By: Leah Steinke
When O.J. Simpson took off in his buddy A.C.’s white Ford Bronco on June 17th, 1994, he revved the engine of what became the 3rd most memorable televised moment in the past 50 years, following the September 11th attacks and footage from Hurricane Katrina. Simpson took over cable news broadcasting as he and his former teammate, Al Cowlings, led the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on a 50-mile slow-speed car chase, so much so that Dominos released a statement regarding their spike in sales that evening, comparing it to the amount of business seen on the Super Bowl. LAPD sought to arrest O.J. for the double murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman. Now, two decades later, O.J.’s drawn out journey from arrest to acquittal has resurfaced on the national level once again with FX’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson, a 10-week “anthology series” meant to showcase the real, behind the scenes, never before heard aspects of this life changing case, not only for those involved but for those that followed along through news coverage. The series has been described as, “hyper-real, hypnotic, and more relevant now than ever.” While there are sure to be some differences and embellishments transferring the story from real life to a scripted television series, for a 1994 baby like myself, I am learning many more details that drove this case to the infamous not-guilty verdict than I had realized even played a part.
The event and trial the followed Simpson’s arrest sparked racial tensions throughout the country, causing many black men and women to question the validity of the claims brought against Simpson, insisting his innocence. On the surface, the O.J. Simpson case fit seamlessly into the pre-existing narrative of the LAPD targeting and unjustly treating African Americans in the Los Angeles area. Quickly the defense team behind O.J. Simpson, led by Johnny Cochrane, Robert Shapiro, and Robert Kardashian, to frame O.J.’s defense around unjust and unfair treatment and targeting by the LAPD officers involved. Framing as a means of defense feel natural in a courtroom, Entman (1993) defines framing as, “to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text.” Frames do four things; define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments, and suggest remedies. In this case, the frame pushed and used by the defense team was that O.J. Simpson was not only being accused of murder, but was also being set up by the LAPD, because he was a black man in Los Angeles. The defense team built the racial frame used in court off of the public opinion of the black community. In my opinion, using this frame in court reinforced and gave value to the black community and their feelings, likely making them stronger. Many times through the FX series, viewers overhear and witness members of the surrounding black communities insisting on Simpson’s innocence. There is one scene, before Chris Darden is officially brought onto the prosecution’s team as the token black member, in which Darden and some neighbors are watching the Bronco chase. Darden, quiet in nature (or at least presented that way in the series), mostly listens and observes, but his neighbors are adamant that O.J. is innocent and cheering him on as he and A.C. refuse to pull over.
Basing this analysis on what has been released by the FX series up until this point, there is one significant example of the defense team’s use of framing to increase O.J.’s public appeal within the black community, but specifically for the primarily black jury. What makes this racial frame so unique and interesting to study, in my opinion as someone who is experiencing this trial through the FX series for the first time, is that up until June 14th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was a black man living happily in a white man’s world. O.J. is even quoted stating that he “is not black, he’s O.J.” Simpson’s extreme success in football left him in a very comfortable financial position. Evaluating this level of framing through the four qualities listed above, the problem defined in the eyes of the defense was that O.J. in his natural habitat was not relatable to the average black individual. Simpson did not live in a black community; in fact he was nicknamed the “Mayor of Brentwood,” an affluent, almost exclusively white community outside of Los Angeles. When the jury is able to visit Simpson’s Rockingham estate, the FX show portrays the defense team making significant changes to the décor of the home. The show portrays Cochrane walking through the Rockingham estate, viewing the memorabilia and pictures hung, saying to himself, “This won’t do at all.” Pictures were taken out, portraits brought in; FX showcases the change by stressing the African art that allegedly was brought in “on loan from the Cochrane collection.” Regardless of the specific accuracy of what was or was not brought in by the defense team to alter the appearance of the Rockingham estate, alterations were made and they were done in order to stress a level of cultural connection between O.J. Simpson and the black, minority jurors. The FX series seems to take this as an opportunity to showcase the socioeconomic difference between O.J. and the people he was “representing” as a black man, as well as the jurors the defense was counting on to empathize and connect with him on a racial level.
This element of O.J.’s life is important to understand while witnessing as the defense unfolds their attempt in humanizing O.J. on a level appropriate and acceptable to the black community – because it really is just that, an attempt. O.J. had nothing in common with the people that were insisting his innocence, the people that were defending him because he was black and being accused of such a heinous crime by the LAPD. The FX series showcases the most adamant support coming from the poor black communities of Los Angeles, communities that the lead prosecutor on the case Marcia Clark insisted on the show O.J. did not donate a penny to. Redecorating O.J.’s house was just one of many tactics examined in the show in order to make O.J. appear more black.
Make Moral Judgments
To see how much something like race can transcend barriers of moral judgment and the way in which an individual is seen or valued is crazy. White and black people alike worshiped O.J. because of his skills on the field. But off the field, O.J., according to the FX series, did nothing for “his” black community. He was more likely to be found playing golf with all wealthy, white men, or canoodling with a young, white woman. Johnny Cochrane and team were able to convince viewers and community members to see past that, to really take O.J. in as one of their own, in part because of mistakes the prosecution had made.
What Cochrane and team did was wrong. Playing the race card may have led to the courtroom they were fighting for, but it did nothing to help the pre-existing racial tension. The O.J. Simpson case should not be seen as a win for the black community in the fight against police authority. Instead, this case should be viewed as an unfortunate exploitation of a community that was truly struggling at the time it occurred, and still struggles to this day. The individuals who were fighting for O.J. outside of the courtroom, spreading messages of his innocence and rioting on his behalf, thought they were fighting the same battle but they weren’t. Far from it. O.J. Simpson and his defense team evaded a seemingly crystal clear conviction of guilty, for a few reasons, but partly because they took advantage of the real life struggle of millions of individuals every day. That is not a proud legacy.