Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran.
Of the many smart decisions made by the creators of The People v. O.J. Simpson, the smartest may have been to start with the premise that Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. The show is not aiming to retry the case before a public jury in 2016, or even re-create the experience of watching the trial unfold as it did two decades ago. It is about understanding how a guilty man could be found not guilty, and what the dynamics behind that verdict say about race, gender, celebrity, and social class. This was “the trial of the century,” but not because of its flashy tabloid appeal. It exposed the cultural fault lines that divide the country. The question that haunts us now, after the series is over, is whether we could expect the same result today.
The best answer comes from Chris Darden, when Johnnie Cochran approaches him with conciliatory remarks after the verdict. Cochran had gotten the best of Darden at every possible turn during the trial, exploiting his weaknesses at key moments (the glove debacle chief among them) and encouraging the impression that he was a traitor to the black community. Cochran’s offer to help him rehabilitate his image is a misread that Darden slaps away, and what he says next is prescient: “This isn’t some civil-rights milestone. Police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here, except your famous rich one in Brentwood.” The Simpson trial may have taken place in the shadow of the Rodney King beating, but if you’re looking for instances of police violence and racial injustice in the present, there’s always a fresh, horrid supply at the ready.
The People v. O.J. Simpson has shown us moments we didn’t get to see in 1994 and 1995, but, miraculously, the writers and directors have also kept the tension high during all of the big courtroom moments and known outcomes. There’s a sense of dread that comes from the inevitable, and “The Verdict” is a crashing payoff to the slow-motion train wreck that’s been developing all season. Now that we understand the key players as human beings, in all their nobility and weakness, the personal stakes are ramped up.
That may be the show’s most important legacy, even beyond its usefulness as a cultural barometer: We can finally see the case as more than an abstraction, which wasn’t possible as it happened. The O.J. Simpson trial may have been a media circus, but the coverage neglected to mention that the clowns weren’t wearing makeup. We could have noticed Robert Kardashian’s oddly crestfallen reaction to a favorable verdict, but we couldn’t have known the context. We could have watched the press conference where Christopher Darden breaks down mid-sentence, but couldn’t have understood fully the pressure building up to this release. We could have considered Johnnie Cochran’s blistering attack on the LAPD a cynical ploy, but we no longer question the sincerity and importance of his agenda.
But still: Four hours? After nearly a year of sequestration, it’s hard to look too unkindly on the jury, but four hours isn’t even a repudiation of the evidence — it’s an outright denial of evidence as something worth consideration in a murder trial. If the initial “straw poll” did indeed break down 10–2 along racial lines, then the two holdouts had a moral and civil obligation to challenge the majority before capitulating. By the same token, declaratory statements like “I will never, ever think they proved it” do not suggest a devotion to a fair, open-minded discussion. Whatever the case, dramatically speaking, an insta-verdict proves that the prosecution’s concerns about “inflaming the jury” and getting an emotional verdict were entirely justified. And given the defense’s strategy, they paid most dearly for Mark Fuhrman’s sins. The gloves may have been an error, but in the end, they stuck out mostly as a rhetorical flourish.
“The Verdict” finds pockets of dissatisfaction in every corner, not just from the losing squad. As the series began, David Schwimmer, John Travolta, and Cuba Gooding Jr. were curious casting choices, yet they’ve each brought a surprising melancholy to men who cannot celebrate the unlikely victory that’s been handed to them. After the verdict, Schwimmer’s Kardashian shares a sympathetic look with Clark, then bolts to the bathroom to guilt-vomit. Travolta transforms his smug, glad-handing Shapiro into a hurt puppy after his handpicked defense team completely isolates him. And then there’s Gooding’s temperamental Simpson, who’s freed from prison but faces a new kind of isolation. Because O.J. didn’t testify, the writers can only speculate what he must have been feeling based on the trial and its immediate aftermath — still, their impression seems astute. If race was the chief factor in determining the Juice’s guilt, then it follows that his return to Brentwood would be a chilly one. It also stands to reason that he might assume his “not guilty” verdict would exonerate him in the court of public opinion. It didn’t. The lonely, final shot of O.J. staring up at his own statue seals it: No one else is looking up to him anymore.
Though The People v. O.J. Simpson has been an irresistible pop-culture nugget from the start, what’s surprising and gratifying about the show is how weighty it’s gotten over such a limited run. The early punchlines of Kato Kaelin, Faye Resnick, and the Kardashian kids have long since faded into a consequential, multifaceted essay about American life. There are still moments of levity in the finale, like F. Lee Bailey shrugging off Shapiro’s concerns about using Louis Farrakhan’s security detail (“Just get in the van or I’ll tell them you’re Jewish”), but “The Verdict” plays it mostly straight. The show’s creators fought off the temptation to turn the trial into a mid-’90s nostalgia piece, and did so without losing its value as a conversation starter. It’s deepened our understanding of the trial — and, in the process, deepened our understanding of our culture.
- Beyond the jab at his autographed Arsenio Hall head shot, the show has largely taken it easy on Judge Ito. That said, spectacles like allowing Simpson to speak without a jury present are the reason why he was so heavily criticized. Perhaps it may have helped for the jury to hear Clark challenge Simpson’s unchallenged statement? (“You want to address misrepresentations? Take a seat in the blue chair and we can have a discussion.”)
- “If the gloves are too small, easy call.” A conviction would’ve been all but certain if Cochran had rolled with that loser.
- How good has Sterling K. Brown been on this show? His Darden withstands more pressure and shows more emotion than anyone on the trial, and Brown makes his vulnerability visible at all times. He sees through a veil of tears. Although Brown has been a working actor since the early 2000s, he stands to get the biggest bump from the series. His Darden is bruised and self-effacing, yet Brown has also shown a capacity for tenderness in Darden’s relationship with Clark, as well as lacerating power in his exchanges with Cochran and Ito. This won’t be the last we see of him.
- You know you have a bad witness when your closing argument requires throwing him hard under the bus. Then again, Cochran seemed to be swinging wildly by evoking Hitler in his closer. The difference? He connected.
- Clark revealing to Darden her sexual victimization at the hands of an Italian waiter brings her big-picture motives in line with Cochran’s case against institutional racism. The foundation for both cases was personal. The jury’s verdict was, perhaps, also personal.
- Simpson’s pursuit of the real killer or killers has thus far borne no fruit.
- So, what does the future hold for American Crime Story? The ten-episode anthology format proved ideal for this moment in history, which needed just so much space to accommodate its expansive themes and cast of characters. The second season will tackle Hurricane Katrina, which is a far less centralized story. Having to start from scratch won’t be easy, but there’s an opportunity here for a continuity between the two seasons on the issue of racism in America. A decade after the O.J. trial, those fault lines were revealed once again.