Our inability to look away from the darker side of humanity reveals more about us than we might like.
In many ways, it seems fitting that two of the biggest documentaries in 2016 featured very public falls from grace, falls laced with tragedy, heartbreak and death. And while they are two quite different tales – one a well-known event that had a seismic impact on American culture, the other an obscure but macabre fascination dug up out of the past – they both speak to the darker side of Americana, how our culture can demand perfection and produce a cycle of consumable tragedies that fulfill our need to watch the sweet go sour.
2016 inexplicably became the year of O.J. Simpson with FX’s Emmy-award winning series American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson receiving high praise for its portrayal of the “trial of the century,” in which Simpson was acquitted for the 1994 murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. But in addition to the Ryan Murphy series, there was also O.J.: Made in America, a five-part documentary directed by Ezra Edelman as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.
The sprawling series never really gives a definitive response on the matter of guilt or innocence, instead it presents the evidence paired with Simpson’s friends and associates, many of whom believe him to be guilty, while some still maintain his innocence. But instead of pigeonholing itself into just another true crime examination of an infamous crime, what O.J.: Made in America does masterfully is examine the cultural cocktail that helped create and destroy Simpson. Not unlike Weiner, another documentary released this year detailing the disastrous mayoral campaign of former Congressman Anthony Weiner, Simpson was a talented athlete who became addicted to fame, an addiction that broke him down, dragged him into humiliating and dark places until he became his own worst enemy. Just as Weiner couldn’t stop sexting – even more allegations came to light following the documentary’s release – Simpson was unable to let go of the murders, eventually turning the public’s perception of him as guilty into a source of attention and notoriety as a substitute for the fame and adoration he received in years prior.
But in addition to our disposable celebrity culture, O.J: Made in America places Simpson’s story within the context of very real and still ongoing racial tensions between the Los Angeles Police Department and the city’s African-American community. It’s a context that extends beyond the allegations made by the defense that Detective Mark Furhman was a racist, tapes were played in court where Furhman used racial epithets and he bragged about using excessive force, or the further implication that he planted evidence to secure Simpson’s conviction.
It is a necessary problem to examine because it extends beyond the Simpson murder trial, because it is an atmosphere of distrust and discrimination that Simpson himself was born into and one he attempted to supersede through his success in sports and his subsequent reinvention of himself as “not Black” but just O.J. Much of Simpson’s success stems from this desire to parlay his extraordinary athletic talent, his success at USC, winning the Heisman Trophy, being the first round draft pick in the NFL, into something that could sustain the end of his career and allow him to keep his fame and lifestyle. Simpson’s success as a spokesman in the advertising world, his burgeoning acting career came at a time when there was still a clear demarcation between what he was allowed to do versus what other successful Black men were allowed to do. But instead of paving a path for others, Simpson’s success would only be a greater height for him to tumble from, one many Americans would watch gleefully.
During but especially after the trial, there was a clear racial divide between white folks who believed Simpson guilty and African-Americans who maintained his innocence and offered support. The African-American community weren’t just taking Simpson on his word, they lived through Watts, 39th and Dalton, Rodney King and so much more. They watched the justice system shrug at the broken bodies of their loved ones, they watched killers walk free time and time again, for their community this was very personal. If the system could work for Simpson, perhaps there could be hope in the future. By contrast, there was a real sense of anger and outrage by the white community, who felt justice – the same justice many felt satisfied with after the Rodney King trial or countless other verdicts that laid the blame on African-Americans – had not been served. Beyond this, there was a sense of betrayal that Simpson, who was “allowed” to operate within the upper echelon of society, one that was predominately white, had foolishly thrown it all away. His innocence was irrelevant, instead it was this betrayal that was unforgivable.
The post-trial circus that became Simpson’s life until his incarceration in 2008 was akin to watching someone with a drug addiction spiral out of control, except for Simpson that addiction was fame. And while we would never let him redeem himself and soar to the same heights, we allowed him attention, albeit most tabloid coverage, so we could continue to keep tabs on our favorite cautionary tale. Every camera that documented his bizarre antics confirmed our societal notion of justice; he has sunk this low because he deserves it, the notion of him being found innocent by a court of law was irrelevant because it did not satisfy the public’s desire for what they perceived as retribution. We fed on the fat of Simpson’s disgrace, never once considering our own complicity in the story.
By contrast, Christine Chubbuck does not have the success story like Simpson. Chubbuck was a journalist in Sarasota, Florida who was less than remarkable in life. By the accounts of her colleagues, while she was hard-working and passionate about the news, she wasn’t a particularly good interviewer, something she was required to do for Suncoast Digest, the morning community affairs talk show Chubbuck hosted for WXLT-TV in the early 1970s. Chubbuck never rose to fame, didn’t land the interview of a lifetime nor did she pave a path for future female journalists in the field. Chubbuck, whose name is still met with a mix of sad resignation or puzzlement in Sarasota, is simply remembered because she took her own life live on television.
Like Simpson, Chubbuck was the subject of two films in 2016. The first, a traditional biopic titled Christine and starting Rebecca Hall, and the latter a strange documentary called Kate Plays Christine, which follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she struggles to understand the motivations behind Chubbuck’s suicide in an attempt to play the woman in a fictional TV movie. What drives Kate Plays Christine is much of what has allowed Chubbuck’s name to linger in the decades following her suicide in 1974, the existence of a videotape of the live broadcast during which Chubbuck short herself and our societal desire to witness the unthinkable.
As Sheil works through Sarasota, talking with residents, many of whom have never even heard of Chubbuck, she tries to find in herself the mindset Chubbuck was in on that fateful day. It is a dark and sad journey into the life of a woman suffering from depression and loneliness, a woman who at just 29 felt that her inability to live up to society’s expectations left her with no other option but death. Much has been made of events leading up to, and presumably contributing to Chubbuck’s suicide, including the removal of one of her ovaries, which doctors told her would have a significant impact on her ability to have children, as well as the rejection of a colleague she was romantically interested in.
But it is too easy to boil Chubbuck down to a “failure” as a woman and to ignore the reason for her notoriety stems from our desire to watch her death “in living color.” In the documentary’s final sequence, as Sheil struggles to recreate the gory act, she screams at the camera for answers. “Tell me why you need to see this,” she begs, tearfully explaining that she has tried to find nobility in Chubbuck’s act but there is none. For Sheil, Chubbuck is not a hero but a woman at the end of her rope. It is a personal tragedy on a public stage and our desire to witness the act, both recreated and the actual footage, tap into society’s love of women on the verge of a breakdown, of a reinforcement that women are overly emotional and cannot handle the pressures of life without cracking. Once again, our complicity in the creation of this tragedy goes unspoken in favor of the notoriety of a public tailspin, of the desire to watch the crash landing of another fall from grace.
What Simpson and Chubbuck have in common is their social transgression, for Simpson acting “outside” his race and for Chubbuck her gender, by choosing a “masculine” form of public suicide in retaliation for her inability to be what society deemed a woman. It is not empathy that drives the interest in Chubbuck’s suicide tape, nor is it a sense of justice that drives the glee behind watching Simpson’s 2008 incarceration. Our glib satisfaction with watching these tragedies unfold says more about our desire to watch these transgressions be punished than it does the actions of either. Our addiction to watching tragedy become the payoff for success or fame isn’t about fairness or equality, it is about tipping the scales in favor of a destruction crafted by our own hands – we will lift you up until we decide to drag you down and this is price that must be paid if we are to continue to speak your name. It is a vicious cycle but a tradeoff many will likely see as worthwhile; they get the fame and we get to pick like vultures at the remains. It’s an ugly but satisfying win-win.