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O.J. Simpson’s pop culture resurgence has reframed his celebrity — and the era of his downfall

As Simpson is granted parole, America sees him — and itself — differently, thanks to FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America.

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O.J. Simpson at his trial and an image from the poster from FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
O.J. Simpson at his trial and an image from the poster for FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In February 2014, a study from the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University analyzed Jay Leno’s jokes during his 12-year tenure as host of The Tonight Show. The goal was to see whom he’d targeted the most, separating political figures from celebrities.

To nobody’s surprise — given that Leno hosted the show from 1992 to 2014 — the No. 1 political figure Leno targeted was Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton came in at No. 5. And the No. 1 celebrity target?

O.J. Simpson, of course.

The former football star, and his high-profile murder case, didn’t just dominate headlines for most of 1995. He was, for years, a surefire way to land a punchline for comedians ranging from Leno to Dana Carvey to Chris Rock to Dave Chappelle, not to mention The Simpsons. His sensational 11-month murder trial, and all of the weird, instantly iconic moments surrounding it — the white Ford Bronco, the glove, the media’s fixation on Marcia Clark’s appearance, the spectacle of it all — gave comedians too much fodder to ignore.

Jay Leno’s “Dancing Itos,” based on Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson.
Jay Leno’s “Dancing Itos,” based on Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

The actual details of the case started to recede from public memory shortly after Simpson’s 1995 acquittal, bubbling up again only periodically: in 1997, when a civil case was decided against Simpson; in 2006, when his “hypothetical confession,” a book called If I Did It, was announced by a publisher and then rejiggered after outcry; and in 2007 and 2008, when Simpson was arrested and later convicted of multiple felonies in a case involving a Las Vegas robbery, for which he was sentenced to 33 years in prison. He’s been serving time in a Nevada penitentiary since then.

Simpson, who turned 70 on July 9, appeared before the Nevada Parole Board on Thursday to seek early release from prison. His request was granted, and his parole is slated to begin in October. Guards have called him a model inmate. All of the major news networks as well as ESPN provided coverage of and commentary on the hearings. And, taking it up a notch, Fox News engaged the notoriously racist ex-cop Mark Fuhrman to provide commentary.

By law, the parole board can’t factor Simpson’s murder case into its decision, nor was the murder case allowed as a consideration during Simpson’s 2007-’08 trial for the incident in Las Vegas.

But this is O.J. Simpson. Prior to last year, many people under the age of 35 had little more than a vague memory of Simpson’s murder trial being splashed across the tabloid headlines next to the Snickers bars at the grocery store; what they grew up knowing was that Simpson probably murdered someone, and he was a punchline. When he went to jail for an entirely unrelated crime in 2008, they may not have even remembered that he was once a football star.

My, how times have changed. In 2016, O.J. Simpson experienced an extraordinary pop cultural rebirth, and became so integral to the cultural conversation in the ensuing year that Jay-Z recently rapped about (and dissed) Simpson in a whole track, “The Story of O.J.,” on his new album, 4:44:

The story of O.J. was inescapable in 2016, because two high-profile, highly lauded TV series — one documentary, one docudrama — premiered in the first half of the year, and then raked in awards at the Emmys, Oscars, and Golden Globes. But FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America were not only critically acclaimed; separately and together, they crystallized many of the forces from the 1990s that came roaring back during 2016.

Both of those series revealed what made O.J. Simpson but also many of the fault lines and rails that are still live issues today, and they reinterpreted Simpson to a new generation. For people watching at home, they served as reintroductions not just to the real story of Simpson the punchline, but to the 1990s too.

Now, as Simpson faces parole, public perception of him is through an entirely new lens, and one that feels directly relevant to 2017.

O.J. Simpson’s murder trial happened in the midst of a turbulent time

If you were born in 1980, you were only 15 when O.J. was convicted. You were only 12 years old when Nicole Brown Simpson filed for divorce, three months before Leno took over The Tonight Show in 1992. He started hosting just weeks after the Rodney King riots ended and just weeks before his future favorite punching bag, Bill Clinton, would be named the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. Later that year, you could have seen Home Alone 2: Lost in New York in movie theaters, featuring a cameo from real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Anyone who was 12 in 1992 couldn’t have anticipated what would happen two years later: that on June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman would turn up dead outside of Brown’s Brentwood condo, stabbed to death, and that the “trial of the century” would follow. Nobody anticipated the media circus and nationwide fascination with the 11-month case against the former star, or the long shadow it would cast.

O.J. Simpson, as pictured in ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America series.
O.J. Simpson, as pictured in ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America series.

The trial of O.J. Simpson brought together many factors that had been fomenting in the country for years. Racial tensions and suspicions about police bias were finally breaking into the consciousness of the country at large. Cults of celebrity built around fame in sports, onscreen, and for its own sake were reaching new heights. It was clear that the justice system treated both white people and wealthy people differently from everyone else. Uproar over the double standard that American society applied to men and to women, especially professional women, was no longer considered only a matter for fringe politics. And the urge to televise and sensationalize news that didn’t really help anyone, because of ratings, was turning news into infotainment.

All of these factors came together in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. But it’s always hard to really make out what’s happening in the moment. More than 20 years after Simpson’s acquittal, though, things became more clear. In many ways, the 1990s sketched out the blueprint for America circa 2016 — not just the Clinton shenanigans and the Simpson trial and the Rodney King riots, but all kinds of events, fears, rhetoric, and personalities.

The People v. O.J. Simpson fleshed out characters who had previously been two-dimensional

FX’s scripted drama The People v. O.J. Simpson came at the Simpson story by casting actors in the roles of the “characters” people remember from watching the trial on TV. (As some critics have written, it’s not a stretch to say that the wall-to-wall trial coverage, with its twists and cliffhangers, invented the way we watch TV today.) The show even brilliantly cast actors we tend to associate with the 1990s on O.J’s side of the courtroom: John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, with Cuba Gooding Jr. as the Juice himself.

The People vs. O.J. Simpson
John Travolta, David Schwimmer, and Cuba Gooding Jr. in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson.

This character-based approach was a good tactic for digging into O.J.’s story, because it not only let viewers experience what was happening but asked them to assemble the pieces themselves. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff put it:

The story, in other words, is sort of like a Venn diagram intersection of every single issue that gets under this country's skin and makes it act up. That's part of why the case monopolized the national dialogue in the mid-'90s. But The People vs. O.J. Simpson doesn't overplay its hand. It relies on the audience to tease out most of these ideas, focusing on the strange ironies and odd moments at the heart of the story.

It was particularly helpful in the case of lead prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and co-prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), both of whom came in for brutal, public criticism during the trial. A televised trial does the exact opposite of humanizing its participants; instead, it reduces them to the two-dimensional figures we see on our TV screens. And because we’re seeing them in the same medium as a soap opera or a court drama, we think about them the same way: as characters to be discussed and dissected. We think we can psychologize them.

But of course, we can’t. The People v. O.J. Simpson humanized Clark and Darden — and, in many ways, the rest of the trial’s major players, especially Kardashian — by letting them reclaim their own stories in the same medium in which they were introduced to us. If you’ve watched The People v. O.J. Simpson, you’ll never think of Clark again without thinking of Paulson’s interpretation of her: strong, determined, and totally shattered by what she encounters both inside the courtroom and outside of it.

The People vs. O.J. Simpson
Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown play Marcia Clark and Chris Darden in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson.

Are these characters all “real”? Depends on what you mean by that. By nature, the show took liberties with some details, imagining conversations and interactions. It even slipped in the suggestion that Clark and Darden were romantically involved — because what’s a TV show without a romantic subplot, whether it’s an FX drama or a nationally televised murder trial?

Then again, the “characters” on TV during Simpson’s trial in 1995 weren’t “real,” either. They were just people doing their jobs while the whole country watched and judged them. They were as much figures built for fanfictions as actual living, breathing humans. The People v. O.J. Simpson may not have created perfectly accurate representations of those characters, but it did serve as a kind of reboot — and it gave to a generation of people too young to remember the trial (if they were even born when it happened) a new idea of who was involved.

O.J.: Made in America presented Simpson’s life as a window into American celebrity

It’s remarkable that The People v. O.J. Simpson and Ezra Edelman’s masterful documentary series O.J.: Made in America could have premiered mere months apart and neither one been ruined. But it worked. As VanDerWerff wrote:

It’s amazing how well the two projects complement each other, almost as if you couldn't get the full picture without watching both — even though they were produced completely independently.

Where The People v. O.J. focuses on the personalities involved in the trial and makes O.J. a cipher, Made in America turns the trial into just a smaller part of its overall tapestry ... It's focused on context and on Simpson himself, on the nation that could build up such a figure and then tear him down.

Each of Made in America’s five episodes is the length of a feature film. Where The People v. O.J. picks up just days before the murders, O.J.: Made in America stretches all the way back to the beginning of Simpson’s life. Using archival footage and interviews, it carefully traces the ways the football star’s talent — and the color of his skin — came together to create his particular celebrity, all while most other black Americans were having a very different kind of experience.

For people who are old enough to remember Simpson’s heyday as a USC football star and Heisman Trophy recipient, not to mention his career in the NFL, much of Made in America might feel more like a refresher than an education.

But — in a touch that seems almost too dramatically perfect — Simpson was awarded the Heisman in 1968, one of the most turbulent years in American history: a year lived in the shadow of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, high-profile political activism, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon.

In a key moment in Made in America, someone says that if you were at USC in 1968, all you remember is O.J. winning the Heisman. It’s a clue to the parallel existence that celebrity, fame, and money allowed Simpson to have, even after the murder trial.

O.J.: Made in America
O.J. Simpson at his trial.

Throughout its nearly eight-hour run time, O.J.: Made in America puts Simpson at the center of a cultural picture that’s pieced together from issues surrounding race, gender, celebrity, sports, Hollywood, advertising, the justice system, and the media. The result can only be a staggering conclusion: that when America made O.J., and then tore him down, it was the start of a kind of celebrity backlash cycle that only sped up as the internet and social media gained speed.

It’s depressing, but also illuminating to see the dots connected. None of these things have gone away. If anything, they’ve accelerated.

In 2016, everything old was new again. That was true for O.J. Simpson too.

If 2016 proved anything, it was that being famous — which is to say, being on TV a lot — is a great way to get away with more than your average American. It also conclusively proved that the 24/7 infotainment-driven news cycle, where the lines between what’s real and what’s fake are blurred so much that they’re just a mass of gray, can hamper journalism, politics, and the very nature of truth in huge ways.

And the social injustices that were roiling in the 1990s haven’t gone away. The Black Lives Matter movement, alongside staggering police-involved shootings, especially of young black men, has demonstrated that the struggle of black Americans for equal treatment under the law is far from over. Women have not yet reached equal footing in professional settings. Celebrity and wealth can still insulate defendants in court — including figures like Bill Cosby (whose Cosby Show ended in 1992, and whose trial for sexual assault ended with a deadlocked jury earlier this year) and R. Kelly (who won three Grammys in 1998 for “I Believe I Can Fly,” and was found not guilty of making child pornography in 2008).

But it’s also weird, and a little creepy, that many figures from the 1990s became major figures once again in 2016. It’s hard to ascribe Donald Trump purely to one decade, since he so assiduously kept himself in the limelight, but his preference for bombast and ornately gilded surroundings seems of a piece with the decade.

And then there were the Clintons. Without the 1990s, it’s hard to say what Hillary Clinton’s chances would have been in her presidential run against Trump, but it’s certainly true that much of the rhetoric against her had its roots in similar rhetoric from the 1990s, when you could wander down the beachside boardwalk in New Jersey on a summer night and see T-shirts emblazoned with lines like “I can’t stand President Clinton, or her husband Bill.” And in a surreal spectacle before one presidential debate, Trump brought several women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment and rape to a press conference.

Other figures popped up too, like Rudy Giuliani, who was a controversial mayor of New York City in the 1990s. Or Newt Gingrich, who was speaker of the House during much of Bill Clinton’s tenure and in 2016 became a Trump supporter. Or Trump confidant and adviser Roger Stone, who figured prominently in Republican politics in the 1990s until his tabloid appearances forced him out of the Bob Dole campaign and politics (but for only a short while).

Donald Trump Delivers Commencement Address At Liberty University
Donald Trump, pictured with Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., delivers the commencement address at Liberty in May 2017.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Even white evangelical support for Trump held echoes of the 1990s. The Moral Majority — founded by the now-late Jerry Falwell, father of huge Trump fan Jerry Falwell Jr. — was perhaps the organization most responsible for the marriage of white evangelical Protestantism in America to the Republican Party. And though it technically was disbanded in 1989, its influence still reached far into the 1990s, particularly in influencing opinion during the Clinton impeachment hearings.

Though the Moral Majority has never been revived, its influence is easy to spot in the 2016 election, which itself served as a retroactive referendum on the Majority’s former “character matters” proclamation as well as an indication of how out of step white evangelicals are with their nonwhite brethren in their perceptions of America.

The rails on which 2016 ran — and 2017 is running — were built in the 1990s, and they crystallized in the person of O.J. Simpson. But it was hard to detect, back then, what shape the future would take. From a distance, it’s clearer how all the pieces fit together.

And the revival of O.J.’s pop culture influence in 2016 means that “characters” we only experienced as TV courtroom figures (if we experienced them at all) are now different. Hopefully, they’re richer, fuller, and more complex — more person than caricature.

But even those shows shape the way we now see Simpson, as he comes up for parole as a 70-year-old man who probably never anticipated spending his life as both the embodiment and the target of America’s id. No longer is he the guy on the football field, or the guy in the courtroom, or the punchline on The Tonight Show.

Now O.J. Simpson is the centerpiece of America’s past and present psyche. And that may be a new evolution in what it means to be a celebrity made in America.

As William Faulkner wrote in 1951, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is available to stream on Netflix. O.J.: Made in America is available to stream on Hulu and digitally rent on Amazon.

This story was updated to reflect the results of Simpson’s parole hearing on July 20.

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