Jayne: O.J. documentary sheds harsh light on race relations

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor



Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

It was riveting. It was troubling. It was compelling in providing a snapshot of America past and present.

And after sitting through all 464 minutes of the ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” the overriding questions are these: Can we ever get past this? Will we ever bridge this divide? How long must we be beholden to the racial tension that is holding this country back?

That was the theme of Ezra Edelman’s five-part miniseries, a true-crime story that chronicles the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson. That was the theme of a Greek tragedy dripping with the issue of race from beginning to end. From the time Simpson emerged from the projects to become a much-loved national figure to the time he was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and a man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You likely know the details. Anybody who lived through the infamous slow-speed Bronco chase and the subsequent trial in 1995 certainly remembers many of them.

Yet the documentary revived those details and provided a reminder that this nation still suffers for the conditions that permeated the case and linger today. Through every Black Lives Matter march, through every Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, through every assertion that all lives matter, the echoes of the O.J. Simpson trial reverberate.

There is little doubt that Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. There is little doubt that he got away with murder, and that the jury verdict in Los Angeles was informed by that city’s racial division.

The documentary lays out the timeline for that decision, presenting a history of racial abuse on the part of the Los Angeles Police Department. You know, things like officers beating Rodney King to a pulp, getting caught on video, and still being acquitted.

So when the Simpson verdict came, how many jurors considered that payback for the Rodney King verdict? “Oh, about 90 percent,” said juror Carrie Bess. Which led to much celebration in black communities. “That was joy,” said Rev. Cecil Murray. “You could hear it in the barbershop, in the beauty salon, on the classroom at the school. A release of breath, exhaling. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last. It was like that day Jackie Robinson opened the door for black players.”

All of which reflects just how deep into this rabbit hole of race our nation has fallen.

Celebrating the acquittal of a double-murderer because he was a black celebrity is offensive. Injecting Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson into that celebration is unconscionable.

Then again, so is beating a motorist silly with police batons; so is the death of a shackled suspect in Baltimore from injuries suffered in the back of a police van; so was a pogrom against the black community in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921 and institutionalized attempts to whitewash accounts of the event.

A story of America

History does not happen in a vacuum; it is informed and influenced by all that has come before. Justice is not blind; it is the creation of individuals who have varying backgrounds and varying experiences that are impossible to ignore.

That, in the end, makes the Simpson case worth revisiting and makes it relevant today. It is a story about America, a story about fame and celebrity and wealth and adulation — yet at its core it is a story about the inescapable influence of race that continues to take a toll on this country. “O.J. may not have a conscience,” his agent, Mike Gilbert, says in the documentary. “He may not pay for killing two people, but I sure as hell pay for helping him get away with it.”

Because, in the end, there is no happy ending to “O.J.: Made in America.” There is no redemption for anybody involved and no redemptive moral.

There is merely the frustration of wondering whether this nation can overcome the albatross that is holding it back.