The Watts Riots Give 'O.J.: Made In America' The Context It Needs To Show Simpson's Role In American Culture
Even though FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story made it seem impossible that there could ever be a better TV examination of the case, just a few short months after its finale comes the lauded ESPN documentary O.J.: Made In America. But rather than solely focus on the trial, the documentary will give a broader look at Simpson's life and downfall as a celebrity, as well as the cultural climate of America leading up to the trial, going all the way back to the Watts Riots. The Watts Riots' connection to O.J. Simpson is more circumstantial than anything else — they took place in 1965, which happened to be when Simpson was in college, right on the precipice of gaining national fame.
The Watts Riots began when Marquette Frye, a black man in Los Angeles, was pulled over on Aug. 11, 1965 under the presumption he was driving while intoxicated and the crowd that formed around the incident eventually turned violent. According to the Civil Rights Digital Library, the resulting six-day riot "was both the largest and costliest urban rebellion of the Civil Rights era." The riots were named because they centered in the neighborhood of Watts, a primarily black area. Also according to the CRDL, "14,000 California National Guard troops were mobilized in South Los Angeles and a curfew zone encompassing over forty-five miles was established in an attempt to restore public order. All told, the rioting claimed the lives of thirty-four people, resulted in more than one thousand reported injuries, and almost four thousand arrests."
A key point to note, emphasized in an article by PBS, is that these riots took place a year after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was meant to give black Americans stronger protection under the law, but did not stop instances of police harassment. PBS also suggests that a "report issued by the Commission concluded that the riots weren't the act of thugs, but rather symptomatic of much deeper problems: the high jobless rate in the inner city, poor housing, and bad schools. ... No great effort was made to address them, or to rebuild what had been destroyed in the riots." That scenario is similar to the Rodney King Riots, also stemming from racial unrest after police brutality, which happened in 1992, just two years before Simpson would gain fame for another reason — the murder trial.
During the Watts Riots, Simpson was attending community college in his native San Francisco, where ESPN reports he broke community college records. But in 1967, Simpson came to Los Angeles to play football at the University of Southern California. After the riots, it was unexpected that the city would openly embrace a black man as a hero, but once Simpson began his record-breaking college career, that's exactly what happened. Simpson was cheered on as he made a famous "scintillating 64-yard touchdown run" just a few years after the riots.
The Watts Riots provide such an important backdrop in O.J.: Made in America. They help to demonstrate the racial climate of America as Simpson rose to fame and provide more context for the trial of the century. As racial tensions increased, somehow Simpson became a lightening rod twice, first as his career was just beginning, and again 30 years later, when it was permanently changed.