All That Jazz

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is going to win Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.  That’s not a prediction:  That’s a fact.  As Oscar wagers go, this is a slam dunk to end all slam dunks.  No ’bout-a-doubt it.  If you enter an office pool this year, go long on La La.

We know this for two reasons.  First, Chazelle’s movie is unabashedly about Hollywood’s all-time favorite subject:  itself.  And second, it’s a live-action musical propelled by an original soundtrack—something Hollywood seldom even thinks of doing, let alone executes with passion, charm and finesse.  As with 2011’s The Artist—a black-and-white silent film bubbling with cheeky nostalgia about the glory days of the old studio system—La La Land is a once-in-a-decade novelty whose very existence is such a miracle of ingenuity that the Academy couldn’t ignore it even if it wanted to—and why on Earth would it want to?

That said, La La Land was not the best picture of 2016.  Nor, for that matter, is it the most deserving among the nine nominees in that category.  To be sure, this will hardly make a difference:  By my estimation, the Academy gets it right about once every five years, and since it did exactly that 12 months ago, we can expect quite a long wait until it happens again.

And I’m totally fine with that.  After 15 years of taking movies seriously—and obsessing over the Academy Awards in the process—I’ve come to realize that the Academy’s opinions needn’t align perfectly with mine every year.  Just as I learned to live with (and vote for) a presidential candidate with whom I agreed “only” 90 percent of the time, I don’t need my tastes in cinema validated by 6,000 anonymous industry professionals in order to achieve inner peace.

In truth, I’ve flirted with this I-don’t-care-what-the-Academy-thinks attitude for a while now.  Indeed, if I had any sense, I would’ve thrown in the towel a decade ago when the Academy chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain—a decision that looks even dumber in retrospect than it did at the time.

My problem is that I’m a natural elitist who believes the Oscars should mean something and should reflect some sort of objective truth about what constitutes cinematic greatness.  That such a thing doesn’t actually exist has never prevented me from wishing otherwise—just as the inherent worthlessness of paper money has never prevented anyone from using it to buy a Volvo.  The value of golden statues is like God:  It exists because we say it does.

As far as I’m concerned, the true purpose of the Academy Awards is simply to highlight a handful of terrific films that most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t have discovered on their own.  If cinema itself is a window into the lives of others—a “machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert put it—the Oscars are the most visible means of pointing people in the right direction.

The best movie of 2016 was Moonlight, an intensely personal project that, by dint of its miniscule budget and largely unknown cast, could easily have opened in 20 theatres for one weekend and then disappeared forever.  If its eight (!) Oscar nominations lead another million people to seek it out—in addition to the $21 million in revenue it has generated thus far—I will consider the Academy to have done its job with gusto.  Same for the Best Actress nomination for Isabelle Huppert in Elle, a demented tour de force that most Americans wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole but now might give a fair shot.  And ditto, especially, for the trio of masterpieces in the Best Documentary field—Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—all three of which deserve the widest audience possible and whose inclusion in Sunday’s telecast is entirely to the benefit of both Hollywood and society as a whole.

Of course, the Academy can’t get everything right, and this year was no exception.  As ever, the list of unjust omissions is longer and more enticing than the list of worthy nominees, and if your only interest is to bitch about Hollywood’s perennial wrongheadedness, you have plenty of material to work with.

What I would prefer, however, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to accept that a gang that gives eight nominations to Moonlight is not entirely irredeemable.

For context, allow me to present the year 2002, which I consider the genesis of my life as a semi-serious film buff (and the first time I watched the Oscars).  For whatever reason, 2002 was an extraordinary year for cinema, producing such visionary, enduring works as Minority Report, Spirited Away, 25th Hour, Adaptation., and City of God.

Of those five modern classics, how many were nominated for Best Picture?  You guessed it:  Zero.  The Academy was offered an embarrassment of riches and it chose to embarrass itself.  Provided a golden opportunity to embrace any number of challenging, thoughtful, innovative films, Oscar voters decided to turn their backs and play it safe.

And what sort of movie did they ultimately choose for Best Picture?  A musical!  Specifically, an adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall and starring a group of A-list actors with minimal experience in musical theatre.  Why did Chicago win?  Presumably through a Hollywood consensus that appreciated the novelty of a movie musical—then, as now, an exceedingly rare event—and was understandably dazzled by the catchy songs and hypnotic choreography.

As they say:  The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same.  Given the choice, the Academy will err toward fluff when something much more daring is called for.  The good news is that, outside of the movie industry itself, the recipients of these eight-pound gold trophies ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of cinema.

The Oscars come and go, but the movies are forever.

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Best Pictures

By my count, I experienced roughly three dozen new movies in the year 2016.  While that qualifies as a personal best, it’s also maybe 15 percent of a full-time critic’s annual diet.  So it’s possible I missed something good along the way.

In any case, the following films were—and are—very much worth two (or, in one case, eight) hours of your time, assuming your brain operates on the same emotional wavelength as mine.  I highlighted my top four early last week.  I include them here, as well, because they bear repeating.

MOONLIGHT

A man, a woman and a young boy sit around a dining room table.  The boy says, “My name’s Chiron.  But people call me Little.”  The man smiles, thrilled that the kid has finally opened his mouth, and responds, “OK, Little.”  The woman, not smiling, interjects, “I’m gonna call you by your name, Chiron.”  She understands the importance of not allowing others define who you really are.  It will take Chiron another 20 years to figure that out for himself.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in the fall of 1995, a poll found that 73 percent of white people believed Simpson had committed the crimes, while only 27 percent of black people believed the same.  Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary traces the source of this profound disagreement as far back as the Watts Riots of 1965.  One could just as plausibly argue the O.J. verdict was forged aboard the first slave ship bound for Virginia in 1619.

ELLE

George Carlin once got on a stage and asked if rape can ever be made funny.  His answer—broadly speaking—was that anything can be fodder for laughs if approached from the right angle, and Elle seems content to proceed from this same premise.  Not that director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert are making light of sexual assault, per se, so much as suggesting that a rape victim can spin a traumatic experience to her advantage if she plays her cards right, and that this can make her heroic and villainous at the same time.  Coming soon to a women’s studies course near you.

KRISHA

The feature-length debut of director Trey Edward Shults, adapted from his autobiographical short film of the same name, starring members of his own family playing versions of themselves (or each other).  All of which helps to explain the intense, eerie way this sketch of a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry crawls under your skin and overwhelms your senses, as the family’s titular black sheep teeters on the edge of the abyss while trying as hard as she can to claw her way back to solid ground.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

A portrait of three lonely people in parallel states of grief:  The man who committed a sin that dare not speak its name, the woman who can neither fully blame nor fully forgive him for it, and their teenage nephew whose sarcastic, stoical reaction to his father’s death is the glue that oh-so-precariously holds everyone else together.  A story to make you sad in a year when most of us struggled to feel anything else.

THE HANDMAIDEN

From Park Chan-Wook—the Korean wild man who gave the world Oldboy—emerges this ravishing and progressively convoluted adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, about a petty thief hired to cheat an heiress out of her inheritance by becoming her trusted maid.  Simple enough, until the two women fall madly (and unexpectedly) in love, generating complications that neither of them is quite prepared to deal with.  Come for the palace intrigue; stay for the twist ending and hardcore lesbian sex.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Hailee Steinfeld at her spunky best as a high school outcast slapped with a double betrayal when her older brother hooks up with her best (and only) friend—a crushing development that leaves her smartass history teacher (Woody Harrelson) as her sole, unhelpful confidant.  That is, until she embarks upon a relationship of her own by way of the most spectacular text message in the history of smart phones.  Remember, kids:  Think before you send.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

In his 25 years as a writer-director, Richard Linklater has never shown a more profound indifference to plot than in this so-called “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused.  A weekend-in-the-life of a Freaks and Geeks-like gang of college baseball players in the final days before classes start—a period during which they do little more than philosophize, party and not get laid—Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood is his most laid-back movie to date and—perhaps for that reason—his most enjoyable.

FENCES

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a play by August Wilson—need we say more?  Washington is a former Negro League star who has turned into a drunk, proud, embittered garbage man, while Davis is the generous, strong-willed, tactful housewife who has suppressed a lifetime of frustrations that may or may not ever see the light of day.  Both actors won a Tony Award playing the same roles on Broadway in 2010.  Seems only fair to give each of them an Oscar as well.

EYE IN THE SKY

Barack Obama has been the most ruthless terrorist-killer in the history of U.S. presidents.  However, most Americans do not appreciate this fact due to Obama’s preferred method of execution:  drone strikes.  This British production—featuring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, among others—explores the deep moral conundrums involved in bombing Muslim extremists from the sky—particularly if there’s a little girl just a few hundred feet from the target who’d have only a 75 percent chance of surviving such a blast.

ARRIVAL

Roger Ebert used to wonder why movie aliens are so hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth:  Why go to the trouble of crossing half the galaxy just to burn everything down when you get here?  Denis Villeneuve’s film, starring Amy Adams, respects the majesty of space travel—and the audience’s intelligence—by presenting a story of a close encounter that assumes both sides might want to actually learn something from each other, rather than just blowing each other up and declaring cosmic victory.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I’m not sure there was a funnier moment at the cinema this year than when Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner sat down for lunch at a low-rent steakhouse somewhere in West Texas and were informed by their surly octogenarian waitress, “I’ve been working here for 44 years.  Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but T-bone steak and a baked potato.  Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987.  We don’t sell no goddamned trout.”  And then her face when Bridges’s partner tries to order his steak medium well.

LA LA LAND

Damien Chazelle’s third film is, in certain ways, a companion piece to his second, Whiplash.  After all, both are soaked in an unapologetically romantic longing for classical jazz and a bygone era in which America’s singular musical invention still reigned supreme.  The two films are also both about the obsessive need to prove your mettle to anyone who might doubt you or stand in your way, as well as the enormous interpersonal costs of seeking eternal greatness.  You’ve got to hand it to Chazelle:  He sure knows how to stage a wild finish.

13TH

Ava DuVernay’s infuriating documentary about our country’s prison-industrial complex reveals the most essential hidden truth about America:  Slavery did not end in 1865 so much as assume a slightly more roundabout—but no less sinister—visage.  Stipulating that involuntary servitude would cease to exist “except as a punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment inadvertently (or not) ensured that so long as the legal system could be manipulated in just the right way, African-Americans would continue to be systemically subjugated and dehumanized for as long as their white countrymen allowed themselves to get away with it.  As we still do to this day.

HAIL, CAESAR!

After Jeff Bridges and the T-bone, the biggest laugh of 2016 involved a singing cowboy—played by 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich—being shoehorned into a stuffy costume drama by a foppish Ralph Fiennes, who exhausts every atom of his patience to get the kid to nail his line reading, “Would that it were so simple.”  Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, the punch line doesn’t arrive for another hour or so and, when it does, it somehow involves Frances McDormand being nearly strangled to death by her own neckerchief.  It’s complicated.

Life Itself

I’ve seen more new movies in 2016 than during any single year of my life—and there are still 12 more days to go.  Selective consumer that I am, I have enjoyed nearly all my filmgoing experiences to date, and have had enormous difficulty cramming the best of the best into a traditional top-10 list.

As I continue reflecting on all the wonderful moments the cinema offered in an otherwise wretched year for the human race, I offer some fleeting impressions of my final four—a quartet of films that burrowed deep under my skin and never really found their way out.  Four singular conceptions that—in radically divergent form—satisfied (or nearly satisfied) Roger Ebert’s definition of a truly great film:  “It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us.  It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

MOONLIGHT

“You can pick from the menu.  Or I can give you the chef’s special.”  So says Kevin, the chef, to his childhood friend, Chiron.  Now in their late 20s, the two men haven’t seen each other for more than a decade.  In all probability, they would’ve remained strangers for the rest of their lives, except that Kevin recently phoned Chiron in the middle of the night to ask what he’s been doing with himself.  And now Chiron has driven 700 miles from Atlanta to Miami—materializing in Kevin’s diner, unannounced—to provide him some semblance of an answer.

Why?  Because, for all their time apart, he and Kevin share a secret that can never be reconciled until they are in the same room at the same time.  Their history—forged in one rapturous, terrifying moment many years ago—is at once totally alien to the society they inhabit, yet absolutely essential to understanding who either of them truly is.

The circumstances of their upbringing—namely, being poor and black in America—have prevented them from facing this complicated truth head-on, and so they have both chosen to suppress it—albeit in strikingly different ways.

And yet, on this night, in this diner—as Kevin prepares the chef’s special—there is suddenly the prospect of a reckoning—an echo of John Adams’s plea to Thomas Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other”—and with it, the possibility of love, happiness and inner peace.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

In the greatest legal circus of the 1990s—The People of California v. O.J. Simpson—Mark Fuhrman was supposed to be the prosecution’s star witness.  He was the LAPD detective who found the pair of black gloves linking O.J. Simpson to the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.  One glove was recovered at Nicole’s house, the other at O.J.’s.  Both were splattered with the DNA of all three individuals, as were the driveways of both homes and the innards of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.

In short, it was a slam dunk:  With a veritable orgy of both direct and circumstantial evidence, it was obvious to any fair-minded person that Simpson—an NFL hall of famer, actor and all-around celebrity—had committed double homicide.  Game, set, match.

And then Fuhrman took the witness stand, and everything fell apart.

To the defense team’s delight and the prosecution’s unending chagrin, Fuhrman turned out to be a scumbag:  A crooked, racist maniac with a long, proud history of brutality against LA’s black community.  Having bragged about his bigotry and deceitfulness on tape, he became Exhibit A in the defense’s theory that the O.J. evidence may have been planted—a narrative of institutional racism that jibed perfectly with the actual history of the LAPD, to say nothing of the nation as a whole, then and now.

In Ezra Edelman’s documentary, prosecutor Marcia Clark muses, “The only reason I know [Fuhrman] didn’t plant the evidence is because [he] couldn’t have.  Otherwise, I’m with them.”  Therein lies one answer to how a clearly guilty man could be acquitted by a jury of his peers:  Because after 400 years of white people in America getting away with murder, maybe it was time—if only just this once—for a black person to do the same.

ELLE

Michèle Leblanc has been having a very strange week.  Her son is moving into an apartment he can’t afford with a fiancé he doesn’t love who’s carrying a child that (probably) isn’t his.  At work, her underlings are fomenting a rebellion against her take-no-prisoners managerial style.  Elsewhere, her sort-of divorced mother is carrying on with a lover half her age, while Michèle herself is fooling around with her best friend’s husband and—for good measure—growing very flirty with her married next-door neighbor, Patrick.

Oh yeah:  And on Thursday afternoon, a mysterious man in a ski mask entered her apartment, wrestled her to the ground, savagely raped her and left.

By all outward appearances, that last item was the least-distressing moment of Michèle’s week.  Apart from a quick doctor’s visit, she doesn’t bother telling anyone about having been assaulted until dinner on Saturday evening—and even then, she hastens to add, “I feel stupid for bringing it up.”  When her flabbergasted dining companions ask why she hasn’t called the police, she shrugs, “It’s over—it doesn’t need talking about anymore.”

Is she in denial?  A closet masochist?  Just plain nuts?

As Rick Blaine would say:  It’s a combination of all three.

Played by Isabelle Huppert, Michèle is shown, in the fullness of time, to be a woman ruthlessly in pursuit of her own happiness—a process that, in her case, has a curious tendency to rob everyone else of theirs.  Like a wilier version of Selina Meyer in Veep, she is a fundamentally rotten specimen—a textbook sociopath who derives all earthly pleasure from making others squirm—yet somehow emerges as a compelling, magnetic—perhaps even heroic—femme fatale, prepared to turn any setback—up to and including sexual assault—to her advantage and assume control of her own destiny.  What a nasty woman.

KRISHA

It’s the morning of Thanksgiving.  The house is bouncing with activity, inhabited by at least half a dozen adults, another half-dozen twentysomethings, one newborn and an indeterminate number of dogs.  All is well—if a bit chaotic—and then Krisha walks in.

Who is Krisha?  In one sense, she is the person for whom the phrase, “There’s one in every family,” was coined.  She is the sole dinner guest who seems out of sync with everyone else around the table:  The one you don’t engage in direct conversation, for fear of what she might say, do or drink.  A reigning expat from the Island of Misfit Toys.

But no more:  She’s here now.  She’s sobered up (allegedly).  She wants to help out with the cooking and reacquaint herself with her kin and be an all-around better person.

And everyone present is thrilled to hear this.  They miss her, they know what an unholy wreck she had become, and they’re willing to give her every chance to earn her way back into the fold.

Except…not really.  Yeah, sure, if she’s serious about turning over a new leaf, then she has their unwavering love and support and blah blah blah.

In truth, Krisha’s family knows her better than she knows herself, and it all boils down to one unshakable fact:  There is no real hope for her in the end.  She has burned too many bridges—neglected too many responsibilities—to start over again from scratch.  Whatever forgiveness she wants for her sins—indeed, for her entire history to be cast into the sea of God’s forgetfulness—she cannot summon the strength to concede what can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.  When push comes to shove, she would just as well have another drink.

Trey Edward Shults’s film, drawn from his own life experiences, is a testament to the notion that life doesn’t always offer redemption.  It is altogether fitting that it would be based on real events and be released in 2016, since its portrait of a woman teetering on the edge of the abyss is a perfect metaphor for the blazed, desperate nation that produced her.

The People v. Donald J. Trump

I can tell you the exact moment on Election Night when I realized the world was about to explode.

It was when PBS (or whatever I was watching) flashed a series of exit polls across the screen, and it was revealed that 53 percent of white women had voted for Donald Trump.

Seeing that figure, and performing a bit of number-crunching in my head, it was all I could do to reach for the whiskey bottle and think, “This is gonna be one long f**king night.”

Of all the statistics about how America chose its 45th president on November 8, none was more painful or disappointing than that, in the end, women did not come together as a bloc to elect their country’s first female commander-in-chief.  We knew that men couldn’t be counted on to get this done, nor could we expect that white people, as a whole, would ever make any bold, progressive move if they could possibly avoid it.

But women voting for Trump under any circumstances, let alone against Hillary Clinton?  It boggled the mind:  Whatever you might think about Trump’s so-called policies, how could any self-respecting woman throw her lot in with a candidate who regards all women merely as sexual objects and who has bragged about committing sexual assault and been accused by a dozen women of doing exactly that?

But then I recalled the moment in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, in which Marcia Clark assumed that having a largely female jury would guarantee that O.J. Simpson would be found guilty of murder.  Clark’s thinking was that women jurors would instinctively sympathize with Nicole Brown as a battered wife and condemn Simpson as a brute who controlled, tortured and ultimately killed her.

It made sense in theory.  In practice?  Not so much.

As it turned out, the ten(!) women on the O.J. jury were more sympathetic toward Simpson—a beloved athlete, actor and all-around celebrity whose natural charisma and calculated charm proved as irresistible in court as in all other facets of his life.  In the end, the Simpson trial became a referendum on the Los Angeles Police Department and 400 years of institutional racism in America, and not—as Marcia Clark hoped—a narrow case of spousal abuse gone berserk.  If anything—and quite counter-intuitively—Clark’s own standing as a strong, independent woman only made matters worse.

The gender dynamics in the O.J. trial proved nearly as compelling as the racial dynamics, and the entire Simpson saga is instructive to us now in understanding the $64,000 question, “How could Donald Trump possibly be elected president of the United States?”

In truth, the answer is almost exactly the same as it was in the fall of 1995, when every white person in America asked, “How could O.J. Simpson possibly be found not guilty by a jury of his peers?”

In short:  Because the team responsible for preventing it fundamentally misread its audience.

In 1994-95, Clark and company thought their case was about male aggression when it was actually about the racism of the LAPD.  And now, in 2016, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats thought the presidential election was about the character of Donald Trump when it was actually about the “forgotten Americans” who’ve felt screwed over by their government and want radical change in Washington, D.C.

In both cases, the two sides weren’t just making separate arguments:  They were speaking entirely different languages.

In the Simpson trial, the prosecution argued that O.J. had to be guilty because the science said so:  A trail of blood containing his, Nicole’s and Ron Goldman’s DNA was found leading from Nicole’s house to O.J.’s house via O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.  That’s to say nothing of the pair of matching gloves and O.J.’s long, long history of violent behavior toward Nicole.

Like any confident prosecutor, Clark trusted that the 12-member panel could put two and two together; all she had to do was present the information that would enable them to do so.

Same thing with Hillary:  Beyond her wonkiness and stamina, her entire campaign boiled down to quoting Donald Trump’s most vulgar and outrageous statements and assuming the electorate would realize how obviously unfit he is to hold any public office, and then vote for Clinton by default.

If your brain worked the same way as Clark’s and Clinton’s, you viewed their cases as offers you couldn’t refuse.  Of course O.J. was guilty!  Of course Trump is a moral disgrace who doesn’t belong within 100 miles of the White House!  How could anyone possibly think otherwise?

Fairly easily, as it turned out.  Not because they disagreed with the evidence, per se, but rather because they rejected the premise that the evidence could only be interpreted one way.

Sure, the DNA showed that O.J. murdered Nicole and Ron.  But how do we know the DNA itself wasn’t tainted?  The LAPD had proved itself corrupt and bigoted in the past; why should we give it the benefit of the doubt now?

And sure, Trump has made racist and sexist comments on an almost hourly basis and has no experience in government.  But that’s exactly what we need:  A disruptive outsider who tells it like it is.

Of course, O.J. was guilty and Trump is stupendously unqualified for high office, and deep down, I suspect many people who claim otherwise secretly know the truth.

But what we cultural elitists didn’t appreciate was the overwhelming power of symbolism, and the notion put forth by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who mused that “Trump is the wrong answer to the right question.”

In the mid-1990s, with Rodney King still fresh in everyone’s minds, the question within Los Angeles’ black community was, “How can we stop law enforcement from brutalizing us with impunity?”  Although O.J. Simpson had spent his entire life running away from his African-American identity—associating with a mostly white crowd and marrying a white woman—his arrest and trial became an opportunity—maybe the only opportunity—for black America to strike back loudly and clearly by asserting its right to exist.  O.J. was hardly the ideal vessel through which to transmit this righteous anger, but that doesn’t mean the anger itself wasn’t real or justified.  It was both, and if it meant allowing a black man to get away with murder—after four centuries of white men getting away with murdering black men—then so be it.

Likewise, prior to last year, Donald Trump was nobody’s idea of a working class hero—or, indeed, as someone with even a shred of interest or compassion for anyone who isn’t exactly like him.  And yet, through a combination of Trump’s own cynicism and the genuine fear and panic among America’s blue-collar white folk, that’s exactly what he became.

As O.J. suddenly decided to embrace his blackness when it served his own selfish purposes, so did Trump embrace his “silent majority” when he realized it could enhance his brand and maybe even make him president.

The tragedy in all this—and the central lesson we can glean from the Simpson fiasco—is that few lives are ever made better through latching onto false idols.

The O.J. verdict undeniably provided catharsis for much of black America—demonstrating that it was possible for a black defendant to cheat justice the way white defendants have for centuries—but it certainly didn’t bring an end to police brutality or the glaring racial disparities at all levels of the American justice system.

And now that Trump is heir apparent to the most powerful job on Earth, there is little reason to think he will follow through on any of his promises to the economically dispossessed—a group of citizens who will presumably be hung out to dry just like every other sucker that Trump has ever used as a means to an end.

When push comes to shove, Trump does what is best for Trump.  Through his greed, vulgarity and unhinged narcissism, he is the human embodiment of everything that is wrong with America, and now that he has somehow risen to the highest office in the land—both despite and because of his shortcomings—his story has become intertwined with that of the country itself.

The inherent tension of such a consequential, outsize life was the driving force of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, the eight-hour documentary from earlier this year that is not only the best movie of 2016 to date, but also a defining document of what it means to be an American today—for better and for worse.

Donald Trump is the latest chapter in that story, and every last one of us has a stake in how it all plays out.  We are about to learn just how much abuse the American way of life can sustain without collapsing under its own weight and, once again, we’ll be able to watch every riveting moment as it unfolds.  Live and in color.

It Still Doesn’t Fit

I was eight years old when the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced in the fall of 1995.  If I was cognizant enough to see that the trial was a big effing deal, I neither knew nor cared much about why and emerged with the impression merely that some famous ex-football player had been acquitted of a terrible crime that everyone in America knew he had committed.

Today—after more than two decades of human events and two excellent TV miniseries on this very subject—I sense that I have finally—finally!—caught up with the rest of America in understanding what the O.J. “not guilty” verdict truly meant:  Namely, that after 400 years of white people getting away with murder by taking the law into their own hands, it was long past due for black people to do the same—if only to prove, just this once, that they could.

If you grew up—as I did—in an affluent white suburb where racial tension was more urban legend than reality, you might have been forgiven in 1995 for not getting why race—or rather, racism—was the central drama underpinning the double murder trial of one of the most beloved celebrities in America.  Even now—with an additional 21 years’ of state-sanctioned white supremacy in action—it’s still an open question whether racism was even remotely relevant to the Simpson case and/or whether the “race card” should ever have been played.

Yet when you consider the O.J. fiasco in a broader cultural context—as both of these new TV programs have forced us to do—you begin to grasp the logic of both the defense team’s arguments and the jury’s final decision:  Each was a rebuttal to a criminal justice system designed not to give black (and other non-white) defendants a fair shot.  At some point, the case ceased being about Simpson’s guilt and became a referendum on whether any black man accused of any crime could be treated fairly in a white society patrolled by white policemen, white lawyers, white judges and white juries.

Indeed, in arguably the most electric moment in the new ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America, we are told point-blank by one of the 12 original jurors—speaking for herself, if not the others—that the “not guilty” verdict was payback for the treatment of Rodney King in 1991.  Since white members of the Los Angeles Police Department had behaved disgracefully and dishonestly in that instance, who’s to say they hadn’t behaved similarly in this one?  Further, since the officers who kicked and clobbered King had gotten off scot-free—thanks, presumably, to an inherently racist system—didn’t the O.J. jury—a panel that was 75 percent black—have a moral imperative to ensure such a thing didn’t happen again?

As we can see, there are really two separate questions at play.  First, should the apparent systemic racism within the LAPD be taken as evidence, in and of itself, that O.J. Simpson might have been framed for murder?  And second, do the accumulated past examples of prejudicial behavior against black defendants justify acquitting one particular black defendant against whom, it would appear, no such prejudice existed?

This is no small distinction.  In practice, there’s a world of difference between treating the LAPD with appropriate skepticism versus proactively punishing it for sins it committed in the past but hasn’t necessarily committed in the present.  You might call it the difference between justice and vengeance, in which case the question becomes:  Can vengeance ever be a form of justice and (while we’re at it) are there scenarios—such as, say, the Simpson case—in which vengeance, in any form, is the correct response to a problem (e.g. institutional white supremacy) that demands a solution one way or another?

Put simply:  If the O.J. jury found Simpson not guilty strictly to avenge every previous defendant who’d gotten screwed by the LAPD—and not, mind you, because they truly thought Simpson was not guilty—could we say that justice had been served?

First things first.  With more than two decades of hindsight at our disposal, it remains as clear as ever that O.J. Simpson definitely killed his wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.  The preponderance of direct evidence—namely, the trail of blood containing DNA of all three people—paired with circumstantial evidence regarding Simpson’s long history of physical abuse and his want of an alibi on the night of the murders, is enough for a contemporary jury to find him guilty at least 99 times out of 100.  Indeed, the strength of the DNA evidence alone may well be sufficient to avert a trial altogether and lead, instead, to some kind of plea deal whereby Simpson would either claim momentary insanity or—considering his privileged position in society—an acute case of “affluenza.”

The trouble in 1994-95 was that the general public did not understand the magic of DNA the way we do now.  The jurors, for their part, couldn’t make head or tail of what the pools of blood proved or didn’t prove, and into that vacuum—thanks to Johnnie Cochran and company—was placed the notion that a fanatically racist cop, Mark Fuhrman—the man who found the famous leather glove—had both the motivation and the wherewithal to plant evidence on the fly that made Simpson the only possible culprit.

As it happens, Fuhrman did no such thing.  The defense, for all its insinuations, never demonstrated how such tampering might have occurred—not least because it was physically impossible for Fuhrman to have gotten away with it.  As prosecutor Marcia Clark caustically says in the ESPN documentary, “The only reason I know [Fuhrman] didn’t plant the evidence is because [he] couldn’t have.  Otherwise, I’m with them.”  (“Them” in this case being the entire African-American community.)

Hence the breathtaking irony that defined the entire saga:  Here, a basically corrupt cop was being scapegoated for a case in which—maybe for the first time in his life—he had behaved more or less as he was supposed to.  Add to that the even greater irony that Simpson himself—a man who hated being defined by his blackness—would become a poster child for the tragedy of the black experience in America, and you have the perfect storm of conflict that this case was perhaps destined to become.

If there was a thousand-pound elephant somewhere in the courtroom—a subtext that dare not speak its name—it would’ve been the specter of reparations—the idea that black Americans, as a group, are owed something from white Americans that the latter have every obligation to pay and thus far have not.

While most white Americans think of reparations strictly in terms of slavery—an institution that conveniently ended before any of us could be born and assume responsibility for it—it has lately been definitively argued—perhaps most memorably by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic—that any debts owed to African-Americans must also cover such comparatively recent, but no less unjust, phenomena as housing discrimination, voter discrimination, employment discrimination and, naturally, discrimination in the legal and criminal justice systems.

Despite our so-called best efforts, we all know that black and white citizens are not treated equally in all facets of our society—a cursory look at our prison population makes the point plain enough—and that even if we magically resolved all of those inequalities tomorrow, it would not absolve the white folks who have long benefited from this arrangement of responsibility for all the harm they have caused up until now.

Given how intractable the racial justice gap continues to be—how nothing seems to change no matter how much our leaders claim to try—what choice do we humble citizens have than to surreptitiously tip the scales whenever we get the chance?

The O.J. Simpson verdict might’ve been a miscarriage of justice in the strictest sense—after all, it allowed a wife-beater to literally get away with murder—but it was also a signal—a warning, in fact—that there would be real and richly-deserved consequences for police departments that didn’t take the concept of “blind justice” seriously.

It was an assertion—however imperfect the circumstances—that black lives matter.