(ESPN Films)

“Made in America”: O.J. Simpson, Race, and the Triumph of Toxic Masculinity

Black and white America could not have been further apart than on the morning of October 3, 1995 when a jury acquitted O.J. Simpson in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. While most white Americans responded to the jury’s “not guilty” verdict with horror, many African-Americans rejoiced. Filmmaker Ezra Edelman seeks to explain the history of the divergence of black and white America between 1965 and the present in his extraordinary documentary, O.J.: Made in America.

O.J.: Made in America covers much ground in the five-part, seven-plus hour film. It stitches together two narratives that help explain the chasm in perceptions of race during and after the O.J. Simpson trial. The first trajectory covers O.J.’s rise as a football and entertainment star and businessman, while Los Angeles’s history of racist policing and state violence represents the other crucial story. What is also made clear in the documentary is that O.J. Simpson’s toxic masculinity — defined as a set of harmful characteristics of “manliness,” such as feeling entitled to women’s bodies and attention, demonstrating a willingness to resort to violence in response to rejection and feelings of humiliation, objectifying women and seeking to control them — ultimately brings those two narratives together.1

In the film, Simpson embodied the promise of a colorblind post-civil rights era where he, and other African Americans, would be judged by the “content of their character” and their abilities rather than by their race. O.J. Simpson’s rise exemplified the classic Horatio Alger story. Simpson used his athletic skills to get out of the Protrero Hill projects in San Francisco. He worked his way from the junior college football team to playing for the University of Southern California (USC), a perennial college football contender. His friends and fans remarked about his good character. For O.J., pulling oneself out of poverty also meant transcending race by denying his blackness. He refrained from engaging in civil rights activism and refused to acknowledge the impact of race. O.J. did not think of himself as black, but simply as O.J.

O.J. Simpson playing for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL. (Tony Tomsic/Getty)
O.J. Simpson playing for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL. (Tony Tomsic/Getty)

Simpson’s response to questions reflected the dilemma that many black athletes have had to confront historically.2 Black athletes often walk a tightrope — there are the implicit expectations that black athletes are expected to comment on issues pertaining to race while white athletes are not. Yet many black athletes risk their professional lives after speaking out. Muhammad Ali forfeited his championship belt after refusing to be drafted into military service. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were marginalized for their black power salute in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Even recently, The Women’s National Basketball Association fined Minnesota Lynx players for wearing shirts supporting Black Lives Matter protesters and the slain Dallas police officers. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the latest athlete of color to endure scorn for protesting the national anthem in response to police shootings of African Americans.

USC’s insularity enabled Simpson to develop his colorblind individualism. The footage of comedian Bob Hope joking about the campus not experiencing the same political strife as San Francisco State University and the University of California in Berkeley highlighted the school’s reclusiveness. The 1968 montage illustrates the parallel tracks of USC and the rest of the nation. On the one side, Simpson evaded both tacklers and questions of race, while the nation writhed in turmoil on the other.

O.J. Simpson in a Hertz advertisement.
O.J. Simpson in a Hertz advertisement.

Simpson remained a trailblazer despite his decision to refrain from politics. The film depicts him as a pioneering black athlete who made it in the corporate and entertainment world. The thought of white-owned businesses and corporations such as Chevrolet (division of General Motors) and Hertz Rent-A-Car enlisting Simpson as their pitchman would have been unheard of a decade before. As one interviewee stated, watching O.J. on television still represented a victory for African-Americans.

Yet, watching a black man sprint through an airport on television also reflected another outcome of the 1960s. The influence of black athlete-activists waned during the 1970s along with the mass mobilizations of the civil rights movements. Many Americans followed the Watergate scandal, intermittent high-profile crimes and international terrorist incidents, and the energy crisis more closely. Ironically, however, the civil rights movement and the sacrifices of black athlete activists created space for Simpson’s seemingly apolitical, individualistic, and business-minded model of athlete celebrity to thrive. After Simpson, high-profiled athletes became businesses, themselves. Michael Jordan is the prime example of the publicly apolitical athlete entrepreneur.3

O.J. Simpson’s ascendancy in football and the business world occurred alongside persistent state violence against African Americans, especially in Los Angeles. The 1965 Watts rebellion represented the opening of Edelman’s long prelude to the Simpson murder trial. In between 1965 and the 1992 uprising, black residents living in south central Los Angeles confronted entrenched poverty due to the effects of the deindustrialization in auto and steel industries, the desecration of welfare and public education, and the dominance of low wage jobs in the retail and social sectors.4

Buildings burning during the 1965 Watts rebellion. (Library of Congress)
Buildings burning during the 1965 Watts rebellion. (Library of Congress)

While the drug trade, organized gangs, and gangsta rap culture filled the void, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and the local criminal justice system, emerged as crucial antagonists in the city’s racial drama.5 The LAPD’s actions over the course of almost three decades eventually sowed the seeds for Simpson’s acquittal. The LAPD, led by Chief Daryl Gates during the late-1970s and through the 1980s, supplied the city’s African Americans with numerous grievances. First, the police department shot and killed Eula Love in 1979 over a dispute of a gas bill. Authorities deemed her death a justifiable homicide. Gates oversaw LAPD’s militarization, and led its total war on drugs and gangs.6

The LAPD’s “operation hammer” did not target suspected gang members, but rather whole communities of African Americans. On August 1, 1988, the police raided several apartments on Dalton Avenue, ransacking residents’ homes and brutalizing some of the tenants.7 Gates called Hispanics and Latino/as lazy and said African Americans were more susceptible to death by chokehold. These incidents, as well as the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, fueled the discontent that erupted in open rebellion in 1992.8

Decades of police abuse formed the backdrop of the “civil rights melodrama” that was the O.J. Simpson murder trial.9 With all of the evidence stacked up against Simpson, lawyers Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, and their associates prepared what lawyer and writer Jeffrey Toobin called an “incendiary defense.” 10 This approach entailed the defense charging the LAPD with conspiring to manipulate evidence to frame Simpson. Mark Furhman emerged as the focal point in the defense’s case. Furhman’s past racist indiscretions allowed for the defense to position him, as well as members of the LAPD’s forensics team, as the symbols of racist corruption of the LAPD. What is ironic about Shapiro’s and Johnnie Cochran’s defense team’s strategy is that it obscured the moments when the LAPD and the city’s criminal justice system failed to respond adequately to Simpson’s past incidents of violence against Nicole Brown Simpson due to his celebrity. However, Edelman reminds viewers that this “incendiary defense” would not have been possible without the actual history of brutality in Los Angeles stretching back to the Watts uprising in 1965.11

(ESPN Films)
(ESPN Films)

O.J.: Made in America makes key points about masculinity and how this country’s legal system views women. O.J.’s toxic masculinity and his performance of colorblindness developed alongside each other. Edelman illustrates how O.J. operated with the assumption that he was entitled to the women he desired, whether they were dating someone else, like his first wife, Marguerite Simpson, or whether he was already married.

The film makes an important point about O.J.’s beatings of Nicole in showing how institutions protected his freedom and image. Many LAPD officers were blinded too much by their respect for Simpson as a football player and celebrity to take him into custody and provide adequate protection for Nicole Brown.

There was only one time — the January 1, 1989 beating — when the LAPD sought to arrest Simpson. Nicole called the police on O.J. to report violence against her on numerous occasions. The authorities held Simpson accountable only once. His punishment was organizing celebrity golf tournaments for community service. Some in the sports media also defended O.J. Edelman presents footage from Roy Firestone’s ESPN interview, where the host participated in downplaying Nicole’s charges of domestic violence.

O.J.: Made in America highlights how racism and race are embedded in the most important institutions such as the criminal justice system. But Edelman’s film also reminds us of William Faulkner’s oft-quoted passage, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” LAPD officers conjured the city’s and nation’s racial demons every time they harassed a black person, knocked down their door with a battering ram, or struck Rodney King with their batons. Unfortunately, the conflicts between of race, gender, and sex played out to their tragic conclusion — the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Ultimately this forced another national conversation about race, but not a reckoning. O.J. Simpson’s defense team’s “incendiary defense” merely represented another case of blowback against a criminal justice system that disproportionately policed a particular group because of its race.

K. Austin Collin’s review of O.J.: Made in America for The Ringer declares that the saga did not produce any winners. Superficially, such a proclamation makes sense. As the last episode of the documentary illustrated, Simpson did not really win the trial. African-Americans lost. Recent police killings of African Americans only show how O.J. defeated a system that continues to brutalize African Americans. Additionally, the trial illustrated the failure of the justice system for women of all colors, and a tolerance for a toxic masculinity that permeates many organized sports today.

Further Reading

Gooding-Williams, Robert. Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Ice Cube. Death Certificate. Priority Records. 1991.

Morrison, Toni and Claudia Brodsky Lacour, eds., Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case. New York: Random House, 1997.

Sheffield, Rob, “What ‘O.J.: Made in America’ Says About America Right Now,” Rolling Stone, June 29, 2016.

Toobin, Jeffrey. The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Notes

  1. Feminist activists, scholars, journalists, and theorists coined the term “toxic masculinity.” The concept emphasizes how patriarchy is harmful to men and folks of other genders. See Deidre Cooper Owens, “Nate Parker, Rape Culture, And Toxic Masculinity,” African American Intellectual History Society Blog, August 20, 2016; Amanda Marcotte, “Overcompensation Nation: It’s time to admit that toxic masculinity drives gun violence,” Salon.com, June 13, 2016. Return to text.
  2. O.J. Simpson’s individualistic trajectory has yet to be fully studied in African American history as many scholars, including myself, desire to understand the development of black politics during the 1970s and 1980s. The question that O.J. Simpson’s example evokes is: How do we describe it? I call it colorblind individualism because I interpret Simpson’s comments rather literally. One could argue, though, that Simpson is also the embodiment of what political scientist Lester Spence calls the neoliberal turn in black politics since Simpson seemed to buy into the concept’s various facets — individualism, belief in the free market, colorblindness, and the emphasis of the accumulation of personal wealth over social change. See Lester Spence, Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics (New York: Punctum Books, 2015). Return to text.
  3. Jordan, who once rumored to have said that Republicans “buy shoes too,” has not spoken out about social issues until recently. Return to text.
  4. Myrna Cherkoss Donahoe, “Restructuring and Organizing in Southeast Los Angeles,” in Latino Los Angeles: Transformation, Communities, and Activism, eds. Enrique C. Ochoa and Gilda L. Ochoa (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2005), 84; Robin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 192-194. Return to text.
  5. See Kelley’s chapter on the rise of gangsta rap in South Central L.A. in Race Rebels. Return to text.
  6. Donna Murch, “Crack in Los Angeles: Crisis, Militarization, and Black Response to the Late Twentieth-Century War on Drugs,” The Journal of American History, 102:1 (June 2015). Return to text.
  7. Jeffrey Toobin, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 29. Return to text.
  8. What is ironic about the “two Americas” trope undergirding O.J.: Made in America is that much of the history of race and racism takes place in the multi-ethnic and racial city of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this reality is only evident in the discussion of Latasha Harlins’s murder at the hands of Korean-American storekeeper, Soon Ju Du. The filmmaker provides little background to Black-Korean relations in the city. Return to text.
  9. Jeffrey Toobin, “An Incendiary Defense,” The New Yorker, July 25, 1994. Return to text.
  10. Ibid. Return to text.
  11. Toobin also admits this in The Run of His Life. The fact that the O.J. trial represented a “civil rights melodrama” also revealed the lack of a robust mass grassroots social movement against racism. With the exception of single instances of protest, the politics of race in the U.S. during the 1990s often played out exclusively in the realm of public policy and the field of culture. Rap group Public Enemy staged a protest in the Spike Lee-directed music video for their iconic song, “Fight the Power.” Presidential candidate Bill Clinton chastised activist-rapper Sistah Souljah for her views about interracial violence during the L.A. uprising at a Rainbow Coalition gathering. Edelman illustrates that the O.J. trial was no exception. Simpson’s legal team intentionally turned the case into a referendum on not just the LAPD, but on the criminal justice system, itself. Return to text.

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