I’ve never had a conversation about O.J. Simpson that didn’t begin or end with his relationship to black women. He left his black wife for 19-year-old Nicole Brown, and it was a jury made up of predominantly black women that exonerated him on the streets and in court — black women who loved him when he was unlovable. “If you’re a black man in America, you’re fighting our war,” says novelist Walter Mosley in the first episode of Oscar-winning documentary series O.J.: Made in America (currently streaming on BBC iPlayer). But even though black women exist on the front lines of that war and in every battalion, their perspective is largely absent in Ezra Edelman’s sweeping account of the American culture that created the athlete who thought he was colourless.
Eight black women were on the 12-person jury that acquitted O.J. Simpson in the 1994 murder of his wife and Ron Goldman. But, as Edelman’s narrative argues, the trial was about more than two murders or a famous football star. It was about two separate experiences of America converging in one courtroom: that trial, at that time, showed what happens to whiteness when it is forced to say its own name, and what happens to blackness when it is named — and that name is heard — for what feels like the first time.
To show the collapse of O.J. Simpson, Edelman spends significant time tracing the otherworldly romance of "the Juice." At USC and then with the Buffalo Bills, Simpson was a supernatural football player. He made runs that look impossible until you see him score. He had a charismatic personality, consuming the hearts and minds and consciences of men and women. “And not just any women,” his childhood friend Joe Bell says memorably. “White women.” But when he was on trial for killing a white woman, it was blackness that he exploited for his freedom, and Edelman mostly shows men recounting the events.
Simpson was always surrounded by strong male teams — from the Electric Company offensive line of the Buffalo Bills, to the Johnnie Cochran-led “Dream Team” of defence attorneys, and eventually the less accomplished co-conspirators in a botched robbery that landed him behind bars in 2008. It’s no surprise that much of O.J.: Made in America — produced by ESPN, directed by a man — is dominated by male voices. But, by my count of the film’s more than 60 interviews, only eight of those speakers are women. Only three of those women are black: jury members Yolanda Crawford and Carrie Bess, and Linda Jay, a California true-crime follower.
Edelman has spoken at length about everything he left out of the documentary’s final cut. On Vulture's TV podcast, he said he skipped a deep dive into rumours of Simpson’s cocaine use because the evidence was circumstantial, and cut segments about suspicions that the football star was suffering from CTE (a concussion disorder that plagues many football players) because Simpson was never formally diagnosed. At The New York Times, critic A.O. Scott suggested the film could have included a more nuanced discussion of spousal abuse. But O.J.: Made in America talks around the perspective of black women instead of talking to them.
Yet Edelman’s narrative is conscious that the Black women who exonerated Simpson were smart enough to see through theatrics like Cochran's kente-print ties and the infamous moment when the gloves allegedly used in the murder didn't fit Simpson's hands. Several sequences in Made in America’s third part are devoted to the delicate balance that both sides tried to secure in jury selection, which ended with the predominately black pool (defence attorney Carl E. Douglas went on record saying that Simpson bragged about how much black women loved him, and how unlikely they'd be to convict him).
Then and now, Marcia Clark’s confidence in her history of appealing to this demographic was stunning in its arrogance. But neither Edelman’s camera nor Clark’s present-day interviews spend much time considering her unpopularity not as a petty bias but a product of intersectional anxiety, and Clark is the only woman Edelman allows to comment on it. “African-American women had been some of my best jurors on previous cases, even when the defendant was an African-American. There was just an easy way I had that I could talk to them,” she says today, still confused as to why black women — her best jurors! — chose a black man with a white wife over her.
Vulture posited that Clark ought to be seen as a feminist icon, but her blind spot has never been more clear. Clark saw only Simpson’s alleged guilt and his former fame. Edelman’s camera didn’t press her to draw conclusions he’d spent hours connecting. The black women were loyal to Simpson because they still felt the trauma of the shooting death of Eula Love by police over an unpaid bill, the shooting death of teenage Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer who received a measly probation sentence as punishment, and the forceful raid of apartments on 39th and Dalton. Maddeningly, the two black women from the jury speak on nearly everything but the reasons why Clark’s phoney feminist posturing did (and will continue to) ring hollow.
O.J.: Made in America is a masterpiece, showing that much of how race intersects with pop culture today — from the Kardashian empire to TMZ-style predatory reporting — bears Simpson’s fingerprints. From touchdown to trial, Simpson spun fame into infamy into some other wretched thing, as we all watched live on television. He commodified his charm and tried to outrun his black identity. But somehow women — especially the black women who freed him and exist at Simpson’s seams — get only a secondary role in Edelman’s retelling of this American saga.