A Cultural Analysis: HBO Documentary Tackles O.J. Simpson

Article excerpt

Byline: Ted Cox

Great athletes don't just alter their teams and their sport; they alter society at large. Sometimes the changes they dictate are deliberate, as with Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali. Sometimes they simply reflect changes in the larger culture. Oftentimes, both dynamics are at play.

The HBO Sports documentary "O.J.: A Study in Black & White" subjects O.J. Simpson to that sort of cultural analysis. There is, after all, plenty of material to work with on the subject of Simpson. If the hourlong program doesn't exactly break any new ground, and in the end leaves off with the job unfinished, it is nevertheless a very good piece - a look at the United States as seen through the shifting prism of O.J. Simpson's rise and fall.

Debuting at 9 p.m. Tuesday on the premium-cable channel, "O.J." immediately reminds a viewer that great athletes don't captivate fans simply for their feats on the field, as heroic as they might be. Rather, there's an element of real-life myth that strikes a chord.

Simpson was born to parents who had fled to the San Francisco Bay area to escape Jim Crow in the South. His natural athletic ability and his friendly, confident personality gave him the tools to succeed, and his story was ready-made for the times. The documentary points out that, when Simpson was recruited by prestigious, elitist Southern Cal, he became a symbol - both to Los Angeles' black community and to the university and its alumni - of racial reconciliation following the Watts riots of 1965.

A national championship in 1967 and a Heisman Trophy the following year proved his ability on the field. Yet he also wanted success off the field. At a time when athletes from Ali to U.S. Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommy Smith were taking a confrontational stance, Simpson refused to rock the boat, instead using his USC contacts to enter acting and become an ad pitchman.

"I'm not black," one friend recalls him saying, "I'm O.J."

This was, in its own way, groundbreaking. Few blacks were product spokesmen in those days. And Simpson's acceptance did seem to reflect a new racial harmony. He was the first great star of the post-Robinson generation, a person who no longer had to break down walls but who found walls falling down in front of him. But his very acceptance only served to cover up how most blacks still had to struggle for equality.

"They tried to use O.J.' s image against all of us," says former NFL star and black activist Jim Brown.

While many teammates testify to how Simpson consistently worked to unify blacks and whites on the Buffalo Bills, he declined that role when it came to the society at large. …