The fascination surrounding O.J. Simpson, from his triumphs to his disgraces, owes a debt to timing.
His knack for charging through a fleeting instant of defensive daylight helped fuel his success as one of football's greatest running backs. Simpson's acquittal on double murder charges in 1995 can be attributed, at least in part, to the tight chronology of the killings presented by prosecutors – as well as to the shadow of police mistrust cast by then-fresh memories of the Rodney King debacle.
The brilliant FX mini-series "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" arrived in February, packing added resonance and drawing power in the age of Black Lives Matter, a movement propelled to a great extent by police brutality caught on video. Now on Saturday, one day before the 22nd anniversary of the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America,” a five-part, seven-hour-plus “30 for 30” documentary, is set to make its TV debut.
The clock, it seems, never runs out on the O.J. Simpson story.
That’s fortunate, in a sense, because time’s biggest gift is perspective. The lightly fictionalized FX drama yielded insight in ways the live broadcast of the so-called Trial of the Century and all the endless news accounts and commentary of the period couldn't. "The People v. O.J. Simpson” also underscored how the case presaged our celebrity-saturated popular culture (giving us the first major dose of the Kardashian family) and round-the-clock coverage of non-world-shaking events, even before the internet dominated communications.
The new documentary, greeted by strong reviews, includes interviews with major players and attempts to put the trial into a context that’s clearer than two decades ago, but no less divisive amid a presidential election season awash in racially and ethnically charged battles.
The timing of “O.J.: Made in America,” premiering Saturday on ABC, also is playing out in at least one way that couldn’t have been predicted. The recent death of Muhammad Ali likely will be on the minds of many viewers, perhaps spurring some to contrast the divergent paths of two superstar contemporaries who transcended sports.
O.J. Simpson won the Heisman Trophy in 1968, a year after Ali ignited a firestorm by refusing to report for Army duty, citing religious principle, and months after U.S. Olympian runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos flashed the Black Power salute when receiving their medals. Simpson's emergence as a personable, seemingly non-controversial African-American athlete made him marketable to white America beyond football, giving him lucrative sidelines as a pitchman, sportscaster and actor that outlasted his NFL run.
Yet in July 1996, less than a year after Simpson’s acquittal made him a pariah to some former fans, Ali heard the cheers of America and the world as the boxing great, battling Parkinson’s disease, lit the Olympic cauldron to start the Atlanta Games. Times, circumstances and the country had changed greatly.
Simpson, imprisoned on a 2007 robbery rap, is no doubt counting the days to when he becomes eligible for parole late next year at age 70, boding a new chapter in his saga.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.