Playwright David McMillan vividly remembers the day O.J. Simpson was acquitted, because it created a national atmosphere in which racial assumptions were challenged. The debate over the court’s decision forced Americans to see their country for what it was, rather than what they believed it to be. McMillan offers his Brief But Spectacular take on why the Simpson verdict still matters today.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to another in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask interesting people to describe their passions.
O.J. Simpson has been the subject of several TV and theatrical programs this year, including an ESPN documentary, an FX Channel series, and a play, “Watching O.J.” by writer David McMillan.
Here, he explains why the 20-year-old verdict still matters today.
And warning: It contains some explicit language.
DAVID MCMILLAN, Writer: I remember the O.J. Simpson trial very vividly. I’ll never forget the day that the verdict was announced, because I was hanging out with my friend, a white guy, Chris Brown. We saw these two black friends of ours who were celebrating. And Chris was like, how can you guys be happy that O.J. was acquitted?
And one of the black girls said, “Oh, he didn’t kill that white (EXPLETIVE DELETED).”
I will never forget that. And it was a moment where he realized he didn’t know the people that he went to school with.
I decided to write a play about not the trial itself, but people watching the trial and their reactions to it.
Unfortunately, the play has become even more timely in the last couple of years. It speaks to where we are in our present moment. Race is a topic that is getting a lot of attention these days, but, at the same time, people are afraid to start that conversation and how to start that conversation.
“Watching O.J.” takes place on the day that the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. When these types of moments happen, suddenly, you realize, maybe I don’t know my co-worker or my friend as well as I thought I did.
I tried to capture as many different points of view as I could. In one scene, you have two characters, Jamal and Allison, one black, one white. One is from Brentwood, one from the hood. They can’t possibly believe that the other person thinks what they think.
ACTRESS: Please tell me you think he’s guilty.
ACTOR: Why does my opinion matter?
ACTRESS: I suppose it doesn’t, not in the grand scheme, but it’s a good litmus test.
ACTOR: For what?
ACTRESS: To determine whether or not you’re a sane, rational human being.
DAVID MCMILLAN: Another character, Derek, who’s Asian American, shares his perspective on the trial, based on his parents, who are Korean American, and how they were affected by the L.A. riots.
ACTOR: Part of me wants him to get acquitted, because I don’t want to see a repeat of what happened here three years ago. And if sparing my parents the heartache of seeing their store destroyed again means letting a guilty man go free, I’m willing to live with that.
DAVID MCMILLAN: For a lot of African-Americans, they saw the trial not as an indictment of O.J. Simpson, but really as an indictment of the LAPD.
One of the other characters in the play, Kim, she has two sons, one who’s in school and the other who’s in prison. And she’s looking at this trial not caring whether or not O.J. did it. She just wants a win.
ACTRESS: That wouldn’t just be a win for him. That’d be a win for all of us, for all the black men that’s been railroaded by the system, and for all their mothers who’ve had to stand by and watch.
For once, we will finally get a taste of what justice feels like. And for once, we could finally say, yes, God damn it, we got one, you mother (EXPLETIVE DELETED)! Yeah, we got one.
DAVID MCMILLAN: Race is something that we will always have to deal with as a country. Our country was founded on de jure segregation, and racism, and slavery.
And so those issues are part of the fabric, whether we like it or not. And I thought the verdict and what it brought out in people, not — again, not the trial itself, but what it brought out in people, was a moment, a moment where America got to see itself reflected back to itself.
We see the country that we are, as opposed to the country that we think we are.
My name is David McMillan, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on the O.J. Simpson verdict and why it still matters today.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can find more episodes of our Brief But Spectacular series at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.