American Crime Story
“Ms. Clark cannot object,” says opposing counsel in the child-custody hearing that opens “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” and with that directive, the episode gets its theme. In this specific instance, opposing counsel is correct: Marcia Clark cannot object because she’s the defendant in a case brought by her ex-husband, Gordon, who’s seeking primary custody of their kids while the Simpson trial commands her attention. But the metaphor stands. The Simpson trial has turned Clark into a celebrity against her will — and there’s nothing she can do about it.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson has been great about showing us the behind-the-scenes dirt we couldn’t see during the trial, but it’s also been valuable for giving us a fresh perspective on what we could see. Clark’s sexist treatment by the media has been an ongoing concern for the show, and “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” gives the issue its fullest airing yet. It all happened right in front of us: the withering assessments of Clark’s hairdo and fashion sense, the second-guessing of her prosecutorial acumen, the gross tabloid revelations, the sexist remarks in open court. And it was coming at us, too, through the relentless drumbeat of 24/7 trial coverage on cable news, radio, newspapers, and anywhere else where opinions and speculation could be magnified.
Clark didn’t face public scrutiny alone, of course, but The People vs. O.J. Simpson has consistently underlined certain words (“frumpy,” “shrill,” “bitch”) that are often applied to women in the public eye. Behind the scenes, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” guesses what it must have been like for Clark at the time — in a word, devastating — but then and now and forever, we’re guilty of talking about celebrities as if they’re not also human beings. For the Dream Team, the attention was certain to be a net positive: As Robert Shapiro told F. Lee Bailey while informing him he’d be working pro bono, “You’ll be dining out on this case for years.” Cochran took some heat for being “flashy” (read: “black”), but no one was going to question F. Lee Bailey’s haircut or Barry Scheck’s vocal tone or Robert Shapiro’s soft appearance. Those types of judgments were reserved for Clark.
“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” is about the gross attention she receives from the tabloid press, starting with the hair and clothing and ending with the nude beach photo her second ex-husband leaks to the National Enquirer. But it’s also about the stresses bearing down on Clark from other sources: A once-bulletproof case continues to unravel with the testimony of Det. Mark Fuhrman, whose racist statements are poised to set fire to her mountain of evidence. Her 70-hour workweeks leave her vulnerable to Gordon’s argument that she’s unfit to care for their kids. And the support she should be getting from Gil Garcetti dissolves into a passive-aggressive offering of “media consultants” and a wholly unsympathetic attitude about her obligations as a mother.
Against this backdrop, we hear testimony from Denise Brown (Jordana Brewster), Nicole Brown’s sister, who breaks down on the stand while talking about O.J.’s openly abusive treatment of Nicole and his insistence that she was his property. Brown relays an incident where O.J. grabbed her sister’s crotch and declared, “This is where babies come from and this belongs to me.” That may be a Flintstone-ian expression of the patriarchy, but the way it filters through the defense team is a telling indication of what Clark and the prosecution are up against. “She’s overdoing it,” says Cochran. “She’s crying on cue and they’re feeling it.” He’s not saying Denise is lying here; he’s saying that talk of O.J.’s abuses are not resonant, which is a much different matter. If there’s little sensitivity for what Nicole Brown experienced as a woman, then surely there’s nothing in reserve for Clark. She’s expected to absorb this sexist treatment.
Coming off last week’s Christopher Darden–focused hour, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” intensifies the bond between the two prosecutors as they duck public criticism and burrow into the foxhole together. This has the making of a classic wartime-love affair, the kind that typically happens when the bombs are dropping overhead. The creators of the show seem to be embracing the real-life Darden’s recounting of the relationship as more than just friendship, and Brown and Paulson’s chemistry together make it a shipper’s delight. The kindnesses that Darden extends to Clark during this episode, especially as Gordon takes their custody battle public and the press registers a guilty verdict on her new haircut, are as moving as anything we’ve seen so far. He’s the only person who knows what she’s going through. He’s the only one who cares.
The episode also casts Cochran in a much less flattering light — and, by extension, it criticizes a culture that doesn’t take violence against women seriously. Cochran sneers at Denise Brown’s sob story while, behind the scenes, he takes unsavory steps to paper over allegations of spousal abuse in a previous marriage. Sexism certainly played a part in Clark’s sour celebrity, and The People vs. O.J. Simpson makes it as much a part of this trial’s toxic stew as race, class, and celebrity. There wasn’t enough awareness of its effect at the time, but with 20-plus years of hindsight, we can see cruel prejudice more clearly now. Grievances that were once denied or minimized are now starkly apparent. Ms. Clark cannot object.
- In real-life news, the revelation of a knife buried on O.J.’s estate is such a PR coup for the show that it’s like something out of Ace in the Hole.
- The Rosa Lopez testimony really was that ridiculous, though it was Darden doing the cross-examination, not Clark. For dramatic purposes, the writers must have felt Clark needed a win.
- Love Darden fighting back against the public perception of Clark on a morning radio show. Bitch or babe? “I vote ‘babe.’”
- The decision to let Fuhrman testify is one of the key blunders of the trial, tainting the evidence as much as any talk of it being handled incompetently by the LAPD. And that speaks to Clark’s naïve understanding of how race would factor into the trial. If the defense’s argument is that institutional racism led to a rush to judgment, then Fuhrman is their key witness, not the prosecution’s.
- A little fire from Cuba Gooding Jr.’s O.J. in the wake of the Lopez disaster: “I’m for real, hear me? I’m the Juice!”
- This week in irresistible music cues: Clark discovering the best version of herself to the tune of Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” The fall from such great, sensual heights is a steep one.
- Bailey’s use of the N-word in open court is a diabolical tactic, especially the degree to which he leans into it. “The most powerful word in the English language,” he declares to Cochran and company over drinks. It hasn’t yet dismantled Fuhrman’s testimony, but it lays the groundwork and Clark seems to know it. She’s lost a key witness.