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The importance of O.J. Simpson

It has been 10 years since O.J. Simpson was arrested for armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas. It has been more than 20 years since Simpson was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. And it has been more than 40 years since Simpson became the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. However, with a recent slew of television shows and documentaries, it has become abundantly clear that the life and times of “The Juice” have never been more important.

It is hard to deny that Simpson, once known as the NFL’s best running back and a charming celebrity personality, has become better known for his legal troubles than his professional prowess. When one hears his name today, their first thoughts are almost invariably of his infamous murder trial.

Its declaration as the “trial of the century” seemed a little dramatic at the time for those who lived through it. But now it seems like something of an understatement, as the Simpson case managed to touch “every exposed nerve in the American body politic,” as New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott put it. The case seemingly managed to hit every raw and painful topic the country has to offer, from racial divisions to celebrity culture to domestic violence.

Memories of this lengthy and sensational case seem to have been what motivated FX’s recent program, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, as well as ESPN’s Academy Award-winning documentary, O.J.: Made in America.

The former focused largely on the trial itself and the vibrant cast of characters it brought together. Featuring Cuba Gooding Jr. as the titular defendant, the FX show proved capable of shedding light on the many societal questions surrounding the case that still face the U.S. today.

O.J.: Made in America, however, used its staggering eight-hour runtime to explore all of Simpson’s life, as well as the surrounding historical context that fueled his enormous downfall. Directed by Ezra Edelman, the documentary is a monumental achievement in cinema that essentially acts like a long-form nonfiction book dedicated to film.

Through an enormous feat of research, interviewing and editing, Edelman managed to create a comprehensive film that tracks Simpson’s rise and fall with extreme clarity. Viewers of Made in America get to see the phenomenal athlete O.J. Simpson, a distant memory in FX’s program. They also get to see the celebrity O.J. Simpson, who propelled himself to a successful career in acting by dodging the divisive racial politics of the 1970s. “I’m not black,” he liked to say, “I’m O.J.”

Edelman also does an extensive history of Los Angeles and the city’s long-standing difficulties with racial dynamics. The LAPD  factors heavily into this equation, with time devoted to the Rodney King incident and the ensuing riots.

Eventually though, it all comes back to the murder and the trial. Within Edelman’s film, Simpson takes on an interesting position as a black man caught up in the criminal justice system, but one who had long tried to deny his blackness. The experience of diving into this trial, or reliving it depending on your age, is fascinating, occasionally painful and exhausting. Ultimately, Simpson’s life becomes something of a symbol, emblematic of many different societal questions all at once.

Both of these Simpson-related projects do suffer from some significant flaws, however. The most prominent of these is the story Nicole Brown Simpson. Her brutal fate is merely an ends to tell Simpson’s story. In reality, she was an enterprising, beautiful young woman full of promise and verve, as well as love for her children. In both of these accounts, she is little more than a victim of domestic violence or blonde-haired corpose. A deeper exploration of her life and role in O.J’s life would have drastically improved the quality of both features. But, as Scott pointed out in his New York Times review, “The deep links between misogyny and American sports culture remain unexamined.”

Still, fears of overkill when two lengthy O.J. Simpson projects were announced for 2016 have proven to be unfounded. In fact, it would seem that there has never been a better time to study Simpson’s life. With his possible release from a Nevada prison looming on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how a battered and broken O.J. Simpson re-assimilates to a world that has reexamined his every move once again.

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