Barry Saunders

An O.J. documentary holds no appeal for me – Saunders

O.J. Simpson, center, clenches his fists in victory after the jury said he was not guilty in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in a Los Angeles courtroom. Attorneys F. Lee Bailey, left, and Robert Shapiro, right, look on.
O.J. Simpson, center, clenches his fists in victory after the jury said he was not guilty in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in a Los Angeles courtroom. Attorneys F. Lee Bailey, left, and Robert Shapiro, right, look on. AP

Somebody help a brother out.

First, when did “Is that a thing” become a thing?

Second, when did O.J. become a thing – again?

In recent months, you can hardly turn on the old Philco without seeing a movie, a miniseries or a documentary on the bigheaded football player-turned-inmate.

Like those annoying friends who boast that they haven’t eaten red meat in 20 years, I – being a person of admittedly modest achievement – boast of having not watched a show about O.J. in 20 years. Now, that’s an accomplishment, especially now, when we’re being inundated with stuff about him.

There was, the same year as the 1995 trial, “The O.J. Simpson Story,” then last year, for the 20th anniversary, there was “The Secret Tapes of the O.J. Case: The Untold Story.” This year, we got the FX miniseries “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” Who among us can forget “Orenthal: The Musical”?

Most recently, there was ESPN’s “O.J. Made In America,” a more-than-500-minute documentary on everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Simpson and more.

Tongue-kissing a snaggletoothed llama with a mouthful of half-digested Oreos seems more appealing than watching 500 minutes of anything Simpson-related, but if I were going to watch an O.J.-inspired show, this would be the one. For one thing, it was made by Ezra Edelman, nephew of the late Julian Wright, a brilliant sixth-grade science teacher at Leak Street School in Rockingham.

Brilliant isn’t a term used lightly here, because Mr. Wright actually managed to teach me some scientific stuff that I still remember.

Ezra Edelman’s mother is Bennettsville, S.C., native Marian Wright Edelman, the saintly social activist and head of the Children’s Defense Fund, and his father was a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who quit in protest when President Bill Clinton cynically declared war on welfare recipients to bolster his re-election chances.

The dude obviously comes from good stock, so odds are the ESPN documentary he made is nuanced and revelatory.

Remember in the movie “Pulp Fiction” when Vincent Vega told his murderous-but-non-pork-eating partner-in-crime Jules Winfield “bacon tastes good, pork chops taste good”?

Jules’ response: “Sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie but I’ll never know” because he wasn’t going to eat it.

Likewise, Edelman’s masterwork may turn out to be the greatest cinematic achievement since “Disco Godfather,” but I’ll never know because life is too short to watch 10 hours of O.J.

Besides that, my sacroiliac is still scarred from the vituperation unleashed upon me 20 years ago when I dared wonder aloud why this touchdown-making Negrophobe had become a racial touchstone and why so many black people were rallying to his defense.

“You know what, Saunders?” starts a voicemail I have kept since then, to listen to whenever I start feeling too happy, “It’s not O.J. who has a problem with blackness: it’s YOU.”

Say what? Was O.J. some kind of civil rights icon or persecuted freedom fighter in cleats instead of, as I noted, someone who’d fled his blackness the way a snail flees an overturned salt shaker?

New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte told this Simpson anecdote on ESPN recently:

Comedian Chris Rock summed up perfectly the response to the Simpson verdict, responses anyone of age witnessed: some white people were too sad about it – as though Simpson were the first person to get away with murder – and some black people were too happy, as though, Rock said, we were all going to receive in the mail an O.J. check. Mine must’ve gotten lost.

“(Simpson) overheard a white woman at the next table saying, ‘Look, there’s O.J. sitting with all those (N-words).’ I remember in my naiveté, saying to O.J., ‘Gee, wow, that must have been terrible for you.’ And he said, ‘No, it was great. Don’t you understand? She knew that I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J.’”

Oy. “I’m not black; I’m O.J.” is a quote often attributed to Simpson. Yet, this is the guy whose “not guilty” verdict elicited jubilation from some blacks? Why?

Comedian Chris Rock summed up perfectly the response to the Simpson verdict, responses anyone of age witnessed: some white people were too sad about it – as though Simpson were the first person to get away with murder – and some black people were too happy, as though, Rock said, we were all going to receive in the mail an O.J. check. Mine must’ve gotten lost.

I remember irresponsible television networks seeking to stoke ratings and racial animus by showing students at Howard University erupting into cheers and white people gasping in absolute horror when the “Not guilty” verdict was announced.

I didn’t share in the euphoria, but I understood it.

I didn’t share in the horror, either, and I never understood that.

Had any of the TV reporters covering the emotional eruption bothered to ask, everyone else would have understood the cheers, too.

Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University professor, culture critic and the smartest dude I know, told me that anyone familiar with the L.A. Police Department and its relationship with black and brown Los Angelenos would have understood the wariness with which the department was regarded. They would have thus also understood that – hell yes – that cop might have indeed dropped that glove.

Neal, who watched the documentary so I didn’t have to, called O.J. the “antithesis of athletes like Jim Brown” who actually stood for something, and said the misinterpreted “jubilation” wasn’t so much for Simpson – “we didn’t love O.J. because we knew O.J. didn’t love us,” he said, “but a celebration of Johnnie Cochran’s genius.”

Cochran was already revered for righteously battling the L.A. PoPo way before he became the most berated and beloved barrister in America for getting Simpson off.

Real journalists would have explained that the reason for the seemingly incongruous reaction – remember, two people were murdered – was that, for once, it seemed the system worked in favor of a black man, even a nominal one such as Simpson. Even before cellphone cameras became omnipresent and documented it, we knew that not all cops were Officer Friendly or Dudley Do-Right, and many of those jumping jubilantly for O.J. probably have fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins in the joint right now doing time for crimes they didn’t commit.

They, however, lacked O.J.’s money and adulation.

That’s why there were cheers for the O.J. verdict: O.J., as Neal pointed out, had nothing to do with it.

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