My insomnia makes Netflix an common late-night companion. Over the past week, my insomnia streak acquainted me with recent Netflix series The People v. OJ Simpson. The popular series produced by Hollywood veteran and controversial scientologist John Travolta, takes viewers back to the 1995 trial where former NFL star OJ Simpson faced criminal charges for a double homicide. The jury would come to acquit Simpson, however, while the law is generally seen as truth, the general premise appears to be that Simpson is indeed guilty. Simpson as the man who “got away with murder” is the elephant in the room, or in this case the series.
Esteemed actor Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as “The Juice.” Lacking Simpson’s height and build, Gooding’s portrayal paints Simpson as vapid, superficial, emotional and frivolous. While the film throws a series of (not-so) subtle jabs that imply Simpson’s guilt, Gooding’s portrayal suggests that Simpson was far too busy living his own life to concern himself with taking the lives of another. The series portrayal of Simpson is insulting, aside from its portrayal of Simpson as a family man possessing a genuine love for his children. Otherwise, Simpson seems a self-obsessed man with black skin, far removed from the plights of blackness—until this trial.
The OJ Simpson trial was one of many instances where the color line has become irreversibly obvious. The case was never about Simpson, it was about using the heinous murders of two white people to substantiate western myths of black savagery. Simpson as a world class athlete was the perfect casting as lead in this orchestrated American horror story.
Simpson as a “big,” athletic black man, embodies what Spike Lee labeled the “magical negro.” Lee implements the term to reference the black “superhero” seen in films like Hancock and series like Luke Cage. However, the magical negro dominates sports from football to basketball. Stars like Jack Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James embody contemporary manifestations of what OJ Simpson was in his heyday—an epitome of athletic perfection. As a portrait of ultimate physicality, the magical negro can do anything. This validates his receipt of high awards, and in this case, his culpability for murder.
Those who cast a racist gaze upon Simpson’s melanated body, see a body physically able to perform any physical act—even murder. Furthermore, the black collective is faced with yet another instance of the detriment in allowing white America to place the black body on pedestal– a placement that is inevitably a fastback to the gallows.
Yet, although the series refuses to entertain Simpson as a potential victim, they do depict a victim. This victim is Marcia Clark—a white woman. The series illustrates the plight a plain Clarke faces as the media dissects her appearance, namely her hair. As a black woman, it is difficult to empathize with Clarke— a white woman criticized for altering her hair, when black women are typically coerced into altering their hair to appear more conventional and less “threatening.” The series portrays Clarke as fighting for justice and equality, glossing over her selecting black male Chris Darden to sit beside her solely to equal the racial dynamics of the defense.
Clarke’s actions functioned to place the prosecution on equal footing on a case that would inevitably evoke race. Cochran and Darden frequently quarreled about race relations in a manner that unveiled their presence as doing the dirty work for their white co-counsels. The use of the phrase “the race card” proved particularly disconcerting. No black person can play “the race card,” as when playing cards, other players do not know your hand. When you are black, as soon as you walk into a room everyone knows your hand. Race is a factor embedded in every aspect of western culture, a truth overlooked by whites due to the need to believe that they earned or deserve what western life has granted them.
Interestingly, the series illustrates both Darden and Cohran as confused about racism. Darden, although well-versed in systemic racism and how celebrity functions to dilute blackness, appears to overlook his appointment as a racist act. He instead bites the bait to combat his idol in the white man’s arena. Similarly, Cochran understands and brilliantly articulates the systemic practices that plague blacks. However, he seemingly misinterpreted this case as doing anything for the black collective. Thus, in short, Cochran’s actions aided OJ Simpson, a man who happens to be a black, not the black collective. A dialogue making these arguments occurs in the final moments of the series tenth episode, but functions to thwart Cochran’s intentions and suggest that Cohran’s conscious is possibly more fractured that Chris Darden, a contemporary house slave. Similarly both men are the race card their white co counsel play in hopes of winning their cases.
As I watched the series, the following query kept running through my mind—why now? After over twenty-years, with most of the “dream team” dead or disbarred, an eerie truth to say the least, why remind America of this tragedy?
Then, as the credits rolled, I got it. The film ends with an aged OJ Simpson in prison clothing and handcuffs. The same hands that once held the Heisman trophy bound together—like black bodies within a chain gang.
The screen than reads “he is eligible for parole in 2017.” It then became obvious. This series, like so many others, was not to entertain but to remind the general public, admist heightened racial tensions that mirror an unimaginably cruel past, that once upon a time a negro got away with murdering white people.
Furthermore, this series is an act of racial aggression designed to twist the knife of cyclical disenfranchisement into the black collective–implying equity in an inequitable world.