I watched the spectacle that was the O.J. Simpson trial as it unfolded in 1994 and 1995, though I wasn’t as obsessed with seeing every minute of coverage as so many people in the nation were at that time. When the verdict was read, I happened to be off-duty at my workplace, a supermarket, where they had a TV up for customers to view the final result. The whole crowd of us gasped as we heard the verdicts of not guilty.
I am reminded of this time now because I have been watching the show The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story on the FX network. The 10 episode series began on February 2, 2016 and still has a few episodes to go as I write this. It is based on the book The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson by Jeffery Toobin, who was one of the show’s writers. The cast and crew have done a great job of recreating that time.
The cast is full of terrific actors. A gimmick of the show is to use makeup and costuming to match the look of each actor to the real-life person he or she is portraying as closely as possible. For me as a viewer, I had a few moments of double vision as I remembered the faces and names from decades ago superimposed on the faces of the actors, many of whom were familiar to me from other works. I got used to it, but the first episode or two was a fun game of name-the-person. The cast includes Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden.
The first few episodes – depicting the discovery of the bodies, the beginning of the investigation, the questioning of O.J. Simpson, and the Bronco slow-speed chase followed by Simpson turning himself in – keep the focus on O.J. Simpson and the murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. After that, the series turns to focus on the Dream Team lawyers for the defense and the two main lawyers for the prosecution. As also happened in real life, Nicole and Ron are overshadowed by the drama.
The show does a great job of highlighting the media circus aspect of the case that makes me uncomfortable as I watch it now. The murders, the arrest, the trial, the people involved were all fascinating to the public, and the media outlets ran with it to boost ratings and circulation. The case filled the TV shows, the magazines, the newspapers, and finally the daytime viewing hours too. People connected in any way to O.J., Nicole, or the lawyers were given book deals, paid to appear on programs, paid for photos, and asked for interviews. A strange mix of fact, fiction, and rumor got gobbled up by the eager public, and this series shows this in many ways. Interviews run on TVs in the background, lurid magazine covers are on desks, a character in the supermarket check-out line looks at a magazine which insults her new hair style on the cover. The media buzz is a hum in the background of every episode.
Two other themes the show chose to highlight are sexism and racism. It was the prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark who saw her curly hair mocked on a tabloid cover while shopping, and remarks were made about her appearance throughout the trial. Episode six of the show, titled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” opened with her at a court date with her ex-husband over custody of her kids. She was juggling a heavy work load, with many long nights with taking care of her children. That meant that they were with a babysitter or their father a lot. We see her running from that court to the court with the Simpson trial where she is late. The rest of the episode covers her reaction to the media and the progression of the trial. At one point her old ex-husband, not the one fighting for custody but another one, released nude photos of her that were published in a tabloid. In a quiet moment, she broke down crying. As this went on, she watched in court as her witnesses from the police force crumble under defense questioning and weaken her case.
Episode five, “The Race Card,” opened with a scene that underlined why so many black people distrusted the police, and believed them capable of framing O.J. Simpson. It is a flashback to when Johnnie Cochran was an assistant district attorney, and driving a nice car through a white neighborhood, on his way to a restaurant with his two young daughters. He is pulled over by a white officer for a failure to signal a lane change, though Cochran says he always signals and that this is the third time he has been pulled over that week. The scene ends with Cochran out of the vehicle and handcuffed, in front of his daughters. The officer returns from running his name, takes off the handcuffs, and tells the ADA to have a nice day. We feel the black man’s humiliation, and we carry that feeling into the rest of the episode. The defense team decided to present to the jury that the police were racist and were framing their client. On the dream team, the black lawyers, especially Johnnie Cochran, begin to edge out the white ones, especially Robert Shapiro, concerning strategy and focus. On the prosecution team, one white lawyer drops out for health reasons and the team is left with the white Marcia Clark and the black Christopher Darden. Darden and Cochran were friends at the beginning of the case, but became tense competitors through the trial. I remember, two decades ago during the original trial, being shocked at a poll result: 75% of white people believed O.J. Simpson was guilty, and 75% of black people believed he was innocent. I wondered what I didn’t know about the black community. That is such a large gap between the races, and I now believe that comes from how different the experiences with the police were for the white community and the black community.
Which brings me to the biggest lesson and opportunity the trial gave this country; a chance to talk about and understand race. It is a pet peeve of mine that people call the O.J. Simpson case the trial of the century. I get so upset by people, especially in the media, forgetting whole swaths of recent history. Calling this the trial of the 20th century ignores a lot of other important trials in the 1900s: Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes Monkey trial, the Lindberg baby kidnapping, the Rosenbergs, and the Nuremberg trials. But looking at the lessons of the O.J. Simpson trial, there are so many that are still relevant. So many times the justice system seems to work better for rich people and celebrities. The number of black people shot or otherwise killed by police officers, and the protests that lead to the Black Lives Matter movement, were numerous in the last few years and continue into this one. And the public is still easily distracted by a media circus filled with bright shiny scandals, celebrities, and sensational headlines.
Episode seven aired last night, highlighting the moment in court when O.J. Simpson tried on the bloody gloves and could not/would not get them on. Scenes for next week suggest that the show will get into the DNA evidence – this trial was the first big case to use it – and the plight of the jury. I remember feeling so bad for that jury, sequestered for months, and at times having to sit out for whole chunks of time while motions and other matters were addressed in court.
I am enjoying this series, and looking forward to the last episodes. It has brought up a lot of memories, and is a reminder of how far we have not come in twenty years, but these real-life people worked hard and did their best, and they deserve to have another generation know who they were and a little bit of how it was.