I watched the Golden Globes last night only through the win for the FX show The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story in Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture for TV. Sarah Paulson had won Best Actress in the same category for her portrayal of Marcia Clark just a bit earlier in the show. To be clear, I wasn’t waiting on any particular thing before giving up on the show – I rarely watch award shows any more but tuned in for the promise of a great opening number and Jimmy Fallon as host in the semi-casual environment that is the Globes. (I enjoy seeing celebrities sitting at tables eating, drinking and hob-nobbing with each other like real people. Although why they can’t space the tables a little better so winners don’t have to push and shove and maneuver like rats trying to figure their way out of a maze to get cheese I don’t know.)
It happened that I watched the multi-part production of The People v. O. J. Simpson last week. I don’t have cable and had placed myself on the public library’s waiting list a couple months back and it had taken this long for my turn to arrive. I watched the 2016 ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America about a month ago. And the reason I’d pursued either, in addition to my interest in the story at the time it took place, was a suggestion in Esquire magazine that the two were very well done and made a good pairing. They were right.
O.J. Simpson was a name I knew and not much more prior to the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. I didn’t really have any feelings about him one way or the other. I knew nothing of football or what the man had accomplished in his field. For reasons I cannot say, I missed the bronco chase. What was I doing that day that I paid no mind to any kind of media? I don’t know. I’m glad I missed it though.
I watched the trial on TV. There were many things about it that drew me. I was fascinated by how a court room is run and evidence presented. There were so many personalities and stories involved too. I studied everyone’s faces and reactions. I greatly related to the bond between the Brown sisters. The Goldmans, father and daughter, broke my heart – they could be your neighbors – non-celebrities caught in this mess and trying always to make sure their son and brother was not lost in the chaos of the case. The two younger Simpson children, obviously absent from the court room, their mother murdered and their father on trial for it, were yet more victims. The varying and compelling personalities and styles of all the lawyers was riveting. Chris Darden, with his intelligence and passion, resonated the most with me. I watched as Marcia Clark changed over the course of the trial; it clearly took such a toll – physically evident in her face – and yet she pressed on. Johnnie Cochran, although obviously skilled at what he did, never sat right with me.
One of the weird things in watching the 10-part DVD series last week was seeing the jury! It brought back how carefully the jury was shielded from the camera during the trial in 1995. They were an utter mystery, spoken to, talked about, and never seen. I felt like I was doing something wrong to be looking at them while sitting in my own home watching a DVD.
Not then and not now, did I ever lose sight that two vibrant, beautiful young people were dead. Cut down while doing nothing, just living their lives one night. They weren’t killed for money or their cars or their jewelry. They were just killed. Several times while watching the series I found myself in tears. I thought the show was extremely well done and tasteful with one large exception: repeated showings of a slain Nicole Brown Simpson on the steps outside her home. It didn’t matter that it was an actress. I didn’t need to see that more than the brief, passing glimpse when the officers investigate the crime scene at the outset. I imagined how that would be to repeatedly see if you were her sister, her parent, or her friend. It was unnecessary and felt like a gratuitious intrusion on her being.
The documentary O.J.: Made in America provided me a much clearer idea of who O.J. Simpson was and what he had accomplished in his career. It also gave insight into his personality, his character flaws. It is shocking, if your head is mainly full of 1995 trial imagery to see this aged man, now serving a 33 year sentence for a different, lesser crime, sitting in front of a parole board explaining how well he does his prison assigned jobs. Although the documentary is exceptional, the flaw in it was the lack of discussion of the nature of his marriage to Nicole Brown Simpson. That relationship and marriage, which are skimmed over, are obviously very relevant to the trajectory of his life story.
During the televised trial in 1995 I was talking to a black man who said to me that of course O.J. is innocent, “Everybody knows that.” I was more than surprised – I, a white woman – didn’t know that at all. I was confounded by the verdict and appalled by the celebrations. No matter what you thought of the LAPD or race relations or the egregious history of the maltreatment of blacks in this country, public displays of jubilation when a man is acquitted of a double homicide – and no one else to be blamed or charged ever – seemed callous.
The reactions to the verdict, blacks predominantly agreeing with it and whites predominantly not, were one of those touchstone moments in our society. They evidenced that the divide between blacks and whites was larger than might have otherwise been suggested at the time. Prior to the trial, a lot of people would likely have said that everyone was roughly on equal footing. We were a melting pot. “I don’t see color” was a phrase often heard.
I was and am reminded of a rigorous book from 1992, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal by Andrew Hacker (an older white man) which enumerated how extremely differently blacks and whites experienced life in this country. One of the things he related was that as a college professor he would ask his students about the state of race in America. They would respond that things were fine, everybody was equal. Then Professor Hacker would pose a question to his white students. If he gave them a million dollars, and they could wake up the next day as exactly the same person they were now but be black, would they take it? When it was put THAT way, the white students knew exactly how valuable their pale outer shell was. No, no to a one, they wouldn’t. People could talk about racial equality and how far we’d come all they wanted but a million dollars, Hacker concluded, was the worth of white skin. Would the answers be any different today, 25 years after the book’s publication?
There are milestones that happen that point out to us how far we’ve come – President Obama anyone? But continued events that draw attention to how steeped in the racist past we remain. It’s not that there aren’t less obvious indicators that were there all along but they aren’t the sort that attract national attention and outrage.
In 1995 we had a huge national divide and again in late 2016 we had another, only this time it wasn’t race but politics. Yet the feeling was the same, half the country looked around and thought the other half was somewhere across a great divide and clearly in the wrong. Both sides wondered of the other “How could they think that way??!” The parallels between 1995 and 2016 are so striking. In each instance it wasn’t a “rude awakening” as much as a sometimes fearful awakening: We AREN’T in this together; you are my enemy only I did not fully know it till now. There is a state of unease in the air following the election just as there was after the verdicts in the O.J. Simpson trial. It is one thing to feel there is a foot or maybe a yard between you and another; it is wholly different to begin to believe it is more like a MILE.
Something happened though, between these two aforementioned years, and that was Sept 11, 2001. At that time, the playing field was leveled. We were all Americans. We had an enemy and it wasn’t us. People were kinder to one another. Everyone was wounded. We had a commonality, a shared disbelief and loss. We were Americans and we were under attack. The feeling was short-lived; as a nation our attention span is brief as are our national emotions. I think this has so much to do with being a relatively young country that has always had huge influxes of people – many who came here unwillingly true – that continue to reshape its face. An American is somebody whose ancestors floated over on the Mayflower and an American is somebody who had their naturalization ceremony last week and an American is somebody whose ancestors arrived in the hull of slave ships. We don’t share the same histories and we don’t generally think and respond as a group. Some even say we are increasingly a society of smaller factions and not one nation.
I hate to think that was what was needed to bring Americans together was an outside enemy but I see a possible truism there. Something that forced the country into an “us vs them” mentality that went beyond our borders. I was not around for the World Wars but I expect much the same occurred then. The enemy was elsewhere and whatever internal differences Americans had with each other could wait.
Thinking it over, it does not seem untimely that the Civil Rights movement or the women’s rights movement got their momentum during non-war times (I am not discounting Korea and Viet Nam but they weren’t on the scale of the two world wars nor did they impact as many Americans). In a very odd way, if you consider it, fighting with each other as we do, be it over race or over political parties, is something we can do because we AREN’T fighting a larger enemy. To wit, in 2017 the average American is not fighting wars or terrorists (less than .5 percent of Americans are currently in the armed forces). We leave it to our government to fight terrorism for us. I mean our “job” as citizens is to notice and report strange behavior and odd packages left lying about! Not to take up arms.
I don’t have answers, just lots of thoughts and questions. If I’m right, which I’d rather not be, the next time Americans will be drawn together as a group – as one nation – is when we are attacked. I don’t think the inauguration is going to uplift the national mood. It’ll distract us for a bit and we’ll listen to the pundits mark those crucial first “100 days” but I don’t think we’re going to see the kinds of sweeping changes some hope for and others fear.