ESPN’s five-part 30 for 30 documentary on O.J. Simpson, O.J.: Made in America, is, for those interested in the history of race relations in America in the second half of the 20th century, a must-watch. For those interested in the trial specifically, the series — which premieres on ESPN on June 11th — is also essential, and definitely not a mere retread of the talking points in FX’s recent The People v. O.J. Simpson.
The following article contains spoilers.
The striking thing about the documentary is that it takes a full two episodes to get to the actual Nicole Brown Simpson murder. And arguably, the first two parts are the most revelatory. This is territory not often covered in O.J. histories focused on the crime. The series meticulously explains — to viewers too young to know, or those who were not tuned into sports and pop culture in the correct way in the ‘60, ‘70s and ‘80s — how beloved and important a figure O.J. Simpson once was to America at large.
But most surprisingly, it offers a lot of hard evidence for how “the Juice” developed the reputation of being a divisive figure for Los Angeles’s black community. He actively sought to make his race invisible to white America, and shirked the activism of a tumultuous time. His celebrity was growing as a sports star, actor, and ad-campaign star (he was the first black celebrity to be the main face of a major brand, Hertz) grew exponentially over the course of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The series also elucidates how his relationship with Nicole Brown gradually spiraled into a dark, psychologically and physically abusive place. It recalls the fact that the relationship overlapped with his previous, oft-forgotten marriage to Marguerite Whitley, though Marguerite’s story only gets a relative sliver of screen time.
Here are five of the most shocking revelations in the first two installment of Made in America, and how they deepen our understanding the contradictory narrative of his life.
Correspondence from as early as the late ‘60s finds O.J. coining the term “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
This phrase is referenced in relationship to the O.J. trial — including in The People v. O.J. Simpson. But it originally cropped in a letter to a friend, discussing his integration into high society following his football success at USC. It also comes up in recollections of O.J.’s reaction to athlete activism by Muhammed Ali and others leading to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ 1968 black power salute at the Olympics (an event largely boycotted by black athletes).
In interviews during this time, O.J. frequented reiterated that he only wanted to “represent himself, and not serve as a larger symbol.” A notable Simpson quote from the ‘70s: “If I stand on a platform, I’m gonna be speaking for O.J.” In doing so — and building his athletic reputation at a larger white school like USC — Simpson managed to distance himself further from the black community during the contentious height of the civil rights era, while being an extremely high-profile celebrity.
O.J.’s father, Jimmy Lee Simpson, was a gay man
Those who re-engaged with, or learned about the O.J. saga through The People v. O.J. Simpson might can have been aware of the fact that O.J.’s estranged father was a gay man. Later, Jimmy Lee Simpson would become a noted drag performer in San Francisco during the 1980s. O.J.’s childhood friend Joe Bell — one of the most ubiquitous and compelling talking heads in Made in America — recalls a story of going by the apartment where Mr. Simpson lived, and seeing him there with another man. O.J. laughed about it, strangely, but then was very reticent to talk about it. There is implication, later in the series, that this part of his family life may have led to some of his abusive tendencies, and his rage toward Nicole for associating with homosexual men.
O.J.’s obsession with playing the character of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in Ragtime
Much of Simpson’s film career, as explored in Made in America, is meant to seem like just his way of attaining greater and more sustained celebrity than the sports world could grant him. But when it came to scoring the lead role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in Miloš Forman’s 1981 adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s epic novel Ragtime, O.J. was, by all accounts, deeply invested.
Correspondence and interviews evidence that O.J. deeply related to famed pianist Coalhouse’s struggle: particularly, his commitment to attaining an equal standing to whites in the early 1900s in New York. Coalhouse, at least in O.J.s reading of the role, believed that race should not matter in society — even, that it was possible for it to be erased. Ultimately, Forman would award fellow Roots alum Howard Ellsworth Rollins, Jr. the role, which O.J. considered one of the biggest disappointments of his professional career.
The embedded racism in O.J.’s world-famous Hertz ad campaign
In the late ‘70s, a Hertz Rent-a-Car TV commercial showing O.J. running through an airport became extraordinarily popular, so much so that Hertz made him the face of all of the company’s advertisements for the next few years.
This was not only was this a major breakthrough for POC being figureheads of major corporate ad campaigns. It also came at a time when celebrity athlete endorsements were almost unheard-of, demonstrating just how beloved O.J. was as a national figure. The documentarians talk to Hertz higher-ups — the exec of the company, Frank Olson, was one of O.J.’s closest millionaire friends — about the fundamentally racist metholodgy behind the ads. Many of them featured white people, from Girl Scouts to blonde models to charming septuagenarians encouraging O.J.’s run, and therefore endorsing him. No other minorities were featured in any of the ads.
O.J.’s golf cheating
Simpson was attempting to advance his interests as a businessman in the 80s, serving on the boards of major corporations and attempting to hitch his wagon to whatever new venture seemed most successful. As a result, he was spending a lot of time playing golf with very wealthy people. The stories about O.J.’s golf cheats, which eventually resulted in his opponents assisting that a caddie follow him around and watch his every move, serve as proof of a lifelong obsession with winning and besting every challenge. The most outlandish story? Simpson hitting a long ball and attempting to convince his opponents that it had landed directly on top of a tee.
Here’s when to watch the series: