Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Duncan Greive: Looming tragedy gives OJ doco that extra edge

Orenthal James Simpson has roared back into the public consciousness this year, and this riveting documentary is irresistibly compelling television, writes Duncan Greive.

For no good reason that I can tell, Orenthal James Simpson has roared back into the public consciousness this year, more than 40 years after he became a superstar athlete and two decades after his moment of infamy.

The bald facts of the athlete-turned-criminal's life are well-known, but what the spellbinding OJ: Made in America reveals is that Simpson was a far more complex and significant figure than the brilliant but trashy drama The People versus OJ Simpson - which ran earlier this year - suggested.

The five-part documentary, which debuted on ESPN last night, is the most ambitious effort yet from their superb 30 for 30 series, and follows The Jinx and Making a Murderer as further proof that documentary is the ascendant television form of the moment.

Each episode runs for 90 minutes, and is woven from a mix of contemporary interviews with friends, teammates and reporters, and an extraordinary collection of archive footage.

The latter is particularly impressive: Simpson was a very public figure from his teens, when he first revealed the charisma and peerless athleticism that defined his public image, so there is a vast vault to be excavated.

Each stage of his life contains multitudes. He attended USC, a college with an affluent and largely white crowd, which meant his deeds were conducted and appreciated in the heart of Los Angeles. He was a stunningly handsome man, whose easygoing charm made him naturally attractive to reporters and, soon enough, advertisers. He fronted national campaigns for Chevrolet and Hertz, the first black man to do so. This was an major moment for America, happening during the civil rights movement, in the aftermath of Muhammad Ali, and Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised fists at the 1968 Olympics. But while those athletes became symbolic of black revolutionary thought and energy, Simpson famously claimed, "I'm not black, I'm OJ."

OJ Simpson celebrates after being found not guilty at his 1995 murder trial. Photo/AP
OJ Simpson celebrates after being found not guilty at his 1995 murder trial. Photo/AP

It sounds fatuous, and the likes of fellow football legend Jim Brown took a dim view of his unwillingness to join the movement. Reporter Robert Lipsyte even goes so far as to describe Simpson as "a counter-revolutionary athlete", which doesn't seem like a white reporter's judgment to make. Indeed the documentary convincingly suggests Simpson's ubiquity in ads helped build a bridge between two racial worlds that no other figure in US society would have been able to do. In this way he presaged the domination of Michael "Republicans buy sneakers too" Jordan a few years later.

It's impossible to overstate how racist the commercial world he walked into was - ad man Fred Levinson says in an interview conducted recently, "He's African but he's a good-looking man. He almost has white features" - an appalling statement uttered entirely guilelessly. Those kind of doors would not easily have opened.

But while there were undeniably positive flow on effects from Simpson's public profile, you get the feeling they were incidental to the mission - that he was about OJ, first and foremost. His first years as a pro, stuck in the backblocks of the NFL, were the first real struggle he had known as an athlete. It was only when a new coach made him centre of the offence in 1973 that he ascended to the mythic figure he had always felt destined to become. "This is correct, this is the natural state of things," he said after he had smashed a 10-year-old record to become the first man to rush for over 2000 yards in a single NFL season.

OJ Simpson in a recent photo provided by the Nevada Department of Corrections. Photo/AP
OJ Simpson in a recent photo provided by the Nevada Department of Corrections. Photo/AP

After he accomplishes that feat we see him in a post-match interview, bringing his teammates into the room and naming each one for the camera. He's imperious, charming, omnipotent: a man for whom nothing is beyond his reach. Yet all the while we know what awaits him down the road.

The documentary barely mentions the crime, yet it hangs ominous throughout. So even when, toward the end, he retires to pursue an acting career, and impresses almost straight from the gate, we sense trouble brewing. As mournful strings and piano figures play, Nicole Brown - beautiful but just 18 - enters the picture.

We all know what tragedy looms. Yet watching it play out is irresistibly compelling television.

- NZ Herald

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