I was born on July 15, 1994, just under a month after O.J. Simpson led the LAPD on a low-speed chase in Al Cowling’s white Ford Bronco. Because of this, there’s an extent to which American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson is not meant for me. The show often relies on the viewer’s knowledge of the trial to provoke reactions; while I recognized a lot of these moments, I didn’t understand all of them. I cringed when Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) suggests to Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) that they should have Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) try on the killer’s gloves in front of the jury. I had absorbed that imagery from pop culture. I hadn’t absorbed the name Mark Fuhrman, so the twist at the end of episode five showing off his Nazi memorabilia was an actual twist for me. The People v. O.J. Simpson is an odd cultural artifact, and it’s only going to get odder with time, as viewers who lived the events of the trial are inevitably replaced with people born after it occurred. As it stands, the show has a foot in both eras –building off the memories of those who remember, transformed by the reactions of those who don’t.
The beautiful irony so central to the series is that it’s a fictionalized account of an event which played out as its own fiction in the media. The Simpson trial was molded into a narrative for entertainment purposes back in 1995, just as it is in 2016. This would make The People v. O.J. Simpson seem redundant at first blush, in a “Didn’t we live through this already?” sort of way. This story was only ever told as narrativized entertainment, after all. The show had to market itself as containing never-before-seen details – one promo proclaimed that while you may have watched the Bronco chase on TV, this show would put you “inside the Bronco” – despite largely sticking to the televised events of the case. The “behind-the-scenes” elements serve mostly to flesh out the characters in ways we could have inferred. The People v. O.J. Simpson is a “based on a true story”-story that exists one step further removed from reality than that label typically denotes. It’s a dramatization of a dramatization, a work defined by both its references to and its deviations from the original coverage.
The most significant of those deviations is its more informed approach to the various social issues at play in the trial. Gender, class, and obviously race are all at play here. The show depicts the trickiness of navigating their intersection. Clark loses the case because she puts misplaced faith in the justice system to do right by a domestic abuse victim, yes. But she is also fatally ignorant of the racial issues at play. Meanwhile, Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) prioritizes exposing the racism of the LAPD above Simpson’s abusive behavior (Cochran’s own history of domestic abuse does not go unremarked upon). While in reality these two perspectives are not mutually exclusive – you won’t see anyone talk about intersectionality on this show – the trial pits them against each other. In 1995, the sexism angle of the trial was all but invisible. In 2016, Marcia’s point of view is given its due.
The People v. O.J. Simpson doesn’t overturn the verdict, so to speak. While this is in many ways a feminist work, it does not entirely reclaim the trial for that perspective. By pitting the anti-misogyny of the prosecution against the anti-racism of the defense, the show prevents you from outright picking sides. While it is now more or less agreed upon that Simpson was likely guilty (the show implicitly takes this side, make no mistake), Cochran is not wrong to “play the race card” as he does. The show debunks his elaborate conspiracy theory in its opening scene, but it doesn’t discredit his line of reasoning. Episode five, “The Race Card,” opens with a scene of Cochran getting unjustly pulled over by a cop while driving his kids. The show makes no bones about Cochran’s correctness when it comes to systemic racism. Cochran is not on the wrong side of the issue, even though he may be on the wrong side of this trial. The People v. O.J. Simpson embraces contradictions like this. A lesser series might have used the cheat code that is hindsight and made Cochran out to be nothing more than a preening, charismatic villain who let a guilty man walk free in order to feed his ego. This show is more even-handed in its portrayal of Cochran. Vance certainly plays up that preening aspect, though. His performance is all booming mountaintop proclamations. He plays Cochran as a man so convinced of his own righteousness that it’s impossible for the people around him not to buy in as well.
That is truer of anti-sexism than it is of anti-racism, though. Episode six, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” focuses on Clark’s attempts to win the trial while facing inescapable media scrutiny and harassment. The redemption of Clark as a feminist martyr is perhaps The People v. O.J. Simpson’s most important work. Popular culture hadn’t been forced to reckon with Clark’s treatment until now. As recently as last year, the Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had Tina Fey resurrect the sexist media characterization of Clark as an incompetent buffoon. Even Fey, an otherwise outspoken feminist, was apparently unable to see the treatment of Clark for what it was. That’s how deeply the public narrative buried her. Recasting her as an intelligent professional who is sucker-punched by the media is the show’s greatest accomplishment, and Paulson’s performance is its half-court swish. Much like Cochran, she’s rarely depicted as self-doubting. Her confidence is of a steelier variety. Her Emmys clip will almost certainly be her breakdown at the end of episode six. Award shows love tears. Her best moments are all about cocked eyebrows and tiny smirks, little tics to suggest that she knows something you don’t.
The show’s accomplishment with Clark is only enhanced by the character’s imperfections. As previously mentioned, Clark is blind to the racial implications of the case. Early on, she expresses confidence in her ability to communicate with black women due to her history of working on domestic abuse cases. “I have a rapport with them,” she says, like a colonial explorer discussing a native tribe. She also refuses to take Darden seriously when he warns her about the vibes he gets off of Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale). Fuhrman’s blatant racism would later become the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the episode covering the Fuhrman tapes, episode nine, “Manna From Heaven,” Darden finally calls her on it: “You hired me because you wanted a black face. You never wanted a black voice.” Brown is doing great stuff here, though his is the subtlest performance of the main cast. His Darden has years of indignities and injustices right under his skin, always threatening to boil over, rarely doing so. It’s a disciplined performance in a much louder ensemble.
The People v. O.J. Simpson spends little time with its title character. The fact that he spends most of the season in prison keeps him sequestered from the rest of the cast. The show is more interested in exploring how the other characters were affected by his trial. It doesn’t get into how he was affected until the final episode, which abruptly pivots away from everyone else to focus solely on him for its final half-hour. Simpson goes home to his lavish mansion, but his rich friends now want nothing to do with him, and his neighbors protest his return. His favorite restaurant refuses to reserve his usual table. He’s free, but Cochran’s strategy to free him has cost him the status afforded to him by his class. In the first episode, Darden dismisses the solidarity with Simpson shown by his neighbors. He criticizes Simpson for forgetting about the black community once he got rich. “He became white,” Darden says. Simpson himself puts it differently, when he rebuffs the initial suggestion of the “race card” defense: “I’m not black. I’m O.J.” When the series begins, Simpson has given up his racial identity for the comfort of a class identity. When it ends, he’s been forced to retake the former at the cost of the latter. The show’s suggestion is that, in a pre-Obama America, you couldn’t be a rich man and a black man at the same time.
The main cast all fall somewhere on a scale from Brown’s Darden to John Travolta’s Robert Shapiro. Travolta’s Shapiro has been widely maligned, and I think it’s utterly brilliant. Every line is through gritted teeth, as though he’s had too much plastic surgery to open his mouth all the way. The idea is that Shapiro’s persona is nothing more than a construct. You could almost call Travolta’s take impressionistic. Falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian. His casting is the perfect representation of the way The People v. O.J. Simpson straddles prestige television and Ryan Murphy trashiness. He is genuinely good, once Kardashian starts to become consumed by doubt, but the idea of putting David “Ross Forever” Schwimmer in a role as loaded as the patriarch of the Kardashians is a high fence to clear. Kenneth Choi as Lance Ito is also worth mentioning, though the show doesn’t spend too much time with him. He’s good at playing the inscrutable emotion of a presiding judge without letting Ito become a total cipher.
Gooding’s Simpson is the show’s most bizarre performance, and that’s saying something. He’s not interested in imitation, nor does he go for Travolta’s brand of outrageous caricature. He’s giving a very sincere performance. He even shines in the early episodes when Simpson is more unhinged. It’s just that he’s not in any way recognizable as the man he’s portraying. His voice is the weirdest part. Gooding affects this reedy, high-pitched intonation which sounds nothing like Simpson. Gooding is playing by far the most recognizable personality here, and he chooses to swerve far away from a faithful depiction rather than coast on imitation. The O.J. of The People v. O.J. Simpson is kind of O.J.-in-name-only. In many ways, this is the keystone of the entire series. This is the show declaring its ultimate distinction from the reality of the events, or the “reality” of the media presentation of the events. Gooding serves to sever the show’s implicit connection with the story on which it is based and cement it as a work of fiction unto itself. The People v. O.J. Simpson ends up being as much a recitation of this moment in American history as a refutation of it. This fact ensures it its own place in our shared cultural canon.
Featured Image: FX