Looking at ‘The People vs. O.J. Simpson’ Through a Modern Lens

Last October marked 20 years since O.J. Simpson was acquitted of charges relating to the gruesome murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman—bringing to a (relative) end the racially-charged circus that was the State of California’s investigation of the one-time football star (and seemingly, of the case all together, as no one else would ever been charged with the deaths.)

Milestone anniversaries of landmark stories such as this, of course, are marked by remembrances—news specials, articles, documentaries, panel discussions.

While word of the FX series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which premieres Tuesday, didn’t come as a surprise, I can’t say I was excited to relive that moment in history in the still-new era of sustained protest over police violence affecting African Americans. Sure enough, a recent Hollywood Reporter cover line has reactivated my qualms, pulling from a quote in which Jeffrey Toobin (who authored a book about the case and served as a consultant for the series) refers to the show as “a 10-hour-trailer for Black Lives Matter.”

Dubbed “the trial of the century,” the Simpson case was arguably the biggest story to date in the then-relatively new 24-hour cable news cycle and would see a one-time American icon become Bigger Thomas before our eyes, complete with a TIME magazine cover that darkened his skin accordingly. Though I was just 10 years old when the trial began, I will never forget the blatant racism of LAPD officers like Mark Furhman (now a crime expert for Fox News, because of course), and what national “division” over the case across racial lines said about America. Who could forget the image of law students at Howard University cheering the not-guilty verdict, as White folks across the country cried out in distress? What a time to be alive, indeed.

For me, the Simpson trial provided one of the truest examples of the toll of racism on the humanity of Americans. Many Whites were willing to assume an African-American suspect to be guilty until proven otherwise, unfazed by the LAPD’s bungled investigation and Furhman’s clear animus towards African Americans. Damaged by the scores of our men unfairly punished for crimes they did not commit (particularly those against White women), it seemed than many Black people were totally fine accepting the possibility that Simpson may have gotten off for a crime that he had committed—or participated in otherwise—because the country owed us one. This was a common attitude among my young friends, one that I was unable to embrace.

Simpson was tried and acquitted by a jury of his peers. It is unlikely that we will ever know what exactly transpired the night of the murders and what, if any, role he played in them. Personally, I will admit that I believe he was involved those deaths and also, that the bizarre crimes that would find him serving a 33-year-sentence (possibly, the rest of his life) were connected to deliberate efforts to land him behind bars for what transpired in 1994.

This new look at the trial, with Cuba Gooding, Jr. playing the man formerly known as “The Juice,” promises to put race at the center of the narrative, right where it belongs. Gooding himself admits that before filming, he’d never grieved for Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman or seriously considered what their deaths meant for their loved ones and had instead, “celebrated the not guilty verdict strictly because the cops didn’t get another black guy unjustly.”

With names of Black men (women, and children) killed by the state in recent years so frequently in our mouths, hashtagged across social media and making newspaper headlines, it can’t help but to feel that bringing Simpson back to the forefront of our national consciousness harkens back to a more comfortable time for many Americans. Before the Black president, before DeRay McKesson, when the “enemy” was clear—until a mostly-Black jury decided otherwise.

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By stating that the Simpson trial helped to set the stage for Black Lives Matter—“This is 10 hours that tell you, at least in part, why America is the place that it is today,” Toobin seems to imply it helped to further the tension between White and African Americans, tension that has fueled violence and profiling of Black bodies across this country. I can’t help but to wonder how reopening that wound, reminding America of the time a wealthy Black man was found not-guilty of killing his pretty blonde ex-wife (a woman he had certainly abused, something we should not forget) impact efforts to call out and end that violence?

The trial of O.J. Simpson was unique in many ways—the racial make-up of the jury (10 women, 2 men; 9 Blacks, 2 Whites, 1 Hispanic), the wealth and celebrity of the accused, the cameras in the courtroom and, of course, the verdict. The acquittal of the 4 officers who brutally beat Rodney King on camera just three years prior would tell a more common American story—one that continues to repeat itself today. But while both trials have been acknowledged for how they highlighted the country’s inability to confront, reconcile and correct it’s homegrown racism, it is the Simpson fiasco that promotes a narrative that the Furmans of the world would have you believe to be widely true: This is what those people will do if you let them.

In 2016, I sincerely hope that Black people understand that the acquittal of Simpson, much like the ability of Bill Cosby to have until recently escaped criminal charges for his alleged crimes against women, is not reparations, does not make up for Emmitt Till or countless Black men beaten, jailed or killed unjustly. If, in fact, Simpson escaped punishment for a double murder in 1995, White Americans should be reminded that this in no way justifies the over-policing and abuse of Black bodies by the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies that have clearly stated that Black lives do not matter. Only time will tell if American Crime Story’s reopening of a painful wound will help to bring us to a place of greater understanding, or simply set the clock back.


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