By Maria Lentz, USC, 23'
At the advent of the 20th century, the creation of the film camera ushered in a new age of entertainment. Hollywood movies portrayed characters in fantastical realism, glorifying actors on the silver screen.1 In his book The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identity, media industries scholar Paul McDonald describes the newly minted concept of a movie star as appearing “to be exceptional and somehow apart from society.”2 The ordinary aspects of these celebrities draw people in, and yet they maintain a level of distance with their extraordinary status. The charisma of these stars, originating in early film culture, also cuts across to other forms of filmed media such as sports broadcasting. Fans worldwide cling to their favorite players and place them on a pedestal, the most notable case being football and movie star O.J. Simpson.
The story of O.J. Simpson intersects ideas of celebrity, race, and socioeconomic privilege within the context of Los Angeles, a city torn by racial tension and patrolled by a police force that disproportionately targets and abuses Black residents.3 O.J.’s alma mater, USC, continues this legacy of racism. The university and other similar predominantly white institutions of higher education exploit Black athletic talent while neglecting prospective Black students who do not share the same level of athletic exceptionalism. In a 2018 report by the USC Race and Equity Center, Shaun R. Harper recorded that “Black men were 2.4% of undergraduate students enrolled at the 65 universities, but comprised 55% of football teams and 56% of men’s basketball teams on those campuses.”4 O.J. Simpson, a part of that glorified 55%, experienced a drastically different environment than the 2.4% of “unexceptional” Black male students. His rising celebrity status contributed to this separation. USC exploited the image of O.J. as a talented Black athlete while neglecting the Black population of students who didn’t possess this celebrity persona.
The 2016 documentary series O.J.: Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman explores what happens when the celebrity status of someone like O.J. is challenged through a controversy as drastic as a publicly broadcasted murder trial. Through video footage and analysis of O.J.’s life before, during, and after the 1995 murder trial of his late-wife, Edelman provides a powerful look into ideas of image, race, and celebrity. While O.J. himself was an individual person, the celebrity image he projected and his immense socioeconomic privilege ultimately determined his fate.