At the end of the first episode of FX’s addictive and hypnotic The People v. O.J. Simpson, a group of prosecutors huddle around a TV set looking on forlornly as what will become known as the “White Bronco Chase” begins to unfold on the screen. Marcia Clark, who will become the target of so much scorn in the months to come, glumly asserts “we are going to look like morons.”
Like so much of what would occur, Clark’s comment had a dual meaning. Deferring to Simpson’s recently hired attorney Robert Shapiro, who had requested that O.J. be allowed to turn himself in after a warrant was issued for his arrest, Simpson reneged and was spirited away by his friend A.C. Cowlings for what would become not only the most famous slow speed chase in history, but an opener for the endless 24/7 coverage of what was quickly dubbed “the trial of the century.” But if the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office was made to look foolish by giving their main suspect in a double murder special treatment, it was a mere foreshadow for the embarrassment it would suffer once the trial began.
Instead of going for a remake of the trial itself, Ryan Murphy and the team that produced, directed, and wrote this outstanding miniseries use it as a crucible within which they explore the crushing weight of pressure placed on the prosecutors, defense lawyers, jury, judge, victim’s families, and Simpson himself. While all of the main players are offered a humanizing portrayal, it is Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark who forms the emotional core. Her initial swagger at what she views as a slam dunk case quickly erodes as the defense “dream team” hammers at her over and over to the point where she is brought to tears in open court when having to confess her inability to stay after hours because of her kids. It is devastating, in a car-crash-in-slow-motion way to see a strong woman brought low - by an ex-husband eager to cast her in a negative light, a tabloid culture that fixates on her appearance and unlikability, and adversaries who press every advantage while flirting with the ethical boundaries of propriety.
In Cochran, Courtney B. Vance inhabits the man in all his complexity and flamboyance. What fuels Cochran’s outrage against police misconduct stems from personal experience, of questionable police stops, his own employment in the DA’s office, and years representing people accusing the LAPD of misconduct. But in Simpson, Cochran has an imperfect vessel. Early on, he asks Simpson to look him in the eye and tell him whether he committed the murders and of course Simpson proclaims his innocence, but the inscrutability behind Cochran’s reaction leaves the viewer wondering whether this exercise is a legitimate one or simply to mollify Cochran’s conscience. But he is also vain, a vicious courtroom brawler and silver-tongued, toggling his pitch between righteous indignation and heartfelt passion as he drops rehearsed, quippy one-liners that he makes sound as if they were pulled out of thin air.
Here, the courtroom battles become small set pieces for the broader narrative. A month-long dissection of criminalist Dennis Fung is reduced to less than 90 seconds and though he was ubiquitous in real life, Kato Kaelin’s appearance is barely a cameo, passing in the blink of the eye. Instead, we are treated to the behind-the-scenes drama, of Cochran wresting control of the defense team from Shapiro, of Chris Darden’s request to have Simpson try on the bloody gloves rebuked, only to watch him go against orders once in the court room, and Judge Lance Ito’s struggles as the trial descends into a referendum on race and Detective Mark Fuhrman’s use of vile language years before.
Hovering over the entire spectacle is the news media in an age when the intersection between it and the tabloid culture was becoming closer and closer. Characters invariably find themselves gazing at the TV screen, Ito shaking his head in disbelief at the Tonight Show’s “Dancing Itos” sketch, Clark and Darden nursing wounds as their trial presentation is ripped to shreds by pundits, and Shapiro’s rising fear of inciting violence because of the defense’s full-throated use of racial injustice in its presentation.
And in Robert Kardashian, Murphy finds his object lesson in the perils of celebrity. It may simply be a happy coincidence that Mr. Kardashian’s offspring would become Exhibit A for all that we we find revolting and impossible not to look at in the reality TV era, but David Schwimmer’s pained performance, all hang dog sad looks and disquieting skepticism hits all the right notes. We see his slow evolution from staunch defender of his longtime friend to unwitting accomplice in a possibly guilty man’s escape from justice even as his brood lurks in the background, pint-sized stealth bombs who would detonate in a vacuous culture their father would not live to see.
The macro themes of The People are as subtle as a sledgehammer. It is not just the nascent obsession with televised sensationalism that the trial introduced, but the larger (and more important) question of how race and the criminal justice system intersect that is as powerful and important today as it was in 1994 and 1995. Occurring just a few short years after the LAPD’s taped beating of Rodney King and the riots that ensued after the officers were acquitted of charges against them, it probably would have been impossible for the Simpson trial to not be impacted by race to some degree, but its prominence, abetted by Fuhrman’s clear racism and the broader arguments of both investigative malfeasance and incompetence put it all front and center.
The question begged is whether any of it mattered. The defense focused on racial bias and police misconduct, but guilt or innocence in the courtroom has much more to do with economics than race. Poor people, regardless of color, do not get the same quality of representation as the wealthy - an incidental effect impacting people of color disproportionately. If the same evidence in the Simpson case was used against an indigent defendant, there is no question the result would have been far different. Moreover, the blatant use of race by both sides, whether through jury selection or disqualification, the testimony of Detective Fuhrman, or pleas to the jury’s racial sympathies, ensured that the trial’s outcome fell largely along racial lines - most whites thought Simpson was guilty and (literally) got away with murder while most blacks agreed with the verdict. Indeed, one of the lasting ironies is that Simpson, who before the murders was a post-racial celebrity before that term was even coined, became a symbol for some weird form of racial karma - his acquittal acted as a counter weight to the ills and wrongs suffered by the black community at the hands of a justice system they saw as stacked against them.
After the trial, in one of the show’s final scenes, Cochran runs into Darden in a nondescript hallway and compliments his adversary on a job well done, while offering to bring the younger man back “into the community.” Darden, eyes ablaze, lights into Cochran, explaining that he (Darden) never left the community and that for all of Cochran’s oration about racial justice, he did nothing to advance their people’s cause, he simply helped a rich man from Brentwood avoid conviction. The trial so soured Darden that he quit and Clark followed him out the door. Simpson was cast out as a pariah from polite society and eventually landed in prison years later for unrelated reasons (perhaps its own form of karma).
While the show is fantastically paced, and most of the cast is spot on (Sterling K. Brown absolutely crushes it as Chris Darden and Nathan Lane is F. Lee Bailey as both legal gadfly and cold blooded mercenary out for a final taste of glory), it is Cuba Gooding Jr.’s interpretation of O.J. Simpson that left me cold. The O.J. we see is just a ball of petulance and grievance, but the fact that he is in so many ways a bit player in the show’s drama speaks both to the richness of the writing and the fact that as the one person in a static condition throughout the trial, we knew and saw little of what was happening in his life. His one star turn - struggling to slip on the bloody gloves, was critical, but even that “victory” is put in Shapiro’s lap, for it was he who surreptitiously slipped on the gloves during a break in court testimony and advised the team they would not fit O.J.
Of course, the gloves episode points to the show’s one glaring failure. While Shapiro apparently did try on the gloves at some point, it was not at the time and in the way depicted in the show. Other events are similarly dramatized. Assistant DA Bill Hodgman’s heart attack, which is portrayed as having happened in court, actually happened back in his office. Cochran is shown cross-examining Mark Fuhrman when the detective asserts his Fifth Amendment rights, but it was actually co-defense counsel Gerald Uelmen who led that questioning. Darden is shown flirting with a contempt citation (which actually happened), just not at the point in the trial depicted in the show. While these tweaks added dramatic flair, this was one trial that did not require fictionalized accounting to add to its drama.
The show does not pick sides in its depictions of events or characters so much as it reflects the weaknesses and humanity of those involved; however, in its post-verdict coda, the writers seem to tip their hand ever so much. After his run-in with Darden, Cochran returns to his office to celebrate with his co-workers. As the champagne flows, the group watches as President Clinton is shown responding to the verdict. As the President expresses his surprise (and regret) that people of different races saw the verdict so differently, he also observed that the case showed the need for people of all races to talk to, and not past, each other. A small tear dribbles down Cochran’s face and he nods with satisfaction, but it is impossible to know if he thinks the victory is one for racial equality or simply his now skyrocketing fame.
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