One of the most exciting things about OJ: Made in America is that you can see our larger narratives shifting before your eyes: this isn’t the decontextualized story of Heismans and yards gained (we get those, but they’re not the center), but rather the life of O.J. Simpson writ against its real backdrop: Black Power and the athletes who supported it, from Muhammad Ali to John Carlos (but not, never, O.J.); LAPD violence from Watts to Eula Mae Love to Rodney King; the interplay of race, celebrity, and advertising that he navigated with as much if not more dexterity than he did the football field; and the ways the media, professional athletics, and even police collude to ignore and enable violence against women.
While its eight hours never once drag, the documentary isn’t perfect, and I wish it had developed that last point more; while the film offers bracing racial analysis, director Ezra Edelman shies away from a necessary confrontation with the longstanding athletic tradition of shielding abusers, such that football and blaxploitation star Jim Brown gets a nod for his courageous Black Power activism, but escapes accountability for his own long, ugly history of violence and sexual assault of women. O.J.’s abuse and eventual murder of Nicole Brown Simpson didn’t happen in a vacuum, it happened within an institutional history that runs through Ray Rice and into the present day. There’s a whole Wikipedia page on the topic. More feminist input would have strengthened Made in America.
I’m also a little surprised the film barely glances at the famous “blackened” Time cover—we see it, but it doesn’t get explained, and while everyone who has a lived memory of the Simpson case surely remembers that shameful episode of media racism, younger viewers might not, and given Made in America’s very sharp analysis of Simpson’s own blackness-averse racial identity, there are all sorts of layers of irony and needed critique that get whisked over here.
But still: flaws notwithstanding, this is dynamite filmmaking, and Edelman deserves to be placed alongside Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler among the new generation of filmmakers pushing the rotten mass media and culture industry into some acknowledgement of the obvious yet still-threatening fact that #BlackLivesMatter.
So this is a pretty minor footnote to the film’s powerful narrative, but still, something I hadn’t realized: that first Hertz commercial was shot at Newark airport! The film takes care to develop this story, beginning with its original storyboard featuring a white businessman.
Adman Fred Levinson is shockingly self-unaware in the film, as he explains how that businessman morphed into Simpson, thus setting a precedent in using black characters to sell products to a majority-white consumer base: “He’s African, but he’s a good-looking man. He almost has white features.” Wait, what?! Ugh.
But Levinson goes on: the fact that O.J. was very distanced from Black Power or even politics at all wasn’t enough, nor was the fact that he vocally disidentified himself from blackness, period (and I should note that, while I have no trouble judging O.J. Simpson in a broader sense, as a white person it’s not my place to issue value judgments of this particular aspect of his identity, or of the way any person of color reacts to living in a white-supremacist society); what the commercial needed to psychologically calm white viewers was the planting of a bunch of encouraging white faces, cheering, “go, O.J., go!” It’s a reflection of a sad, sick society, but as marketing, it is brilliant. They certainly poured some resources into it:
Looks like they shot it in July 1975:
The Hertz ads debuted in September 1975 and had different meanings for different viewers. Hertz’s CEO (white, naturally) shows up to declare O.J. “colorless,” a classic white racial dodge (if, in this case, one Simpson himself supported). But novelist Walter Mosley (a personal fave here for his great Easy Rawlins detective novels that match James Ellroy’s in their doubling as social histories of L.A.) notes that for black viewers like himself, the ad was a breakthrough moment: “he looks like my uncle Reggie,” which was validating for the young Mosley even if Simpson offered little more political sustenance than simple representation and visibility; that’s not nothing, Mosley reminds us.
They went on to be incredibly successful, and also to cement Simpson’s public image as a smiling, affable gent. As far as I can tell, only the first ad, which you can watch on YouTube (I think this is the original), was shot at Newark airport, where according to this account, there was no need for crowd control yet:
So the O.J. Simpson Hertz ad joins, uh, Harry and Tonto in the Newark airport cinematic canon. I’m not sure it offers much new insight into the filmic representation of the Brick City, but it is a chilling reminder of the spaces of privilege and image-maintenance that helped shield this abusive murderer from accountability for so many years. I next fly out of Newark Liberty two days from now, and I expect this faux-charming ad to haunt me as I walk through it.
As do these. There are just no words.