As a nation, we can’t stop watching and talking about O.J. Simpson. His parole hearing this week was shown on all four major broadcast networks and several cable outlets. Over 13 million people tuned in. A few weeks ago, JAY-Z released a music video for “The Story Of O.J.,” the second single off his acclaimed new album 4:44. It’s a heady song about the impossibility of transcending race. Last year, a TV series about Simpson’s 1995 murder trial won several Emmys and a documentary about his entire life was awarded an Oscar. Decades after his trial and the height of his fame, we still remain hopelessly obsessed with Simpson—a man who’s been famous for half a century, ever since he was a football star at USC in the ‘60s; a man famous enough that his place in society could change from athlete to pitchman to Hollywood actor to what he is now: a perceived murderer. A pariah.
But now that he’s been granted parole, we can be certain that the story of O.J. will only continue to grow.
He is America’s cultural Rorschach test because there are so many different ways to see him; our country’s endless obsession in part because he symbolizes so much: the racial divide in America, the lionization of sports heroes, the scourge of domestic violence, the power of celebrity to impact the justice system, and so much more.
Allow me to go a bit deeper on a few.
While Simpson stands for so much more than race, we must admit that it remains at the core of his story. JAY-Z uses Simpson as the poster boy for the attempt to transcend race, positing him as a race traitor who tried to escape the strictures of racism by being so well-liked and non-threatening that white people saw him as the exception (“I’m not black, I’m O.J.” was his attitude). There is no transcending race. Period. The awareness of race is burned deep into our consciousness, so much so that our bias functions at a subconscious level. (Also, the notion of “transcending race” is always applied to Blacks. Do you ever hear about white people who are transcending their race?) And so many view Simpson’s stunning fall from grace as a consequence of his foolish attempt to transcend race, as if all of this is karmic retribution of some sort.
Payback is a recurring theme when it comes to Simpson—and what he symbolizes. For some, he is the embodiment of payback within the American justice system, perhaps even from two directions. For many Black people, his 1995 acquittal represented payback against a system that’s been unjust to generations of Black Americans. From Dred Scott to the Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to Rodney King to Trayvon Martin, the U.S. criminal justice system has often been a place where Black people struggled to find justice. Simpson represented one instance where this iniquitous system benefited the Black man.
The second form of judicial payback stems from his 2008 conviction on charges of robbery, kidnapping, conspiracy, and assault with a deadly weapon—and his sentence of 33 years in prison (with parole in 9). Simpson was now seen as a symbol of overpunishment and how you can’t outrun the justice system. His lengthy sentence was widely perceived as forcing him to serve time for allegedly killing Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. He received an extremely excessive sentence for a first-time offender without a criminal record. O.J. may not be a sympathetic figure but this is a frightening prospect for the public at large: Whether or not you think O.J. is guilty, do we really want a justice system where, if the government fails to convict you of a crime in court, it can apply a massive penalty later? One can believe that Simpson was the killer and that the state did not have enough evidence to convict him. Those are not conflicting concepts. The concept of double jeopardy is crucial to the American justice system but it seems like the rules may have been bent with Simpson because there was so much residual anger toward him.
That anger is deep-seated. Simpson is seen, in the eyes of most, as a murderer who got away. The state failed to make its case in the 1995 trial but in the court of public opinion, Simpson was convicted. You don’t even hear O.J. talking about finding the real killers. To many he’ll always be persona non grata. And worse, if you do think he killed them, the brutal violence he used came as a shock.
Yes, Simpson also suggests a shocking change of character. We like to believe that we can look at someone and know who they are and what they’re capable of doing. Without the ability to properly read people the world becomes chaotic—and it’s unsettling. Simpson was, in the eyes of the public, a paragon of congeniality; a nice, goofy guy with a smile permanently plastered across his face. In the ‘70s, decades before the terms “Running While Black,” “Walking While Black,” and “Breathing While Black” were coined, O.J. was so innocuous that Hertz hired him to sprint through airports as a show of its convenience. Nobody batted an eye. Then, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, he earned belly laughs as a lovably obtuse cop in the Naked Gun comedy films. The grisly murders suggested that maybe there was another side to him that we hadn’t noticed. And it bothers us to think that we didn’t notice, that there was more to this person than we realized, because if there was more to him then who else are we not accurately seeing? A big reason why O.J.’s story remains a national obsession is because we’re still poring over his past—looking for clues we missed, searching for patterns that escaped us. We want to see if we can notice the signs that point to a violent murderer. We want to see if we can notice the character that may have suddenly emerged that night.
From the looks of it, we’ll have the rest of O.J. Simpson’s life to keep gawking at the assumed killer who walks free. But knowing O.J., this is not the last part of the story. Will this guy be able to resist the chance to rub it in our faces? When they call to ask if he wants a few million to do a reality show, will he be able to say no? I don’t think so.
So stay tuned. There’s more coming after the break.