The O.J. Verdict
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'whites and blacks live in two different worlds' - an interview with ofra bikel

Ofra Bikel The calamity in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina opened the door once again on the issue of race and poverty in America. It's a subject that for more than a decade has been a powerful theme, and sometimes the focus, in the documentaries of Ofra Bikel, a longtime, award-winning producer for FRONTLINE.

"... once upon a time, TV reporters felt some responsibility to expose inequities and injustices, an impulse unthinkable today, except at those rare moments when crisis and emotion intrude. With the exception of producer Ofra Bikel's fearless investigations for PBS's Frontline, no contemporary newsperson executes the equivalent of Murrow's 1960 expose of the horrific lives of migrant workers, Harvest of Shame. ..."
--from Ken Tucker's 9/26/05 New York Magazine review of the new movie about Edward R. Murrow, "Good Night, and Good Luck."

Why has race and class in America figured so prominently in your work?

Well, I did so many documentaries on the justice system. When you do that, you unfortunately can't help but encounter the issues of poor people and race in the justice system -- you meet African American families in almost every case. So I got to know quite a few of them. At least I know them better than many other people do -- or better than other middle class white New Yorkers do -- because of the time I spend with them.

So you got to the race issue by investigating the legal system.

I got into it when I produced the program, "Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: Public Hearing, Private Pain." Editor's Note: This 1992 FRONTLINE report explored how the controversial hearings on Thomas's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court deeply affected the psyche of black Americans by reviving traumatic memories and old fears, and exposing the hidden conflicts within their community.

And that program was really almost an accident. When the Thomas hearings were on, I was doing research for another program about young people. I was not sure what it was about, so I was talking to young people, mainly in the South, where I happened to be. And I went to a school -- something which I always do when I go to a new town. I usually ask the teacher to give me a class and then at the end of the class, I ask anybody who's interested in talking more to come back later. And there were mainly 16-year-old black women there who came back to talk. And I was very interested, because I'd never realized the problems that they had in terms of, if they were good students, they were considered "whitey". ... They have problems about who they are. Who do they go out with? I mean, I never thought of all this, and I decided that it would be interesting to delve into their world.

At that point, the Clarence Thomas hearings began with Anita Hill as a witness and like everyone else, I was glued to the television. If you remember, the issue we all talked about at that point was a middle class gender issue of sexual harassment and how men "just don't get it!"

I talked to David [David Fanning, FRONTLINE executive producer] and said, "What if we really look into it?" And he said, "Sounds very interesting, go ahead."

Ofra Bikel's reports on race, class and the U.S. justice system. Six of these can be watched online.

So I went back to New York and worked for about 10 days and went to all these meetings of white women who were all feminist activists. And I heard a lot of talk about sexual harassment, and how "men don't get it," etc.

And then, by chance, I was at Harvard, and I met an African American woman -- I don't even remember who she was -- and I said to her in my naïveté, "Isn't it interesting that it's really about gender, and not race -- that race for once doesn't play a part in this story?" And I remember it so clearly -- she looked straight in my eyes and said sort of coldly, "Race didn't play any part for you?" I said, "No." And she said, "Well, let me tell you something: race was everything for us!" And I said, "Really? How?" And I was really sort of shocked and said, "Well, tell me about it." I quickly realized that what she was talking about was very different and very complex. So, I thought, "I have to look into that."

And suddenly, in a way I did not expect, I started thinking back to the girls I met in school, their problems, the things they talked about, their relationships with African American boys -- I thought, "Well, obviously something is taking me to the same subject again, so why not follow it?"

The truth is that it never occurred to me to wonder about these issues. Do black women agree with white women about life, men, sexual harassment? What do they think? How did the black community, who desperately wanted an African American judge on the Supreme Court to replace Thurgood Marshall, feel about Anita Hill, who tried to stop a black man from getting the job?

And then when I went to the news archival footage to see what was on the air at that time -- who was interviewed and what was said -- it was all the same thing: One white woman after another was on the air explaining Anita Hill to the audience, saying, "Anita Hill feels ... Anita Hill thinks ..." I don't remember one black woman who was interviewed.

It just never occurred to anyone -- it certainly did not occur to me -- that the black community might have a whole other reality. And maybe it just didn't seem important what they thought.

So that's how my first program on race started. And I decided, "Okay, this is like another country; I know almost nothing about it. I'm going to go in and see what happens, and see who they are, why, how."

A totally new area for you...

Totally new, at the time. Then when I got to know many African American families, I couldn't believe that I knew so little. At the end, I felt such a part of that community that when someone said something to someone else in a low voice, I would actually be hurt, and I would say, "C'mon! Don't do that to me, I'm a sister!" And so they said, "Yes, yes, of course, come, we will tell you."

It was a completely different world for me, but then it became totally familiar. ... For almost a year I didn't talk to many whites. And that made me understand an awful lot about the black community that eventually affected the way I saw the O.J. trial. Because it was at that time I came to realize that blacks and whites live in two different worlds, really different worlds.

Let's go back to the question of why people -- specifically, the media -- weren't interested in what black Americans thought about the Thomas-Hill drama.

It's hard to say. You know, it's the "other" and it's not us. On the other hand, you can say that we, the white community, feel that things are so okay between the two communities that one can talk in the name of another -- usually whites talk for blacks.

I don't know. When nothing happens, when there are no riots, everything is fine in America. For example, when you watch television and the talk shows, you see so many mixed couples. And you think, "Well, really, you know, things are getting better." But basically, we're not interested really. Who cares how they live? What they feel?

I remember an interview here in my house with a high-powered woman -- an important editor who was black. And I asked her in my very naïve, straight and probably tactless way, "Do you think about being black every day?" And she said, "Every day." And I said, "How come? I mean, you're so in the white world." And she said, "How come? I'll tell you how come. I'm going to go out from here, and I'm going to hail a cab. And one cab after another is not going to stop for me because they think I'm going to Harlem. Because that's exactly where I am going, because that's where I live." And she says, "How do you want me, after 20 minutes of trying to get a cab, not think about being black every day?"

It is subtle, and also very unsubtle. We live in two different worlds. We see things in different colors, in different shapes. It is depressing when you think of it -- that in our day and age there is such a divide.

But I have to tell you that with all my lack of familiarity with the African American community, there was also, very quickly, a great closeness. Maybe it is because I grew up in Israel and, God knows, there we always feel besieged and have to cling together and feel very tribal. So maybe that's why these feelings were very familiar to me.

And, in turn, how do you think black Americans look at you, when you meet them?

It's funny, so many times I go to a house of an African American, usually when one of the family is in prison. First, they look totally panic stricken, because they don't understand my accent. Then, when they realize I am really talking English, they relax somewhat. And when they realize that I am terribly interested in what they have to say, they talk and talk.

The interesting thing is that they can't believe that a white woman really is going to try and do all these things for them! You know, they say, "It's amazing, of all people -- you're white!" It's like you come from the moon.

When you started reporting on the justice system, did you have a sense beforehand that race and class would be so central in the stories you investigated?

No, I didn't know. I did know that there is a huge percentage of blacks in the system, but I didn't really know what it meant in term of lives, the effect on families, on children. No, I didn't know.

In fact, I was always looking for some white defendants. Because I was afraid that if I only portray blacks, some viewers would say, "Oh well, it is not our problem." Or worse: "What do you expect?"

At the end, I found that there was no difference between visiting with families of black defendants or white defendants. They are all people who have no voice, who no one listens to.

I remember when I looked at the case of Clyde Charles, a black man who got life in prison for rape and had already served 20 years before we got him out. He had begged for years to be given a DNA test knowing that he would be exonerated by it. He couldn't get it; they wouldn't give it to him. His sister wrote hundreds of letters to everybody everywhere. Nothing helped. He didn't have Johnnie Cochran or a "dream team." Eventually we got Barry Scheck from the Innocence Project involved, and with him on one side and our cameras on the other, he was exonerated within a few months.

Wouldn't it happen to a white prisoner? Sure. Same story happened with Roy Criner in Texas sentenced to 90 years for rape and murder. He was through with all his appeals and there was nothing anyone could do. We got him out.

So obviously you don't just meet blacks who suffer at the hands of the system, but there are a lot of blacks.

One of the things that struck me about the pictures of New Orleans after the Katrina hurricane is how the victims, mostly black, sat there, waiting on the highways! They were just sitting there in the heat, without water or food, with little babies. Just think of people working at FRONTLINE sitting on the highway for just a few hours -- can you imagine how we would scream? I mean, those we saw on television, they were between passive and being grateful, you know? I don't know how to even describe it. Because that's their life. They're waiting -- and they don't expect much, and they don't expect help. And you know, it's really, really very sad.

Can we talk about your newest report, "The O.J. Verdict"? How was it that you came to see that race was at the heart of that case?

I watched a lot of the trial and felt that the prosecution messed up the case. They behaved as if they knew nothing about the black community in Los Angeles and how they are treated by the police, etc. And they thought nothing of bringing forth lying cops and a racist detective. They were bound to fail.

I was sure he would be found not guilty. I remember the day of the verdict I was home in New York and I called FRONTLINE. I spoke with David [Fanning] and I said, "Tell me, what does everybody say?" And he said, "Guilty." And I said, "No way." In fact, I remember saying, "If O.J. is guilty, I am not going to do any more shows about this country because it means that I don't really know this country."

What are your thoughts on how the country reacted to the trial and the verdict?

The reaction was huge. And if you remember, it was not something anyone could discuss rationally at the time or even today. Basically, I agree with something Alan Dershowitz says in the interview I did with him: "This case was personal." There was something so deep and unexplainable about the O.J. case, you know? The emotions it engendered, the jubilation and the fury.

The African American law professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw, another one of the people in the program, told me that her most liberal friends called her, furious, and saying, 'I'm never going to give another penny to the Innocence Project. You know, never again -- if they can do what they've done.' (Editor's Note: Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck were part of the defense team and the co-founders of the Innocence Project.)

People were so angry with the verdict! As someone says in the program: "Could O.J. have done it? Yes. Is he the first person to get away with murder? No. Do people with money get away with stuff -- even murder? Yes. Do we accept it? Yes."

There was something about the O.J. case that got to the deepest parts of people. People would just not accept the legitimacy of the verdict -- "The jury was stupid ... it is because they were black ... it was jury nullification." People who usually believe in the system thought it could not have worked in this case because they did not agree with the verdict. It reached a point where they found the whole trial an unacceptable sham.

And I don't know what can explain it except race -- and it was very unconscious.

They didn't even realize their reaction was, at bottom, about race?

I don't think they did. And if you say that to them, they'll say, "Oh, come on, no way! You know me! I am a liberal!" Yes. And with all that, it was race. And that's what makes race so insidious.

It was interesting to compare what went on after the not-guilty verdict of the actor Robert Blake, accused of killing his wife. Most people thought he was guilty, but when the not-guilty verdict came, there was barely a ripple. Why?

The O.J. verdict didn't really open the eyes of people. What it did was draw anger. I don't think anybody really said to themselves, "Why am I so angry? What does that verdict mean?" Of course some people did. But very few. And even today, when I talk to people, and they ask,"What are you doing?" I mention this program, and they scream at me. They just scream at me -- "This murderer, this scum bag." And they don't even know what the show is about. There is something deep there.

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posted oct. 4, 2005

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