O.J.: Made in America — the five-part ESPN 30 for 30 documentary — has been rightly praised for illuminating O.J. Simpson’s rise, fall, and the ways in which that trajectory intertwines with broader cultural issues. But it also deserves credit for shining a light on someone who often gets overshadowed when we talk about Simpson: Nicole Brown.
The ex-wife of the football star, who was brutally murdered, along with friend Ron Goldman on June 12, 1994, was not exactly ignored in the immediate aftermath of the crime. In the days that followed, both the New York Times and L.A. Times ran lengthy stories about her (“Dreams of Better Days Died That Night,” read the Los Angeles paper’s headline), although both profiles acknowledged that even in such a high-profile death, she was still taking a backseat to her ex-spouse. “Even now, it is her former husband, charged with the murder of Mrs. Simpson and a friend, Ronald Goldman, who is drawing most of the attention,” the New York Times piece said. “There is an extensive record of his public life — as a football star, a television pitchman, Hollywood actor, the man about town with the beautiful, blonde wife on his arm. Far less is known about Nicole Brown, and her life with O. J. Simpson.”
Over the years, as the murder and the ensuing “trial of the century” receded into the past, the public has continued to know far less about Nicole Brown. (We’ve also continued to know far less about Ron Goldman, although that’s a subject for another essay.) For younger people who either weren’t alive when O.J. faced a jury or were only alive enough to remember the general outline of what happened, Brown has been remembered primarily as a victim of abuse, a woman who couldn’t get away from Simpson no matter how hard she tried. O.J.: Made in America confirms the truth of that while also giving us a fuller picture of who Brown was.
In parts two and three of the documentary, we hear from friends and family who assert that even though Brown was often victimized, she was a strong woman. That strength, coupled with the challenges she faced while attempting to untangle herself from the knot she tied with Simpson, serve as stark reminders of how complicated it has always been for victims of domestic abuse to find a way out and start anew.
The second installment of Made in America, which aired Tuesday night on ESPN and will re-air prior to tonight’s 9 p.m. premiere of part three, makes it very clear that Brown, who fell in love with Simpson at the age of 18, didn’t quietly tolerate the well-documented violent treatment she received from Simpson. On New Year’s Eve in 1989, she called police when he assaulted her; according to the officer who responded to the scene and the subsequent report he filed, she specifically stated that she believed he was going to kill her and asked police to arrest him for spousal abuse. Simpson walked away from the incident with his public image only marginally tarnished and a sentence of community service, which he completed by planning and playing in a celebrity golf tournament. Brown also downplayed the incident.
As the documentary notes, she had ample motivation to do so. For starters, Simpson’s income and lavish lifestyle not only provided for Brown and their two children, but also benefited Brown’s parents and sisters. The couple also had two children together whom, according to a letter written by Brown that appears onscreen, she preferred to raise while married. (If there’s an important stone that Made in America leaves unturned, it’s the impact that all of this had on the Simpsons’ children. Perhaps out of respect for their privacy or lack of access, we never hear from them and learn little about how they’ve coped as adults.) Given Brown’s age when she and Simpson met, the world she inhabited beside him and their family at the Rockingham estate was the only world she had known as a grown woman. “It was a lot to leave,” says her friend, Robin Greer.
And yet, as the documentary plainly explains, Brown still left. She filed for divorce and got it in 1992, although she and Simpson subsequently attempted to reconcile, leading to another 911 call in October of 1993, during which Brown once again voiced concern that an enraged Simpson was going to kill her. Simpson was not arrested and continued to keep tabs on her every move. In May of 1994, she still found the wherewithal to close the door on the relationship one more time, for good.
When a woman becomes such a public symbol of domestic abuse, there’s a tendency to define her based solely on her victimhood. Ezra Edelman, the director of Made in America, is careful not to do that with Brown. What she suffered is acknowledged, but so is the fact that she was confident in her pursuit of happiness. After separating from and divorcing Simpson, she was understandably eager to have a good time on her own terms, and she did. She went out with friends. She dated multiple men, including, according to the documentary, Simpson’s friend and USC football protégé Marcus Allen. (Allen still denies that any affair took place, but Simpson’s former agent Mike Gilbert, among others, asserts that the two were definitely romantically involved at one time.) In footage of her memorial service shown in part three, A.C. Cowlings, the man who would later drive the Ford Bronco that briefly enabled Simpson to evade arrest for the murders, chokes up while remembering the infectiousness of Brown’s laugh. Despite a marriage that seemingly had violent tremors in it from the very beginning, Brown comes across as someone who was both joyful and could easily spread joy.
Greer also recalls Brown’s fierce independent streak that couldn’t be snuffed out, no matter what Simpson did. “There was something that he couldn’t quite control,” Greer says. “I think that was part of the attraction and I think, in the final analysis, that’s what got her killed.” After her divorce from Simpson, Brown’s sister, Tanya, says, “I think for the first time, she felt free.” In the three weeks that transpired between May 22, 1994, the date that Brown reportedly broke off the renewed relationship with Simpson for good, and June 12, the day she died, it sounds like she was beginning to breathe in the air of that freedom again. She didn’t get to breathe it for long. But as Made in America reminds us, she was someone who, just like her former husband once did on the football field, never stopped fighting to find an opening that would finally give her the space to run.