On September 30, 1995, I attended the premiere of Allen and Albert Hughes 's second feature film, Dead Presidents. As the haunting sounds of Isaac Hayes's "Walk On By" filled the theater, I was moved by the film's enthralling, though depressing, conclusion. Larenz Tate's character, Anthony Curtis, rode off into the abyss that has prematurely claimed the lives of so many African American men, the penitentiary.
The following morning, I stood in the main office of the Critical Studies Department at the USC Cinema School with an assembled crowd of curious onlookers, only one other of whom was Black. We were all waiting on the outcome of a criminal case that had occupied the public mind for well more than a year, a case that had clearly come to stand for much more than whether or not a former football great had murdered his ex-wife and her unsuspecting friend.
As that now too familiar female voice stumbled over the name Orenthal on her way to announcing O.J. Simpson's acquittal on all murder charges, an air of tension clouded the room. The original curiosity that had filled the room had transformed into a quiet hostility. A real‐ life O.J. Simpson, in a case that existed somewhere between fact and fiction, had somehow escaped the fate that a fictional Anthony Curtis had been unable to avoid the night before.
Though the room was overcrowded, my eyes were drawn to Casandra, the departmental secretary, the other African American in the room. As if we were speaking some sort of silent language, we were pulled to each other amid the grunts and moans of disgust and disbelief that the others were exchanging, almost as if we weren't even in the room. Though this case was far more complicated than this moment and the aftermath would tell, it will somehow always be reducible to a smile or a frown, depending on where you were coming from.
As someone who is often accused of "intimidating" whites, I seldom have the opportunity to be afraid of anything myself. But that day, even I felt the need to watch my step. I didn't even want anyone to see me smile, for fear of being guilty by association. People with whom I had