“The People v. O.J. Simpson” Replays a Trauma

O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) takes a lie-detector test. Photo: FX

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The Simpson case exposed a deep and painful divide.[/pullquote]

Just after midnight on June 13, 1994, the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman were discovered outside of Simpson’s Brentwood home, fatally stabbed. That brutal crime and the subsequent arrest and trial of Simpson’s celebrity ex-husband, former pro-football star O.J. Simpson, form the basis of FX’s chilling new miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Dubbed the “Trial of the Century,” the Simpson case exposed the deep and painful divide in American society over issues of gender, sex, class, and especially race, while simultaneously helping to create the 24/7 tabloid news culture devoted to sensationalizing those rifts for ratings.

David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and John Travolta as Robert Shapiro in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Photo: FX

I was ambivalent going into The People v. O.J. Simpson. I was in high school at the time of the trial and as enthralled by the spectacle as anyone (it probably caused my obsession with true-crime narratives), but it seemed like it might be a problem for the series to fulfill its promise. Creator and executive producer Ryan Murphy’s previous work (American Horror Story, Glee, Nip/Tuck) is enjoyable but inconsistent and very often confuses style with substance, a seemingly bad fit for a story that routinely has characters debating the difference between the two. At one point Robert Shapiro (played to slimy, shallow perfection by the immobile face of John Travolta) and Robert Kardashian (a wonderfully nervy, desperate performance by David Schwimmer), both members of O.J.’s legal defense team, discuss the fact that their client (Cuba Gooding, Jr., portraying a volatile, narcissistic moral blank) is charming but not nice, a distinction they would like to avoid having the jury discern in him.

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Discussing the case with a friend born in the early Nineties, I was startled to realize that she knew none of the particulars of the case and had never heard the name Ron Goldman. Ads for the show tried to solve this problem with younger viewers by playing up the Kardashian connection, featuring an ironic scene where Robert Kardashian moralized about the shallow pursuit of fame, while the press leading up to the premiere has been mostly focused on what unlikely celebrity was playing which recognizable face. All of this suggested that the series would be nothing more than a campy nostalgic trip for those of us to whom the name Kato Kaelin means something. There are many tragic legacies about the case: how thoroughly the victims were eclipsed and forgotten, how they were never given any form of justice, and how the trial of their accused killer quickly became fodder for a series of pop-culture jokes. What exactly was this miniseries going to accomplish?

I’m always happy to be wrong (don’t fact-check that with my younger siblings). The People v. O.J. Simpson is genuinely smart – focused on the story it wants to tell but unhurried in its execution. The ten-episode series, which debuted February 2, makes an immediate bid for the seriousness and timeliness of its subject by opening with footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent 1992 Los Angeles riots, establishing the cultural context of the O.J. trial while also creating parallels with the contemporary moment. It’s a reminder to viewers more than twenty years after juries rendered their “not guilty” verdicts in both the King and O.J. trials that videos of white police officers “encountering” black civilians, which now seem to surface daily, have a long history.

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The second episode underscores the connection between the two cases by devoting nearly an entire hour to the LAPD pursuit of Simpson in the white Ford Bronco, recapturing the baffling experience of watching it at the time and wondering how it could possibly end well. It’s a sobering moment when O.J. finally exits the SUV and you realize how differently the scenario might have played out for him as an African-American male if he weren’t famous and surrounded by cameras.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This story doesn’t require embellishment.[/pullquote]

I’ve watched through Episode 6, and despite a few showy moments, particularly in the installment focusing on Assistant District Attorney Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson), the series steers clear of the kind of soapy excess Murphy is better known for (he directs three out of the six episodes I’ve seen and didn’t write any of the scripts). This is not a story that requires any embellishment. For the most part the camerawork is restrained, more interested in capturing the characters as they react to the chaos surrounding them, letting them connect over the sharp, although not particularly subtle, dialogue in moments that remind the viewer of the human emotions tied up in the larger issues of the case.

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden. Photo: FX

The ample, mostly recognizable cast is full of great, empathetic performances, both big and small, that keep the familiar tabloid personas from sliding into caricature. Paulson makes a wonderful Clark, flinty but vulnerable, suddenly under scrutiny she doesn’t understand or want in a job where she is continually confronted by the sexism of her male colleagues. If Paulson’s Clark is the moral center of the prosecution, determined to see justice for Brown Simpson and Goldman, she is still blinkered by her ambition and unwillingness to deal with or understand the issues of race that the case brings to the surface. She ignores the warnings of Christopher Darden (a charming, conflicted performance by Sterling K. Brown), when he says that she should reconsider putting on the stand the blandly polite Detective Mark Fuhrman (a perfectly oily Steven Pasquale with a perfectly oily mustache). Joseph Siravo nails Fred Goldman’s passionate, dignified grief in a scene that serves to remind the audience of his son Ronald’s humanity. In a moment that manages to rehabilitate some of the little digs made at the preteen Kardashians, Selma Blair’s Kris Jenner rails against her ex-husband Robert, excoriating him for his defense of O.J. and his moral blindness, while screaming that Nicole was “butchered.”

Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran. Photo: FX

But the series belongs to Courtney B. Vance’s performance as Johnnie Cochran. Often vilified as a flashy showman whose glib effectiveness led to a miscarriage of justice, Vance plays Cochran as the smartest man in every room, aware of it but only proving it when necessary. His relationship with Brown’s Darden is one of the most interesting of the series, leading to scenes that slowly shift over course of the series from frustrated warmth, with Cochran exhorting Darden to “choose a side,” to tense disappointment, when they meet as opposing counsel during the trial. When Darden explains to Clark that Cochran is the real deal, that underneath the fancy suits and talk-show appearances Cochran genuinely believes in the causes he espouses, it’s something Vance’s performance has already conveyed. He comes across as the only player in the O.J. saga who fully perceives the situation and his position within it. When he says, “I like to win,” one doesn’t need to understand what foreshadowing is to know that he will.

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Recent nonfiction entries into the true crime genre, such as The Jinx, Serial, and Making a Murderer, are all more or less driven by a putative search for justice and have had real-world consequences for the cases they dramatized. The People v. O.J. Simpson, however, seems relatively unconcerned with convincing the viewers of O.J.’s guilt (although the source material for the miniseries, Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, is unequivocal on that subject). The People v. O.J. Simpson argues that the O.J. trial is not a single instance of social conflict or one miscarriage of justice, wherein black and white Americans viewed the same situation through radically different lenses. Instead, it functioned as a mechanism that exposed the willful blindness of white American society. It is this blindness, as well as the characters’, that the miniseries indicts. By revisiting the trial more than twenty years later, The People v. O.J. Simpson reminds the audience how little progress has been made in the conversations it once provoked.