In the fifth episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, one of the accused double murderer’s African-American defense attorneys, Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), scouts the Juice’s Brentwood home in advance of a crime-scene visit by the jury. The house is a typically bland 1980s-vintage Southern California snoozer, its walls painted in a hue that could be described as white-bread. Most of O.J.’s photos show the former NFL running back and unlikely movie star — played here by Cuba Gooding Jr. — with white folks and more white folks. Hanging over the fireplace is a framed Norman Rockwell print depicting two Caucasian boys in old-fashioned leather helmets playing football. “This won’t do,” Cochran mutters to himself, and the episode cuts to a moving crew importing funkier furniture and loads of African artwork. The crowning touch is a replacement Rockwell “on a loan from the Cochran collection,” as the lawyer puts it: the cover of the 1964 issue of Look magazine portraying African-American schoolgirl Ruby Bridges, then all of 6, entering a segregated white New Orleans school in the company of federal marshals. The issue’s title: “The Problem We All Live With.”
That would be a good subtitle for The People v. O.J. Simpson, provided you made that second word plural. Like so much of this limited series, and like so much of the O.J. investigation itself, the scene with the Rockwell painting is mostly about race and racism. But that’s not all the scene is about, nor is it all this ten-part FX series is about. Executive-produced and partly directed by Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story), based on New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, and developed by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Ed Wood, Big Eyes — do you sense a niche?), this program spends a lot of time exploring race, always with patience and an eye for telling details, as when Cochran gets slammed down on a car hood by a white Los Angeles cop while his young daughters watch from inside. But it also gets into class resentment; domestic violence; the distortion of self-image by wealth and fame; the pomposity, narcissism, and ruthlessness of O.J.’s top-dollar defense team, headed by Robert Shapiro (John Travolta); the cluelessness and overconfidence of the prosecution, led by Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson, the Robert De Niro of Murphyland); black professionals’ difficulty navigating white-dominated institutions; the ability of rich people to buy the legal outcome they want; police corruption’s corrosive effect on public trust; and many other subjects. The series also examines — with a deft touch and sharp humor — the moments where one or more of these concerns collide. It is in these intersections that the series slips free of its mandate to merely dramatize people and events that we know. The best scenes in The People v. O.J. Simpson prove that it is possible for a bit of unabashedly populist entertainment to hold two crucial yet contradictory thoughts in its head at once.
In the same episode where Cochran redecorates O.J.’s house, we get two knockout scenes that explore the multifaceted relationship between Cochran and prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown of Army Wives), who might or might not have been added to the team by Clark mainly because of his color but who is definitely overmatched — and knows it. As incarnated by Vance, who’s been consistently brilliant since at least 1987’s Hamburger Hill, Cochran is a righteous glad-hander, a silver-tongued salesman, a master of interpreting and reshaping images to ensure certain outcomes, and at times a noxious grandstander. But he’s also exceptionally good at what he does, and he has so much more experience at being a gifted black man in a white world that he can’t help but reach out to Darden at times, even when he’s punting him across the courtroom while O.J., the jurors, and millions of TV viewers look on. When Darden pleads with Judge Ito (Kenneth Choi) to exclude any evidence about the notoriously racist investigating officer Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale), discoverer of the bloody glove, he argues that any citation of the N-word might render black jurors too angry to be rational and fair. Cochran verbally flays Darden, calling his request “outlandish, unfortunate, and unwarranted,” then mutters, “Nigga, please.” But during Darden’s visit to O.J.’s house on the day of the jury’s inspection, Cochran approaches the defense attorney and warns him, “Whatever happens, don’t do Fuhrman. Make the white people do him.”
The series generates real empathy for O.J.’s predicament as a phenomenally graceful but borderline illiterate athlete who was alternately dehumanized and pampered throughout his career, and it underscores the irony of mostly white police officers giving him preferential treatment because of his celebrity (the defense team’s chief investigator says L.A. cops “acted like O.J.’s butler”); at the same time, it never loses track of the certainty that this man was a repeat abuser of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson (Kelly Dowdle), and almost certainly cut her throat and repeatedly stabbed her friend Ron Goldman (talked about but not seen, except in crime-scene imagery), who just happened to be there.
Devotees of Toobin’s book will be struck by how much inspiration this series takes from his reporting, as well as its overall affinity for sticking to what actually happened rather than embellishing or inventing details — though admittedly, with a case this notorious, what would be the point of making stuff up? There are examples of what might be called “composite scenes” in which information delivered over a span of days or weeks is packed into a moment. (One of the better ones depicts Marcia Clark standing on the other side of one-way glass while a sample jury/focus group answers questions about the case. Their opinions of O.J.’s guilt or innocence split along racial lines, but everyone in the room agrees that Clark comes off as a bitch.) But for the most part, Murphy & Co. are content to mine this familiar material for pathos (as when Goldman’s father, played by Joseph Siravo, rages at how his murdered son has been reduced to an afterthought) and corrosive satire (confronting a wall of reporters outside the courthouse on day one, F. Lee Bailey, played by Nathan Lane, takes Shapiro’s arm and says, “Come on, Bob — pretend we’re at the Oscars”).
There isn’t a bad performance anywhere in this production, and while a few of them fail to rise above the level of a very good imitation (Travolta’s Shapiro is all sculpted eyebrows, puckered smirks, and constricted body language), most of them go far beyond that. As O.J., Cuba Gooding Jr. communicates the defendant’s incredulity, narcissism, and unearned smugness, but also his justifiable self-loathing at having come so far in life and lost it all in a single unfathomably brutal night. Evan Handler is an even better Alan Dershowitz here than the late Ron Silver was in Reversal of Fortune. (“He’s a smug son of a bitch,” Bailey says. “Every 15th word is ‘Harvard.’ ”) And throughout, superb character actors fly in for a scene or two and momentarily steal the show. Among the finest of these is Robert Morse, who plays Vanity Fair’s O.J reporter Dominick Dunne as an eloquent ghoul so desperate to be the Truman Capote of the ’90s that he’ll treat the murder victims as scandal-sheet items just to hold court at a dinner party. You come away from The People v. O.J. Simpson struck by humanity’s infinite capacity for both compassion and selfishness. At one point, O.J.’s self-appointed best friend for life, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), takes his family out to brunch and reacts with discomfort when the maître d’ lets them cut in line and get a good table because she knows his name and face (well, sort of — she addresses him as “Richard Cordovan”). “Fame is fleeting,” he tells his daughters. “It’s hollow. It means nothing without a virtuous heart.” It’s a moving statement, but it would mean more if he hadn’t preceded it by bragging “Barbara Walters called me” and smiling.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. FX. Tuesdays. 10 p.m.
*This article appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.