First Click: The OJ Simpson documentary made me rethink racism

June 22nd, 2016

“Not guilty,” said the law clerk as she read the verdict aloud. “Not guilty,” she said a second time, freeing OJ Simpson. A black celebrity and NFL football star who had been accused of murdering his white ex-wife and her white friend.

I was shocked. 28-years-old and confused by what I was hearing. Frustrated in my disbelief. “How can any reasonable person doubt his guilt, much less all 12 jurors?!” I beseeched my predominantly white colleagues and friends as we watched the African-American community cheer the decision. Spontaneous celebrations erupted in downtown Los Angeles and on the streets of San Francisco (OJ’s birthplace) where I was living at the time, but not in the middle-class white suburb of the midsized city in the midwestern part of the country where I grew up. On TV I saw black faces beaming with delight from every corner of the US, while white faces twisted with snarled bewilderment. The racial contrast had never been more striking. We lived in the same country yet existed in different worlds.

This video captures the mood as I remember it:

Now, some 20 years later, I finally understand that day — October 3rd, 1995 — thanks to the power of documentary filmmaking.

Yesterday I finished watching the excellent five-part documentary series O.J.: Made in America. It’s riveting stuff, told with enough context to make the "Trial of the Century" culturally relatable to anyone: old or young, born in the USA or not. It’s especially relevant to understanding the American condition, both then and now.

In the US, you are entitled to a trial by a jury of your peers. The Simpson jury was mostly black, selected from the area of downtown Los Angeles where the trial was based, not the wealthier (and whiter) judicial district of Santa Monica where the murders took place. Downtown LA is home to Watts, the black neighborhood notorious for the 1965 riots sparked by police racism. Downtown LA gave us gangsta rap in the mid 80s, including NWA’s single "Fuck tha Police" which railed against police brutality and racial profiling. Downtown LA is the place where people again rioted in 1992 after a mostly white jury from the suburbs acquitted four LA police officers caught on videotape beating Rodney King. No, the jurors who acquitted Simpson in 1995 were nothing like me. Growing up black in downtown Los Angeles was nothing like being white in an Ohio suburb. The jurors experience with the police and institutional racism was something I had never known. I had only been in the back of a police car once, and for good reason — not because of the color of my skin. The jurors had every reason to doubt the LA police and the evidence they presented against a wealthy, and universally loved black superstar.

I now see the verdict for what it was. A referendum on race in America, not a search for truth. I’d heard that line before, of course, but always discarded it under some vague notion of neglected civic duty. Only now do I understand it thanks to Ezra Edelman’s exceptional documentary. I had to see the story laid out end-to-end, from the 1940s to present day, to fully appreciate the issues and to evolve beyond sympathy to comprehension. Like many white Americans, I needed a window into a black America that my own life experience and education didn’t provide.

Activist and actor, Susan Sarandon, recently had this to say about the influence a documentary film can have on society:

"As both activist and actor I understand the profound power of a story well told. Storytelling is what makes us human, it is our common currency and as such can be a powerful tool for positive change. Compelling narratives have the ability to bring us together, to galvanize us into action. Documentary makers commit years of their lives in an effort to bring us these vital and often complex stories and in doing so they make the issues we face as a society both more tangible and increasingly urgent."

It's clear to me now that the Black Lives Matter protests we see today in cities like Sanford, Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York City share a common lineage with the "not guilty" protests in the Simpson trial way back then. It took 21 years and 7.5 hours for me to figure it out, but thanks to a documentary, I finally understand it. Hopefully my peers will, too.

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