The People v. O.J. Simpson Was a Vivid Portrait of America at the Turn of the Century

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L-R: Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro. Photo: Prashant Gupta/FX

As the man known as the Juice stood contemplating a statue of himself in the final shot of The People v. O.J. Simpson, a previously inconceivable thought popped into my mind: I’m sad to see this trial end.

I never would have said that 21 years ago, when the real trial, which dominated American TV and public life for eight months, crawled to a close, deepening racial divisions and confirming the public’s worst impressions of media, the justice system, law enforcement, and the courts. Hindsight can be a great thing, at least where drama is concerned: The Simpson trial is just far enough in the past to be thought of as history now, but just close enough that we could revisit its major events through the lens of fiction and realize that even though clothes, hairstyles, pop music, and technology have changed, we haven’t collectively evolved nearly as much as we might have hoped. 

The song that played as O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.) wandered out of a party celebrating his release from jail was “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Like a lot of the musical choices on this miniseries, it seemed on the nose at first (“she,” of course, referring to Nicole, who was “gone” regardless, whether by her ex-husband’s hand or that of some theoretical “real killer”); but it got deeper and messier and richer when you thought about it in context of what you’d seen in the preceding ten hours. It wasn’t just Nicole and Ron Goldman who were gone, but the delusions that optimists nurtured about the body politic. Everything felt hopeless at that point in 1995: dumb, pitiful, broken. The ugly-mundane smallness of the murders in the greater scheme made the whole thing more depressing. This was not an earthquake, a flood, a war, a terrorist attack, but a domestic atrocity that might not have gotten any media play beyond the state in which it occurred, had the accused killer not been a famous ex-athlete (the realization that domestic violence is still not considered a story is depressing in a different way). It was a big deal because O.J. Simpson was involved. And yet: thank goodness, because the wretched ugliness of the killings gave Americans a pretext to talk about a lot of things they would otherwise rather not have talked about, or in some cases have thought about. And over two decades later, this miniseries did a version of that, too. Coming on the heels of several years’ worth of scandals involving police corruption and brutality, a renewed national interest in the prison-industrial complex, and a presidential election that’s played more openly with racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes than any since 1992, its timing was horribly, wonderfully perfect.

This FX miniseries sounded like a bad idea but turned out to be a great one. Presented as the first installment in an anthology titled American Crime Story, it’s a retelling of familiar events that goes beyond celebrity impersonations and Wikipedia summaries and does things only dramas can do. Scripted by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt), directed by Ryan Murphy, Anthony Hemingway, and John Singleton, and seemingly produced by everyone in Hollywood, it re-conceived Simpson’s trial as a semi-satirical portrait of Los Angeles as a cultural and political microcosm of the United States, and its key players as characters with complex interior lives. Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, it’s a vivid snapshot of the country close to the turn of the century — the sprawling civic lament that the movie version of The Bonfire of the Vanities should have been, but wasn’t. It’s a potboiler that riveted viewers by observing tactical maneuvers, personal crises, and ego wars — spectacles that made the whole story exciting again, even if you were intimately familiar with the biggest moments. You can know the story of Malcolm X or Nixon or the Lindbergh kidnapping and still be enthralled by a fictional retelling that rehashes what happened. This production was enthralling, all the more so because it displayed such keen judgment. The filmmakers kept the story on simmer most of the time. Droll, grim comedy, and intimate moments of doubt and fear powered a lot of it, which made the more intensely emotional, obviously “big” scenes (like defense attorney Johnnie Cochran and prosecutor Chris Darden tearing into each other in court, or Fred Goldman breaking down in tears over the impossibility of justice for his son, or a fashion-shamed Marcia Clark entering the courthouse with a new hairdo that one wag compared to Rick James’s) really pop.   

Keeping one foot in grabby entertainment and another in American Tragedy, this show retroactively justified the excuse of every journalist who covered the case in the mid-’90s: This is not just the case of a football player accused of slaughtering his ex-spouse and an oblivious bystander – it’s a window into thorny issues that affect Americans in everyday life.

Racism, sexism, police corruption, the transfixing spectacle of celebrity scandal, the daily indignities faced by anyone who isn’t white or male in the American workplace, the tendency of lawyers to treat every case as a value-neutral test of audacity and willpower rather than a procedure to determine the course of people’s lives: These subjects and more are woven into every scene of every episode. They moved into the foreground in certain chapters — most memorably in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” which shows prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) being scrutinized for her hair, clothes, and demeanor rather than the quality of her performance in court, and “The N-Word,” about the blatant racism that courses just beneath the surface of white-dominated big-city police departments, and the possible distorting effect of bringing evidence of bigotry into a trial that’s theoretically based “only” on physical evidence. The slow, steady momentum of the trial pushed every scene forward, so that you always felt as though you were going somewhere, even when the story somewhat prankishly settled into a cul-de-sac, like episode eight, a near-bottle episode that introduced almost two dozen new characters in the jury and gave us comedic moments worthy of a great ’70s counterculture comedy. (The jurors on the winning side of a group-vote about whether to watch Martin or Seinfeld celebrate by doing the opening credits dance from the former.)

Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran emerges as, if not a hero, exactly, then the character who sees reality most clearly, albeit through jaundiced eyes. He’s a pretzel-twisted idealist, treating O.J.’s trial as the fulfillment of a lifelong obsession with reforming (or at least punishing) the Los Angeles police department for its history of bigotry and high-handedness. Like so many sub-stories in The People v. O.J. Simpson, this one is planted early, then carefully nurtured: the opening flashback of episode four, showing Cochran being pulled over by a white police officer for no reason other than driving through a white neighborhood in a nice car, seems incongruous at first, but it resonates with the importance of Cochran on the defense team as well as the condescension and marginalization inflicted on Chris Darden by an almost entirely white prosecutors’ office. (After Cochran goes on TV and describes Darden as, basically, an affirmative action hire who’s all about image, Clark assures him that he was chosen for his talent, not because he’s black. But everyone, Darden included, knows that it isn’t either/or.) Cochran’s history as an adversary of the state, as well as an African-American resident of Los Angeles, has taught him that facts often don’t matter when it comes to the law — that it’s more about crafting a narrative that’s persuasive enough to dominate whatever the prosecution is offering.

“We’re here to tell a story,” Johnnie Cochran says. “Our job is to tell our story better than the other side tells theirs.” He does, and that’s why his side wins. The audacity of Cochran’s strategy — pitching the case to the African-American jurors as a sneaky variety of “jury nullification,” payback for decades of the police railroading black people for specious reasons — becomes more comprehensible and resonant in this fictionalized miniseries than it did in Toobin’s book, which obviously despises Cochran’s strategy, and treats the defense team’s racial angles as dangerously ludicrous on their face. In Paulson's and Sterling K. Brown’s performances as Clark and Darden, we often get tight close-ups of the characters reacting to Cochran’s strategy and arguments; there are intriguing hints of doubt and distress in their eyes. It’s as if they’re torn between knowing that what Cochran doing is morally wrong, if you care about justice for Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman (as they do), and realizing that, in the abstract, he’s onto something. Clark’s near-panic as she tries to exclude testimony by racist officer Mark Fuhrman, chillingly played by Steven Pasquale, strengthens this notion: The more forcefully she insists that one officer’s blatant racism should have no bearing on the facts of the case, the less convincing she sounds to the court, and to us. It’s not easy to fold the audience’s conflicted reactions to the story you’re telling into the actions of your characters, but this miniseries does it exceptionally well, and through almost every major character at one point or another.

If the program had focused exclusively on race, racism, criminal justice, and the trustworthiness of police, it still might’ve been a notable work, but it covers much more ground than that. It’s a thoughtful, sardonic portrait of Los Angeles as both a state of mind (everything is about image there, even if you’re not in showbiz) and a sprawling geographical space, where millions of people live together and yet are essentially alone (those ominous aerial shots are as lovely as the ones in season two of True Detective, but here they’re as meaningful as they are striking). It’s a crackerjack legal thriller about big egos colliding (Cochran muttering “Nigga, please” to the perennially overmatched Darden is a smackdown for the age). And it’s a near-satire of pettiness derailing what’s important. Many of the characters wield the sword of justice as cavalierly as a little kid going after a classmate with a Nerf bat. “Judas!” snarls John Travolta’s egomaniacal defense attorney Robert Shapiro, storming into a conference room to confront Nathan Lane’s F. Lee Bailey for betraying him to a newspaper reporter. “And I suppose that makes you Jesus?” Bailey sneers back. 

Can anyone win acting awards for a series in which almost everyone could be considered a lead character, and every performer takes his or her own specific, even eccentric approach without canceling out the others? We’ll see. Travolta’s performance as Shapiro turns him into a Johnny Depp gargoyle, a mannequin with sculpted eyebrows and strangely calculated gestures, yet somehow he expresses a truth about Shapiro as a public figure: He never quite seemed real when you were watching the guy on TV in the ’90s, either, and the very artificiality of the performance eventually becomes an objective correlative for an inauthentic man who wants to dominate everyone yet also be loved by them. Vance’s Cochran is a magnificent hambone burlesque of a man who is just as exuberantly corny in life. But in quieter moments (at home, especially), you see a smaller, less confident version, a moral hypocrite (he was accused of beating his first wife) and a type-A fussbudget who is constantly rehearsing lines to himself and others: trying out material, shaping his public performance as Johnnie Cochran, the People’s Champion. Paulson, the MVP of Ryan Murphy’s FX repertory company, gives her first unabashed star performance as Marcia Clark, capturing every facet of the character’s personality through minute shifts in her voice and calibrations of her eyes and hands. (She’s also the best TV smoker since Don Draper.)

Sterling K. Brown's Darden has a woodwind voice that makes it sound as if he’s inhaling his own frustration; I would imagine that generations of men who’ve been in some version of his situation will watch his performance and feel gratitude for finally being understood. Supporting and recurring characters are fully imagined as well, within limits: Bruce Greenwood’s Gil Garcetti, who sees his imagined legacy crumble in eight months, and Kenneth Choi’s Lance Ito, an honorable man of iffy judgment who can’t help loving the warmth of the media spotlight; David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian, who was raised to think that loyalty is the most important virtue, and who craters when his friend O.J.’s guilt becomes harder to deny.

The most mysteriously compelling performance of all, though, is Gooding Jr. as Simpson. He doesn’t match the real Simpson physically or vocally, but after a while you get used to him, just as you get used to Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon or Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, because it’s not just an impersonation: He is incarnating one or more ideas about the real man, testing out sets of propositions as he goes. The character is a flesh-and-blood cipher, disturbing even to those that Simpson is paying to understand, glorify, and defend him. Gooding plays him as a man who is disconnected from his essence, either because he can’t bear to face it or because he never had an essence to face. This Simpson seems to have no particular consciousness as a black man, a rich man, a famous man, an athlete — only a craving for vindication. He wants others to look at him with approval, not because he deserves it, but because he’s used to it. He’s a brooding blank whose flashes of apparent happiness or regret don’t quite feel real, either, somehow. It’s to the show’s credit and Gooding’s that we can see all that, but not feel as if the writers are retreating into vagueness because they couldn’t figure Simpson out. All the show’s disturbing layers are connected to this lead performance. Like the case, he means what you want, or need, him to mean. The final shot is perfection: an image regarding an image.