of your life, it shows up in other ways too. I say that with the
utmost humility, as I've seen that in myself. But I hope the metaphor
here is obvious. When I am dishonest, my actions and words affect other
people. Nothing is in isolation. Hopefully people who love and care for me will
call me out on it. It's not easy to do, but it's important for personal growth.
OJ's dishonestly, extended far beyond the golf course. He was a known
womanizer, unfaithful to both Marguerite, his first wife and to Nicole. In that
sense, Where do you lie? has
I think honesty is something everyone must work at daily. Although we expect
people to be honest, and though we assume it's a given, I think it's where the
devil loves to play and reap rewards. (read "The Screwtape Letters"
for more information on this topic).
One of my favorite units to teach in
"Foundations of Ethics: Morality and Justice" —a truly remarkable
course—was Care for Creation: Environmental Ethics. Through this curriculum I
learned about the Goldman Prize. The 2009 winner is a woman named Maria Gunnoe,
who fought against "environmentally devastation mountaintop removal mining
and valley fill operations in her home state of West Virginia." Because my
students don't know much about this issue, I share a video clip about her and one respondent's words
have stayed with me. Don Perdue a member of the WV legislature describes her by
saying: "irrespective of how you fall on a particular issue, when you
see courage raw exhibited courage,then that's something you have to pay
attention to." Perdue nailed a feeling, a reaction I've had in my own
life. When I watched "Happy Valley," Amir Bar-Lev's investigative
look into the Penn State scandal, I sat up straight when Jerry Sandusky's adopted
son Matt admitted that he had to testify against his father. And I would
like to say that I saw courage when LAPD officer Ron Shipp took to the stand to
testify against OJ.
Shipp had been friends
with OJ since he was a teenager. His brother had played football with "the
Juice." Shipp weighs in throughout the documentary. He was happy to do favors
for OJ in the past and OJ consulted him very shortly after the murder. Shipp
appears, gentle, honest and very credible. As a viewer, I found myself
listening to his words without suspicion. I was not expecting that he would
testify against OJ, but as the story unfolds, you understand that he had to.
Ron Shipp saw the photographs of Nicole Brown Simpson at the crime scene. The
documentary flashes over many of them. They're horrifying, barbaric. Shipp's
voice quivers as he recalls the first homicide he witnessed as a police
officer. "It's something you never forget." He has to stop talking,
as the tears he choked back for the 19 year old girl who was violently murdered.
Whereas some of OJ's
life long friends value loyalty, I believe Shipp values honesty and justice. In
caring for OJ, he came to care for Nicole. And what he saw and knew (he heard
OJ give three different excuses for what happened to his finger the day after
the murder) he couldn't live with himself or others, without speaking the
truth. He knew it would cost him his friendship with OJ; he was aware that he
would accused of betrayal, but he had to do what is right. I think that takes
The defense did everything in their power to destroy his character. But even
twenty years later, I see that his courage trumps all. Mr. Shipp, your courage,
raw exhibited courage is heroic to me.
Every Jane Austin
novel I have ever read includes one character who has a fatal flaw: they are
charming. Initially I did not understand why charm is a bad thing. Seemed to me
that a charming person makes you feel good, they hand out compliments with
ease, the capture your attention and you want to spend more time with them. But
Austin shrewdly teaches her reader that charm is not a virtue because
ultimately, charm is self-serving. A person exercises charm so that you will like them. I want and need you to
like me because of my ego, not because I care about you, not because I want to
make you a better person, or help you grow more human.
After his time in the NFL, Simpson pursued a
career in acting. Had he sought a part in "Pride and Prejudice" he
would have played Mr. Wickham well. Simpson's charm is hard to deny.
Episode 5 chronicles Simpson's life after the Civil trial. It was
unsettling to see how many people sought to take a photograph with him, chasing
him down for an autograph and more. He appeared on a radio show and the hostess
says "I did not want to like you one bit, but I hate to say it, you're
simply charming, OJ." He laughs and leans in for a big hug. His charm is
part of what made him the star he became. Is it fair to question the role it
also holds in his downfall?
I was old enough to watch and understand it
all, but I missed a lot of the OJ case in real time. I feel as though I didn't
watch any TV the entire four years I spent in college (maybe that's a good
thing?!). For example, I never watched "Friends" or
"Seinfeld" until they became re-runs. I remember the Bronco chase and
where I was when the OJ verdict was handed down, but most of Edelman's
project—a deep dive into "Simpson's rise and fall and how it reflected
issues of race, the atmosphere in Los Angeles and the relationship between the
police and the black community" was new to me. I was fascinated by the 72
subjects he interviewed, the uncompromising and sensational images and unseen
This tale is a tragic
one; it's a hard look into the best and the worst of what this nation can
create. I expounded on five ideas, but could have written about 50...or 500.
And I'll admit, I didn't take on some of the hardest ones I've thought about.
But that's what we must do—what I must do —to get a better sense of who and what
America can make in the future.