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restricted access ‘‘I’m Not Black, I’m O.J.’’: Constructions, Productions, and Refractions of Blackness
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‘‘I’m Not Black, I’m O.J.’’: Constructions, Productions, and Refractions of Blackness Priscilla Walton and Jonathan Chau Abstract: The twentieth anniversary of O.J. Simpson’s 1995 double-murder trial not only renewed interest in the spectacle of the case but also reopened dialogue about the racialization of Simpson. This article takes on understandings of black masculinities that have evolved over the last two decades and reconsiders the ways in which the ‘‘blackness’’ of Simpson was produced. Keywords: race and Los Angeles, Simpson trial, Simpson miniseries, Simpson documentary, racial constructions, black male identities Résumé : Le 20e anniversaire du procès d’O.J. Simpson pour double meurtre, en 1995, n’a pas seulement réveillé l’intérêt pour ce cas spectaculaire, il a également rouvert la discussion sur la racialisation de Simpson. Cet article aborde les différentes formes de la masculinité noire et la façon dont leur compréhension a évolué depuis 20 ans. On y réévalue les représentations de Simpson en tant qu’homme noir. Mots clés : race et Los Angeles, procès Simpson, minisérie The People vs O.J. Simpson, documentaire O.J. Made in America, constructions raciales, identité des hommes noirs The focal point of the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, reconstructed in FX’s 2016 miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, is O.J. Simpson’s race; perhaps for the first time in twentieth-century race relations, blackness is shown to be permeable, unstable, and even inconsistent. In one telling scene from the miniseries, Christopher Darden, a Simpson prosecutor, yells at a protesting neighbour: O.J. is ‘‘not black, he hasn’t been black in a long time,’’ to which the neighbour responds, ‘‘He’s black now—the police are after him.’’ The question of O.J.’s race and his relationship to it underpin the 6 Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d’études américaines ahead of print article doi: 10.3138/cras.2017.017 This ahead of print version may differ slightly from the final published version. murder trial, the miniseries, and Ezra Edelman’s five-part ESPN documentary, O.J.: Made in America (2016), as the latter two place these questions at play with contemporary race relations in the United States. The promotional trailer for the miniseries opens with a shot of actor John Travolta, portraying Robert Shapiro, as he responds to questions about his defence strategy. ‘‘You’re going to say this case is all about race?’’ a reporter asks, to which Shapiro snaps, ‘‘Yes. Because it is.’’ Effectively functioning as a bookend, the trailer closes with what is perhaps the most oft-quoted line of dialogue from the production. Clad in dull prison garb, Cuba Gooding Jr., as O.J. Simpson, accusingly interrogates his defence team: ‘‘You want to make this a black thing?’’ the fictional Simpson asks. ‘‘Well, I’m not black,’’ he defiantly clarifies; ‘‘I’m O.J.’’ Simpson’s quip foregrounds the fraught nature of the former football player’s relationship with race. In Edelman’s five-part documentary , sociologist Harry Edwards recalls his attempt to recruit Simpson—fresh off his 1968 Heisman Trophy win1—into a coalition of African-American athletes who would campaign for civil rights. The member list of this collective reads like a ‘‘who’s who’’ of athletic excellence, including basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; football player Jim Brown; boxer Muhammad Ali; and sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who would be remembered for their iconic Black Power salute after winning medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics. In that same year, Simpson was widely regarded as the best college football player in the country. Expected to be selected as the first overall pick of the 1969 NFL Draft, Simpson was a natural candidate to be included in this collective of African-American athletes, who leveraged their public visibility in order to foreground their concerns. Nearly a half century later, Edwards recalls that Simpson’s response to the invitation was, ‘‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.’’ The famous line becomes unhinged in time—it was delivered nearly three decades prior...