Observations, Reviews.

Looking back at O. J.

Briefly Noted, Title O.J: Made In America, Studio , Rating 4.5,

O.J: Made In America (2016)

Director: Ezra Edelman

Briefly Noted



The response by many white people to O. J. Simpson’s acquittal for the murder of two people was bewilderment and outrage, while many black people were exultant. Reviewing the recent documentary O. J.: Made in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates looks back twenty two years to that time, and finds that he, as a young black college student, missed what many white people missed: That for many black people, a black man had been found innocent in a system rigged against minorities.

My own memories of my initial response are several:  DNA evidence doesn’t lie, a man who flees arrest must be guilty, and so on, so O. J. must have done it. What I didn’t give much credence was the significant evidence of reasonable doubt, particularly of police officers on the case who were openly bigoted and had documented histories of manufacturing evidence, or how that would be perceived by a mostly black jury who had too much experience with a deeply racist L. A. police department. I thought the mostly black jury was taking some small measure of revenge on a justice system that had routinely treated them unjustly, rather than recognize that the man they were judging was actually guilty of the crime he was on trial for.

The great strength of Coates’ analysis of the O. J. trial is that he initially held similar attitudes about the O. J. trial that non-blacks did, although as a young black student sometimes for different reasons. From this common vantage, he helps to construct an understanding of what happened that is accessible to the wider community, and show why it is still relevant today.

Coates reflected on his initial reaction and his more recent understanding of the O. J. trial: "

The Simpson story turned out to be intimately enmeshed with the story of black Los Angeles and its relationship with the police. This was the community the Simpson jury was drawn from, and ultimately the one that held his life in the balance. For years, much of the country has wondered how Simpson could possibly have been found innocent. An unspoken assumption underlies this conjecture - that the jury understood the legal system to be credible. What the film makes clear in piecing together a parade of victims beaten, killed, and harassed by the LAPD is that the predominantly black jury—quite rightfully—understood no such thing. Whether I saw Simpson as black or not, racism pervaded his case. ...

Even I, college radical that I was, grasped the LAPD’s brutality only abstractly. The officers were brutal because my own politics, and my own experiences with the police, suggested they would be so. But brutality understates what the LAPD did in those years: It didn’t just brutalize black communities; it terrorized them. ... By the time Simpson came to trial, most of the black community in Los Angeles had ample reason to view law enforcement as lacking not just credibility but basic legitimacy. ...

What I couldn’t fathom in 1994 was a reality that black people around me likely sensed: that Simpson may well have murdered his ex-wife and her friend, and that the jury got it right in declaring him not guilty. When the LAPD collared O. J. Simpson, the police force had gotten its man. The evidence all looked so obvious to a lay observer. ... Juries are not merely lay observers, and the defense needed to neither wholly exonerate Simpson nor completely contradict all the evidence. ... The LAPD had spent decades seeding that doubt in the minds of people like those on the jury, the majority of whom were black women. ...

Racism formed the substrate of the defense’s case: The notion that the LAPD might frame a black man was completely within the realm of possibility for black people in Los Angeles. ... Errors that to white viewers could look like technicalities in what they presumed to be an abstractly 'fair' trial tapped into fundamental questions of trust for black viewers. ...

I did not understand the ties that united Simpson and the black community. When O. J. Simpson ran from justice, returned to it, was tried for murder, and eluded justice again, it was the most shocking statement of pure equality since the civil-rights movement. Simpson had killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. I suspected that then, and I am sure of it now. But he’d gotten away with it—in much the same way that white people had killed black men and women for centuries and gotten away with it. ... Simpson’s great accomplishment was to be indicted for a crime and then receive the kind of treatment typically reserved for rich white guys. His acquittal, achieved as incarceration rates skyrocketed, represented something grand and inconceivable for blacks.

"(Ta-Nahisi Coates, What O. J. Simpson means to me, The Atlantic, Oct 2016) 

Coates underscores that today "the problems that moved those crowds of black people to cheer for a murderer remain. The same anger, the same fear of police remain."(Ta-Nahisi Coates, ibid) 

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