Since the miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premiered this February on FX, the 1994 trial of former football hero O.J. Simpson has once again become the topic of national, obsessive conversation. For the people who were alive to witness the trial of the century in action, enough time has passed for the clarity of hindsight to kick in. For the people who were too young to remember, the trial feels like a key to the phenomena of modern culture, the link that connects everything from systemic racism to reality TV to the Kardashians. If the trial first provoked obsessive questions about what happened to Nicole Brown Simpson, now the questions have turned inward as we as a nation wonder, What the hell happened to us? Over the last several weeks, a new documentary from Ezra Edelman, called O.J.: Made in America, has continued the fascination, organizing a story of O.J. Simpson’s life and his character with all the subtext of the trial made visible.
While the scope of Edelman’s work is vast, drawing a portrait not just of the Simpson case but of the last 50 years of American history, the show’s fourth episode — airing tonight on ESPN — focuses on the trial itself. Much is made throughout the episode about the validity of different kinds of evidence, as it was the defense’s attack on LAPD collection practices that allowed forensics to be lost in the shuffle of gloves and allegations of prior police malpractice. But if the prosecution was foiled by the complexities of public perception, for Edelman’s own presentation of the murder itself, he is able to rely on testimony from prosecutor Bill Hodgman and on images of the crime scene that have never before been released.
The images that were initially released to the press are shown early in the episode, as Simpson’s friend Ron Shipp explains how looking at a file of Brown’s photos inspired his decision to testify. The shots of her feet look like they might have come from an episode of CSI. Brown’s body is crumpled behind a door frame with a massive trail of blood leading away from her. Once we get closer, it’s apparent that her face is covered completely by her hair. The morbid glamour of the photos appears to be a coincidence of artful obstruction, but the result is that the images have the appearance of a Hollywood slasher film. The carnage seems too over the top to match the simple explanation of domestic violence. Looking at these images, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murders are easy to spin into a narrative, because the images of the carnage appear to be drawn out of familiar narratives already.
But if tabloids were able to play coy with wounds with the crime scene photos initially released to the public, the same cannot be said of the never-before-seen graphic photographs Edelman obtained for his film. As Hodgman dispassionately explains the picture the forensic evidence paints of the night of the murders, the images start to flash, recreating and grounding his conjectures in the physical realities that inspired those conjectures. The first is a black-and-white photo of Brown’s head, her face looking up at the camera. The wound in her neck is visible but secondary because her hair is plastered over her face, creating a gruesome illusion not unlike Magritte’s portrait of The Lovers — her partner is missing from the image, but anyway, her killer covered his hands, not his face. As Hodgman explains that Simpson likely murdered Goldman between attacks on Brown, the camera flashes over images of Goldman’s injuries, including the deep slashes to his hands and abdomen. These images are presented in flashes alongside images of the forensic sketches, which illuminate the totality of the violence without the shock of flesh and blood.
The first time I watched the episode, I knew the images of the murders were coming. I was prepared. I covered my face with my hand and let my eyes go out of focus enough to be able to see through my fingers, only to snap my eyes back to my hand for the worst of the images. The second time I tried to watch, I could tell what each photo contained, but I still couldn’t look. By the third time, I was able to move my hand, pausing the documentary on each photograph to give myself a chance to reveal the image one element at a time. First Goldman’s jeans, stained with blood; then his shoulder with a smear; and then finally the wound, which was smaller than I had imagined when I was shielding my eyes. But the worst image is the last one — Nicole Brown Simpson’s wounds unobscured. And unlike the previous photographs, the camera lingers.
Before watching O.J.: Made in America, I was at a family barbecue, and I had a chance to catch up with my uncle George. He’s a carpenter, and he’s been recovering for the last year from an injury he incurred while he was cutting slats of wood for a fence with a circular saw. The saw slipped after hitting a knot in the wood, cutting a wound several inches deep into the muscle of his thigh. His leg was torn nearly in half, but there wasn’t a lot of blood — he missed all of his major arteries. He’s better now, and basically all that remains to show for it is a scar and a photo that he’s apt to show before you have a chance to say no. I turned away from the picture at first, but once I was able to use my brain to remind my body that the injury was not fatal, the image became a kind of gory exercise in perspective. It was funny — I think I made a joke. I could look into the photo and know what I saw was not a threat, yet simultaneously perceive the yawning crimson tear as if it were a part of my own body. The wound on Nicole Brown Simpson’s neck also splits her flesh in two, but in the final photo you can also see her face. Given a few seconds, I could look at the record of my uncle’s leg, but I still haven’t been able to look at that last image of Nicole Brown Simpson in totality. Wound or face, but not both at once.
What does your mind do when you are presented with images of carnage like the ones that were used in the prosecution of O.J. Simpson? First, a rush of adrenaline. Maybe you jerk away. Maybe you start to sweat. (I wonder if a gazelle runs every time it sees a carcass or if only the sight of a lion will do.) But if it’s possible for the duration of the image to outlast your physical response, it’s possible to desensitize yourself. Your mind enters a paradoxical state where the violence is present yet not present. Ezra Edelman uses photos of the murder as an attempt to ground the circus of perception that characterized the O.J. Simpson trial in a cooler realm of logic and facts, but in showing the images, he presents one of the hurdles to empathy facing victims of violence in the modern era. Even when the effects of brutality can be captured on camera, images of violence are themselves a catastrophe of logic.
It’s been over 20 years since the O.J. Simpson trial, and few people, if any, doubt Simpson’s guilt. But when Edelman’s images of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s bodies flash on-screen, there remains a taste of the rejection that the jurors on the case and the American people watching at home experienced. When dealing with the aftereffects of brutality, there is no appealing to the logic of the mind without addressing the logic of the body. Whether he was performing or not, when presented with the carnage of his own crime scene, even O.J. turned away.