Birth of a Nation 'hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case
Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour, eds.
Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Friday, January 29 1999, 7:39 PM
This 1997 paperback, appearing in February of that year, was already remaindered by mid-1998. The fact that its authors discuss only the first O.J. Simpson trial and not the second makes it frozen in its specific historical moment. Yet anyone who remembers the surreal character of the events it deconstructs will still find its dozen essays a welcome reality check.
Three years ago O.J. imagery was inescapable. The slow White Bronco chase on sunny freeways, the police keeping a respectable distance. The mass media's abandon of ethical standards that assumed Simpson innocent until proven guilty. The shock of many whites upon the multiracial jury's failure to convict Simpson despite the police's mishandled evidence and dubious testimony of Detective Mark Fuhrman. Among all those overexposed moments, sleazy personages of the Rockingham mansion and the frenzied commentary, there remains much to be studied for clues to the American social fabric.
Ishmael Reed's essay "Bigger and O.J." uses the fictional Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright's Native Son to examine unjust journalistic violence of our own time. Drucilla Cornell points out in "Dismissed or Banished?" how the nonwhite members of the Simpson jury were long-employed civil bureaucrats. One had even left an abusive spouse upon the first incident of violence. Leola Johnson and David Roediger review the defendant's checkered sports, showbiz and corporate-shill career in "Hertz, Don't It?' Becoming Colorless and Staying Black in the Crossover of O.J. Simpson."
A team of three co-authors methodically defuse claims that defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran improperly played "the race card", proving it was in play from the start. In the essay "If the Genes Fit, How Do You Acquit?" the dubious biotech industry-driven DNA testing by police departments is dissected under Andrew Ross' critical microscope.
No amount of ink will bring back Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. Following Simpson's initial acquittal on criminal charges, the subsequent civil trial and its less-stringent rules of evidence certainly didn't convince me of anything other than that lawyering remains lucrative. Meanwhile, I personally suspect the less-than-forthright, probably frightened, O.J. Simpson could steer us towards the real killers...but won't.
Reading Morrison and Lacour's Birth of a Nation 'hood recalls how the events of both trials bitterly remind many African Americans, other nonwhites and their friends how knee-jerk racism permeates and cheapens the credibility of the interlocking corporate culture industries of television, radio and the press.
Pantheon Books, New York NY, 1997, 420 pp.