Tuesday, 15 March 2016

How OJ Simpson changed things

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The People vs OJ Simpson - a prime time dream

Three episodes into The People vs OJ Simpson, and you get struck by how much of a cultural moment his arrest and subsequent trial was back in 1994 to 1995.  How much of a big deal it was, how it was the only story of note of that year culminating in his eventual acquital of first degree murder on two counts against his estranged wife, Nicole and her new partner, Ronald Goldman.

The trial became such a cultural phenomenon because OJ Simpson was quite possibly the last famous sportsman or personality you would expect capable of murder or such a heinous violent act.  The modern day equivalent would be say Tom Brady or Russell Wilson killing their partners. And yet the notion of a famous former footballer being able of such a violent act was unheard of, and yet since the OJ trial we have had numerous incidences of pro footballers being engaged in violence. From the case against Ray Lewis to Aaron Hernandez, it is not uncommon to see footballers in orange jumpsuits and handcuffs.

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OJ's mug shot from 1994

Now the idea of a celebrity being above the law has fallen by the wayside, as we in the UK have learnt due to the ubiquity of Operation Yewtree and the fall-out of the Jimmy Saville scandal; those you believe to be pure and of entertainment, are just as capable of violence and depravity.

OJ Simpson's eventual imprisonment for armed robbery in Las Vegas came to the forefront the idea that these professional atheletes due to the serious hits and collisons they suffered on the gridiron, had a quite possible detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing and led to the uncovering of CTE trauma by NFL players.  The story goes that Simpson was such a physical specimen that they had to take the padding out of his helmet just so he could get it on to play, with no protection is it any wonder he might have suffered possible long-term damage to his brain.

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Certainly Cuba Gooding Jr's portrayal of Simpson, shows a man who is unable to handle pressure in everyday situations nor understand or make sense of his decision making which is both irrational and unsafe.

The trial of OJ Simpson altered the landscape of television news coverage and the idea of celebrity, prompting the birth of true crime as a means of profitability across magazines, television series, non-fiction books and various spin-offs.

If you were charged with murder, this was the new fifteen minutes of fame but not for doing something heroic or celebratory, but instead for something immoral and fundamentally wrong. Even if you were found innocent, the celebrity continued in terms of  'My side of the story...' biography or memoir, television appearances and sponsorships.

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And these spin offs occur for peripheral characters in the piece. Robert Kardashian, was OJ Simpson's attorney and confidante, who played a prominent role in Simpson's initial arrest as representation for him with Robert Shapiro; yet Kardashian's lineage and immortality continued due to the rise of his children's celebrity.

Mention of this appears in the series, when Mr. Kardashian takes his children to a Chinese restaurant and jump the long queue because the hostess recognises him from his albeit brief television appearance; the father makes sure that his children are aware that fame is only fleeting and that honour is more important. If only that were true, sir. David Schwimmer elicits real feeling in a character obviously conflicted over the behaviour of his best friend, and having to believe that maybe his friend is capable of such heinous acts.

Now you can throw all sorts of criticisms the way of the show. From the histrionic performances of John Travolta, who is being out acted by his eyebrows; to the casting of Gooding Jr., as Simpson himself, and yet the further into the series we go the better he is as OJ bringing that sense of vulnerability and determination you would expect but were never privy to twenty years ago.

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A good thing in the writing is the awareness of the main players role in a game-changing trial and piece of popular culture. The trial of OJ Simpson transcended all spectrums of culture, from politics to entertainment and sport to race relations between blacks and the police.  Members of the prosecution are aware of the possible risk of another race riot in Los Angeles should OJ be unfairly treated, and Shapiro mentions how the case is now part of the twenty four hour news cycle.

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In this country, Great Britain, it filled up the graveyard slot of Sky News after Newsnight had finished; and with the eight hour time difference we Britons got uninterrupted coverage of the afternoon sessions in Judge Ito's court. The era of sensational news coverage was born, Sky News had its Lindbergh baby.

OJ not only changed the way American football played, his acts during his retirement years had far reaching ramifications that no-one could have envisioned.

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