A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk on the BBC World Service's programme Cultural Frontline, tracing the influence and effects of the OJ Simpson trial; you can read my introduction to that in my post of 2 April, or link direct to the programme on Iplayer here; it comes about 14 minutes in. But for the time the show is no longer available, I thought I'd post my working script (with one footnote) here.
The essay was prompted by the showing of American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson on BBC television. As the series has now concluded, and I am about to write about it, and about the re-issue of Jeffrey Toobin's book about the trial, I thought this bigger picture might be instructive...
OJ AND OUR AMERICA
Was it really two decades ago? Watching The People Vs. OJ Simpson transported me back to that summer of 1994. After a stressful day in charge of the host broadcast of the opening match of the FIFA World Cup, I'd ordered room service in my hotel to watch the NBA basketball finals, when the infamous white Bronco driven by OJ's friend AC appeared in a box in the screen's lower third. Soon, the basketball was relegated to the box, then it disappeared, as the strange freeway convoy disguised as a police chase took centre stage. It was presented just like sports coverage, because America's new national pastime was television, and OJ gave TV everything it could desire.
It was billed as the 'crime of the century', or the 'trial of the century', but almost every decade in America produces at least one of those. It actually was the television event of the past century, but re-seeing it today generates far more than nostalgia. The Simpson trial balances on two great axes: race and celebrity, and it is both history and prediction. It is America defining itself, by its unending racial schism, and re-defining itself, as Andy Warhol foresaw, by celebrity.
The mini-series sets the scene with the brutal beating of a black man, Rodney King, by white Los Angeles police four years earlier, and the massive riots which followed the cops' acquittal on criminal charges. This signals the first crucial theme: the show dissects the way Simpson's defense was based on the disconnect between black and white Los Angeles. White America believed stars like OJ transcended race; prosecutor Marcia Clark wisecracks that a jury of OJ's peers would actually consist of 'middle aged white millionaires'. Black Americans saw it differently.
The narrative of OJ being framed by cops who resented his wealth and fame, hated his having a beautiful white ex-wife, recalled the Jim Crow era when 'uppity blacks' might be lynched for 'recklessly eyeballing' a white woman. Whites saw OJ as a world apart from Rodney King, but OJ's lawyer Johnny Cochrane knew they had one crucial thing in common, their skin; actor Courtney Vance milks every nuance of racism perfectly.
Twenty-two years later, America has a black president, and something like 20 per cent of the country believes he's a foreign-born Moslem educated in terrorist cells. It's impossible not to feel the embers of prejudice smouldering, waiting to be blown into flames by the next police killing of an unarmed black man.
Race was the strategy, but the trial was defined by celebrity. OJ had always received special treatment from the police and district attorneys in LA. It was easy to see why: when I met OJ while covering the 1992 Barcelona Olympics;, his charisma was overpoweringly physical: he's big in a way Cuba Gooding, the actor playing him on TV, cannot convey, yet moved gracefully with a chiselled handsomeness and easy smile. In the face of his celebrity, the prosecution pulled on kid gloves, but the money and sheer weight of numbers of the defense team pounded every concession into a submission. Judge Lance Ito preened for the cameras even as his head sunk beneath the quicksand; Clark and her assistant prosecutor Chris Darden saw TV punditry in their futures.
The mini-series plays the celebrity card knowingly, by highlighting OJ's friend Bob Kardashian, played with his trademark insecurity by David Schwimmer. Typically, there’s no mention of the garment bag Kardashian removed from OJ’s house, with whatever crucial evidence it contained (NOTE: This comment was premature. The bag did feature later, as Kardashian and AC opened it together to discover it contained nothing incriminating. That moment signalled the show's almost total acceptance of a changed Kardashian, Schwimmer being a character far more sympathetic. But I wonder.) Because what’s more important is that OJ was godfather to Kardashian's oldest daughter, Kim, and there follows a series of knowing winks at the soon-to-be-famous-for-being-
The Kardashian phenomenon was, in effect, enabled by the Simpson trial. It brought together the new world of 24 hour news and multi-channel television in a perfect storm, creating a parallel universe in which the trial became a catalyst for endless argument, speculation, innuendo, and punditry, full of cliché and sophistry, all about style and process, not about substance.
This legacy haunts us today. Not just in the morass of trash television, but in the trash television that has been the two-year cycle of the American presidential elections—an endless series of so-called debates in which nothing is debated, filling countless hours of airtime. Donald Trump, most of whose supporters believe that Barack Obama is a foreign terrorist, steps seamlessly from awarding pretend jobs on scripted reality shows, to playing a candidate in an endless reality show. Indeed, his candidacy would not be possible were it not for the OJ trial.
The primary voters themselves are like the jurors in a series of OJ trials, distracted by the big money dream teams of consultants who make TV commercials, believing in the celebrities they know from TV, and unable to escape the inflammatory rhetoric that invokes that shadowy cloud of ever-present racial divide. The Simpson trial created the Kardashians and empowers the Trumps; it is the template for today's America, glued to its TV screens, understanding nothing.