White Lies: HBO gets it half right
HBO's latest sports documentary says it's an examination of race relations throughout O.J. Simpson's life, a "Study in Black and White." Actually, it's a study in white. It toes a media party line that white is right and black is base. There are knowing lines within the documentary, but they are blunted by an overall naivete.
The documentary's most honest trait is its brevity -- some 49 minutes in length. Why? Because, when you get down to to it, at the center of O.J. Simpson, there was nothing there. Nada. If ever there was not only a colorless but soulless man, it was him.
O.J. has made a career out of fooling people.
This is disingenuous. O.J. tried and almost succeeded at being everything but a black guy -- and, more important, his own guy.
He fooled himself. He fooled white people. But he didn't fool very many black people. Not the ones who knew him well, anyway.
O.J. Simpson could be and often was base. Jim Brown knew it. Harry Edwards knew it. His first wife Marguerite (whom he stole from his black "best friend," Al Cowlings) knew it. I learned it. To people like us, there was no arguing it.
But not to white people, especially the captains of industry Juice performed for. His off-screen antics made Stepin Fetchit look like Frederick Douglass.
No, we were all the difficult ones. We were the ones who didn't understand how to be, how to go along to get along. If a black man is grinning all the time, being obsequious, that is seen as some kind of righteousness; meanwhile, those seeing it that way never seem to understand that no person can live a life of mental duplicity for very long without something beginning to slip upstairs.
In the doc, former sociology professor at Cal-Berkeley Harry Edwards says Simpson, "bought the hype," because it brought him a rich lifestyle. Juice played long before the big multi-million dollar contracts. Yet he lived like a prince. Traits like self-respect, personal responsibility, personal excellence, not just on a playing field, and community responsibility and plain common sense have nothing to do with fooling people.
O.J. fooled a lot of people.
Few of them were black.
One of my writing colleagues -- and I mean no disrespect -- got juked by O.J. worse than any UCLA defender ever was. This colleague truly despises more reluctant superstars like Barry Bonds, because he isn't skinning and grinning and doing the Kirby Puckett dance all the time. But that macabre tarantella carries a price. O.J., man, what a guy!, thinks the author. O.J. even gave him the epigram of one of his books, talking about character, and how it was the only thing that really mattered. Well, the only reason O.J. said that was he knew it would impress some sucker.
Simpson's legal team represented his wealth.
And who was he angry with? O.J.? No. Me! And people like me. He's the one who got fooled, but it was my fault.
But people -- mostly these were black people -- knew something was not right with O.J., for a long time before the gruesome double-murder on Bundy Drive in Brentwood in 1994.
White people were confused and let down (this seems to be the underlying theme of the doc), because white people had decided that O.J. Simpson was a "unifying symbol of all races." Black people didn't decide that. Black people didn't think that up. Black people didn't even believe that. Who was he unifying, and to what end?
Black people thought he was one hell of a running back, right up there with Jim Brown maybe. As a running back. No more. He never showed anything more. He never tried to. White people never noticed that, because the Juice did prove something to them. He proved he wanted to be like them, kind of, with them, tacitly felt the same way about black people as they did. Tacitly, he despised black people. He didn't want them around. He proved this all the way up until he committed a crime, a crime of privilege, and then got off for it. The getting-off part is pretty much beyond the experience of black people in America. But still, somehow, it's the black part that gets the blame. The doc seems unaware of this.
The documentary starts with a flawed premise: that O.J. Simpson was a "unifying symbol for all races." No, he wasn't. Sure, he went to USC, but outside of the football team, what did that have to do with black people? That soothed white people. And yes, he had no comment on the proposed boycott of the 1968 Olympics, but what did that have to do with black people? That soothed white people. Okay, he became a spokesman for Hertz, but, as the doc makes clear, what did that have to do with black people? Byron Lewis of Uniworld and former Hertz exec Jerry Burgdoerfer make it plain that Hertz was trying to reach, not black people, but white people, the business traveler. The director of the Hertz commercials makes it clear there was to be no interaction between Go, O.J., Go and black people in those commercials, whatsoever, for any reason.
Hertz wanted no "guilt" by association. But Juice had absolution.
Even after the double-murder, O.J. was treated not like a black person. I never heard of a black man being charged with a double murder having the handcuffs taken off him, and being set free, and being told he could turn himself in next Tuesday, or the Friday after Thanksgiving, or whatever. I never heard of a black man being in a 30-mph freeway "car chase." I never heard of a black man who could have and probably should have gone to trial in the wealthy, nearly all-white enclave where the crime happened, Brentwood -- or at least in Santa Monica -- suddenly having his trial venue changed to downtown Los Angeles, the homecourt of one of the best trial lawyers in the business, who happened to be black, and where the jury pool would have many more potential jurors of color (the better to be blamed for the Not Guilty verdict, which, on the face of the evidence presented in court, was totally inevitable).
The alleged planting of evidence was one of many debated variables in the Simpson trial.
And it surely wasn't black people who hinged the prosecution case on the testimony of Mark Fuhrman, who diddled with evidence and could so easily and legitimately be portrayed as a racist cop. (Fuhrman was so smart, compared to the "niggers" he so despises, that one day, he may go on and discover the antidote for penicillin).
Don't kid yourself. If white people, the big movers and shakers, had really wanted O.J. Simpson convicted, then he would have been. But he wasn't. So, his was a crime of privilege.
Don't be hauling him back over here with the unprivileged now, tacitly blaming black people in the country who didn't know if Juice did it or not, only that their uncle or brother or son was once railroaded and looked like him. Don't show a roomful of law students cheering a verdict and say they are not cheering Johnnie Cochran. Bernie Goldberg comes close here, when he says the cheering black people were cheering not O.J., but that the system took it right between the eyes. Close, but no cigar. Consciously or not, they were cheering Johnnie Cochran, for winning the legal exercise.
The documentary does slip in some points. You just need to be able to translate them. This doc needs a lot of social sub-titles.
Harry Edwards says, "His sentiments were, 'I'm not black, I'm O.J.' " (Those sentiments were echoed, not by blacks, but whites).
The doc quickly brings Juice up from Louisiana roots through his delinquent teenage years, through his junior college football exploits, to his arrival at conservative, private, bone-white (except for clean-shaven football players) USC.
Juice was always cunning. He saw what few black people were privileged to see at the time. He saw the Network, the Chamber, how USC grads could hook him up with Hertz, the movies, TV, the Ritz-Carlton, the willowy blonde women, anything he wanted.
Everyone admired Simpson's athletic prowess.
HBO: "His success had special meaning for black Americans."
On the football field ... yes, it did. In the boardrooms ... no, it didn't.
The documentary should say that. But it seems difficult for it to admit, maybe because it really doesn't appear to know that.
In the later '70s, I worked with a young white man from Buffalo in the newspaper business out in Cali. He told me one day that in a bar in Buffalo he had heard Juice tell a willowy young blonde, "Hey baby, s--- my c---." I was na´ve then, and blew it off, saying, "We don't talk like that." I figured Juice had more game than that.
We? Little did I know, then.
I met Juice later. We worked on the same set of NBC's "NFL Live" in 1989. That's where I got to know him. You don't need all the gory details here. He played a little game for the bosses, involving stories of sexual exploits, titty bars and what-not. Part of his role was to belittle ... if not outright destroy ... any other so-called black person in the vicinity. Even back then, Jim Brown told me, "You better watch him, Wiley. That m-----f-----'s dangerous."
The HBO doc purports that O.J. opened all these doors in TV and cinema. No, he didn't. If it had been up to Juice, nobody would have gone through those doors except him. Jim Brown, Woody Strode, Michael Warren opened doors. Jim had already been a movie star. His filmography comes up short when compared to Denzel Washington's, but with "The Dirty Dozen," "Ice Station Zebra" and "100 Rifles" alone, he did way more than Juice.
Juice's great role was bamboozling white folks. And himself.
He began to "buy the hype," as Harry Edwards said, meaning he thought he had a divine right, divine privileges. Once, one of his producers told me he said he thought he was the son of God. I'd tried to throw Juice a rope. "Well, we're all children of God," I said. "No," said the producer. "He said the son of God."
Jim Brown knew how much clout Simpson carried.
Oh, by the way, Lee Bailey, Shepard's lawyer, was referred to Simpson's case. And it wasn't a black person who referred him.
So you can see why it seems disingenuous to me to call the doc a "Study in Black and White," and then watch as it studies mostly how black people somehow are to blame or should carry guilt for this mess, that this evil is somehow inherent in them.
Like it or not, this is part -- and the worst part -- of the doc's inference. The doc states that 70 percent of black people thought O.J. was innocent, and 70 percent of white people thought he was guilty. All I know is, I didn't get polled. Amiri Baraka didn't get polled. You can't get any blacker than Baraka, and yet, he said, when asked (and not by white people), "I know the bastard did it." Didn't see that on "60 Minutes," did you. Mr. T must not have been polled. In his Clubber Lang persona, he told Juice he should 'fess up ... like he would, or something. Jim Brown wasn't polled. Neither were a great many others who weren't shown. The doc doesn't portray this ambiguity, preferring to take the easy percentile way out.
One hoped the documentary would be above the simple pandering of the national media, which ran with handhelds to know-nothings in places like the Bronx or D.C., thousands of miles from the trial and O.J., and asked, "Say, do you think O.J. did it?" What do you expect to hear from these people? They were not informed about the case. They had no clue, other than historical precedent.
In fact, only the people in the courtroom heard all the evidence. I just happened to hear it all, because I went out to assist Johnnie Cochran in the writing of a book immediately after the trial.
Was JC aware of my experiences with O.J.? Yes. I had detailed them in a book called "Dark Witness." Cochran still hired me.
He couldn't help it. Not after I pitched him. I told him, compared to him, old Atticus Finch had a day at the beach. It's one thing to uphold the nobility of your profession and its basic tenet that every person deserves the finest representation that can be mounted in his or her defense for a innocent black man in the Deep South of the 1950s who is wrongly accused of murder, while knowing he will never be judged innocent in a court of law, no matter what you do. It's quite another thing to uphold the basic tenet of your profession for a black man who is guilty of something, and then have the skill, facility and wherewithal to do your job and get him off in what had become the racial cauldron of mid-'90s -- Los Angeles.
A defense attorney's job is "not guilty." Period. Moral judgments are for editorialists, not lawyers. But apparently white Americans can't go there. They can't admit that the defense attorneys were better than the prosecution, kicked their royal butts and won the intellectual exercise on its face. No. So we're back to Square One.
We've socially retrenched, thanks to a so-called "unifying symbol."
O.J. still longs for the limelight.
I couldn't agree more. The murder itself was a common crime of passion. So The Trial of O.J. Simpson, the Schism in Black and White, was utterly convenient. Not for black people. It allowed white Americans to express emotions already held, to help make liberal or progressive politics into dirty, fearsome, obscene words.
Hitler would've been fascinated by the The Trial of O.J. Simpson, too. He would've had Leni Reinfenstahl make propaganda of it. To wit:
Mary Jo Kane, a sport sociologist at the University of Minnesota said, "Up until that point (Simpson) had been accepted in white American's homes like no other black athlete had ever been accepted. So one could make the argument that he was one of us, quote unquote ... the minute he gets into a jam of his own making, what does he do? He falls back on the race card. So you really aren't one of us when it gets down to it, you are one of them."
Them? What them? Why? Because of a heinous crime of passion murder he tried to beat? I think that makes him a Kennedy. I think it makes him a Skakel. I think it makes him one of us. All of us.
The crime itself had no racial component. During the months of the trial, I kept clippings of crimes similar to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and the unfortunate Ron Goldman, mostly committed by men, often spouses, against women, often their wives. I stopped after three months. Why? I was running out of storage space.
These crimes of passion happen every day. They know no color.
So who or what made it about color? Was it Simpson? Was it the fascination, then disappointment, whites had in him? Was it Mark Fuhrman? Lee Bailey? Johnnie Cochran? Media? Documentaries?
To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca": Of all the innocent black men who rotted in jails or swung from trees for "crimes" they didn't commit all over the landscape through this bloody century and the entire history of the country, out of all those doomed, forgotten people, this is the guy who gets off?
Surely this is the most terrible irony of my lifetime. And one day, maybe, someone will examine it all, thoroughly, clinically and clearly, in a documentary film.
Apparently, that day is not yet here.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."