Why I Wrote Watching O.J.
by David McMillan
I wrote my play Watching O.J. because I was confused.
I realize it’s odd for a writer to admit that something he wrote was born out of confusion – shouldn’t a writer know what he wants to say – but I think, many times, confusion is actually a gift from the Muse, a disquieting feeling that leads to creative inspiration. And in this instance, my own confusion inspired me to reexamine the O.J. Simpson trial, an event – a phenomenon really – that had a deep impact not only on the people directly involved in it, but on the millions who watched it from a distance – at home, at work, in barbershops and schools and diners across the country. At a certain point – and this could just be my own L.A.-bred myopia coming into play – it felt like all of America was watching it. Of course, not everybody watching saw the same trial.
One of my favorite books is Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. What I particularly love about the book is that, rather than concentrate on presidents and statesmen, it looks at history from the perspective of immigrants, slaves, factory workers, soldiers, college students. It’s the idea that often we can learn more about our history, and who we are, by seeing big events through the eyes of common, everyday people, as opposed to just focusing on the “Great Men” (and sadly, it’s mostly men) who we’re often told “make” history.
While not historically significant in a legal sense, the O.J. Simpson trial was certainly a watershed historical moment, at least in terms of its impact on media and celebrity culture. It brought together America’s most obsessive fascinations (celebrity, race, sex, murder) and turned them into televised tabloid spectacle. It heralded in a new age of judicial voyeurism – the era of Nancy Grace and Court TV. And for those drawn in by the theater of it all, it didn’t hurt that the cast of players were such vivid, larger-than-life personalities: from the witnesses, to the lawyers for both sides, to The Juice himself, a pathetic modern-day Othello (who rather than kill himself during the infamous Bronco chase, decided to take his chances in court – hardly the move of a Shakespearean tragic hero).
But in 1995, my main interest in the trial had nothing to do with any of these things. Rather – as a black teen living in Los Angeles, who not only had friends who lived on the same street as O.J., but whose mom videotaped every single day of the trial – I was fascinated by how people were watching it. Specifically, how whites and blacks (and everyone else) were viewing the trial through their own distinct racial, cultural, and historical lens.
The O.J. trial, and particularly the verdict and O.J.’s acquittal, soon became a Rorschach test for people’s views on race in America – in the same way that, today, the Trayvon Martin case, or the events in Ferguson, or the “Black Lives Matter” movement, or even (crazy but true) “Obamacare,” have become revealing lightening rods of racial tension and perspective. Then, as now, “the facts” of the case are often beside the point – what’s illuminating (and to many people on all sides, perplexing and infuriating) is how we look at those facts – or what we agree the facts even are.
I didn’t write Watching O.J. to settle America’s racial issue – heaven forbid – or even to offer any definitive answers on the subject. Like I said, I wrote it because I was confused – confused as to what the O.J. trial said about America, and race relations in particular. Did it represent a step forward or a step back? Did it make race relations worse, or did it merely bring to the surface racial anxieties that had been bubbling below the surface of our national psyche all along (the return of the repressed, brought to you by Johnnie Cochran)?
The play doesn’t answer these questions – and much of the confusion that inspired the play is still there. But confusion often makes for compelling drama – so if I succeed on that score, I hope I’ll be forgiven on the other.
America may never come to a multi-racial consensus about the O.J. case and the questions it generated: Did he really do it? Did the police frame a guilty man? Why didn’t the glove fit? And none of us, except for one living person, knows exactly what happened that fateful night in Brentwood. But twenty years later, if the trial can force us to look at our friends, neighbors, co-workers and try to understand them just a little bit better; if it can force us to look at our justice system and at the critical role race plays, as well as class, in determining who goes to jail and who doesn’t; and most of all, if it can force us to look at ourselves, at our own prejudices and biases – perhaps some good can come out of Nicole and Ron’s tragic deaths, O.J.’s final “touchdown,” and the media circus that the trial became. And maybe we’ll even appreciate how much race relations have improved since 1995. And sadly, how much they haven’t.
Facing confusion isn’t always pleasant. It stirs uncomfortable emotions, raises difficult questions. It challenges what we’re certain of and prompts us to reevaluate the things we’ve taken for granted and the people we thought we knew, including ourselves. But often, that’s how plays get born. And sometimes, despite our kicking and screaming, that’s the only way a nation grows up.