FX’s shockingly good American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson is based on the bestselling book The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson by attorney Jeffrey Toobin.
Toobin had a front-row seat for the trial of a lifetime, where 20 years ago some 100+ million people watched a Los Angeles jury find “The Juice” not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman.
The timing is impeccable as #blacklivesmatter rages on, with the skew of those who feel O.J. was innocent and those outraged a murderer was set free often split down racial lines.
The bloody murder scene at Nicole Brown Simpson’s Brentwood home kicks off a chronological chain of events dramatized in correct succession: The building of Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s prosecution team; the hiring of head prosecutor Marcia Clark; the slow-speed highway flight in a white Ford Bronco; the sickening realization that the prime suspect was a former football star immensely popular with everyone regardless of race; to the months-long criminal trial, all beautifully cast and recreated for FX.
The biographical drama features Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson; John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance as defense lawyers Robert L. Shapiro and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.; Sarah Paulson as the prosecutor Marcia Clark; and David Schwimmer as the Simpson confidant Robert Kardashian.
Here Monsters & Critics’ Managing Editor April Neale and contributor Ernie Estrella discuss the upcoming third episode, which airs tonight (February 16) and ponder the importance of this series and the timing of it.
Ernie Estrella: April, before we start these reflective reviews, let’s head back to episode two and share with readers where we were during the infamous white Bronco chase on Interstate 5/405.
It’s a cultural touchstone – everyone can place where they were when they heard about it and inevitably tuned in and it was, for many, the entry point to this crime story.
April Neale: I certainly can. I watched like everyone else, as I was glued to the TV folding laundry with a toddler running around, staring in disbelief.
It was almost a carnival-like feeling, seeing this insanity play out – like a reality show gone amuck.
It was also at that point in my gut as a woman I knew he had killed Nicole and Ron. My opinion of course, but the actions showed how disassociated he was from reality.
I felt that he could compartmentalize his actions and he had a loose tether on life in general. Desperate people do what he did. That running and gun to the head thing.
EE: For me, it was my high-school graduation and I remember having the NBA Finals game on the television for my guests and it was just suddenly interrupted.
I think we tried changing the channel but kept going back to NBC, hoping they would put the game back on and it seemed like they put up a photo of that damn white car with that cluster of cops behind it – because the image never changed – for hours.
My point is this was pretty symbolic for the entire case as it had been forced upon the public whether they wanted to tune in or not.
At this point, I didn’t know any of the details but I didn’t see how leading a chase like that helped his cause.
I just had no idea that O.J. Simpson would infiltrate our lives on a daily basis from that day on.
The car chase would be essentially the knot of a gigantic balloon of a story that just kept getting pumped up with more hot air each day.
However, this series has inspired me to go revisit the transcripts of those calls O.J. had with Detective Tom Lange, and his ramblings alone are damning.
AN: What this series does masterfully is pulling all of us spectators inside the TV so we can get the filling in on the players who were all involved, on both sides of the legal argument.
I also – don’t hurl – have a new-found respect for Kris Jenner who is portrayed as someone who sussed out the general assholian qualities O.J. hid from the public.
EE: Selma Blair is playing her so I think she’ll play a bigger role, whether we want more Kris Jenner in our lives or not.
With the focus largely on the Bronco chase, the second episode didn’t illustrate how much the series really is about surrounding parties that were sucked in and swept up by O.J., as Simpson is purely the device to stir the pot – he’s the levity, and subtly, the punchline.
This latest third episode, The Dream Team, got back on track though as we begin to see the many cultural implications the case carried and how mass media took on a different form and shape.
AN: This episode showed me how angry Johnnie Cochran was deep down in general – and how masterfully he circumvented a system stacked against him to come out on top and be successful.
EE: That man definitely knew what he was doing and the deeper we get into this series, the more I want to see his story. Speaking of the other players, who are you most drawn to so far?
AN: That’s one where I tip my hat to FX’s PR chieftain John Solberg and a conversation we had at the Critics’ Choice Awards after-party.
He shared with me that he had told Sarah Paulson, “get ready, next year is going to be your year.”
I say just give ALL the awards to her now!
She is such a transcendent force in acting in general, and I also salute Sterling K. Brown’s subtle power in his portrayal of Christopher Darden – he’s not angry like Cochran but he empathizes and is shown to be a political animal by nature.
EE: I agree with you with Paulson who is, unsurprisingly, killing it as Marcia.
When I first heard of this pitch, I was certain I was going to pass on it, but when it was announced that Paulson was playing Marcia Clark, I was sold, regardless of whoever else was on board.
I also found Sterling K. Brown’s portrayal of prosecutor Christopher Darden as a point of interest, how he tried his best to get out of that mess of a district and how slowly he’s pulled into to the quicksand of this trial – despite the warnings of others, including his family.
The opportunity though to jump in on the case is too much and he lights up at Marcia wanting him in the case.
Unfortunately, he didn’t heed the warnings of those around him. Heck, even his own.
Still, I can’t blame him for trying. He believed he could make a difference and I felt that through this performance.
It appears he was motivated to prove to those within the black community that O.J. really did murder Nicole even though he was aware of the growing belief within the black community that O.J. didn’t do it.
There was a good chance that they didn’t even care if he was guilty or innocent; they wanted justice for all of the times that they were wronged by the LAPD and the justice system.
We’ve since seen it in all of the various police shootings across the country whether they be in Ferguson, Missouri or Cleveland, Ohio.
Once things are done to create a distrust between citizens and authority figures, that’s what allows a strategy like the race card to work, even when it had no business being present in the Simpson trial.
The culmination of the years of police corruption had done its damage.
AN: Evil always overplays its hand my friend! I believe all imbalances adjust, it may take some time (cough, cough Lee Baca)…but isn’t that the crux of this entire teleplay?
White people see a crime committed and the killer walks thanks to having the resources to hire the best attorneys in town. The kicker is that perp is black!
Normally blacks, Hispanics, and poor whites are sent up the river for lack of money. Anyone old enough knows these truths in America. Money talks.
Whether guilty or innocent, black people were elated Simpson got off. It was the karma wheel rolling in their direction for once – the truth of the niggling details be damned.
EE: The title of the latest episode – The Dream Team – refers to Simpson’s legal team and, more importantly, the formation of literally the only strategy the defense could mount to win this case.
I knew the defense was flimsy but I didn’t know just HOW stacked the odds were against Shapiro, so much that he truly needed the assistance of Allan Dershowitz and Johnny Cochran to bail him out.
Just imagine what could have been had Shapiro been unable to secure either one’s help.
Years and years of preferential treatment to celebrities and racist practices by the LAPD and Detective Mark Fuhrman gave the defense a monstrous gift because it gave the defense something to exploit for their gain.
This gave life to Shapiro and the defense and was a gut punch to an overconfident and careless prosecution team.
I’m sure it will be bleeped out when it hits the airwaves but when Marcia Clark sees the defense team added Cochran, her “MF” bomb says it all.
AN: Yes, this was the sum of the mistakes of the past building up in a perfect storm of circumstance that hamstrung the prosecution.
Now, if Fuhrman had been black and not, allegedly, the Caucasian collector of Nazi knick-knacks…
EE: Simpson probably wouldn’t be in jail because of a robbery that’s for sure. We also saw this increasing phenomenon resulting from this case – the desire to be famous on multiple levels.
At the opening, we have this wonderful line by Kardashian telling his kids that he’s not famous and “being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous”. He adds: “Fame is fleeting, it’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”
One ear and then out the other while his kids fight for egg rolls. As someone who knew little of Robert Kardashian prior to this series, I don’t know how much he’s glorified here in memoriam, but it appears his lessons didn’t stick.
AN: Interesting point. Kardashian is played by Schwimmer and was a befuddled yet loyal-to-a-fault ninny in my opinion.
I feel like his rose-colored glasses outlook on sketchy people led to the break-up of his marriage, if Jenner is as cunning as we know her to be.
He was not a fame whore but his ex and his progeny picked up that baton and how!
EE: Then there’s the fame that Dershowitz and Cochran sought when they jumped into the defense team, knowing that Shapiro was the lead attorney and yet they were happy to join under those circumstances.
We started seeing the prosecutors’ case starting to wobble because witnesses started seeking fame on talk shows, book deals, and [witness] Kato Kaelin getting a piece of the Simpson “coat tails” while deservedly getting an equal bit of disgust.
It was like the pot was about to boil over with all of these personalities seeking fame but were content to obtain it through infamy.
Even Dershowitz was okay smothering his name if it meant his client won.
Kaelin encapsulated that behavior in his own small way, paving the way for the Kardashians, as well as Judge Ito and the attorneys on both sides to eventually act unprofessionally.
AN: Yes, it was the nascent famewhore-nami – my new word – that also birthed the rise of Harvey Levin of TMZ fame.
Levin, if you recall, was all over covering legal aspects of this case. It was the beginning of what I call the bullshit news, where entertainment and celebrity news began to supersede real news, issues and heralded the death of the investigative reporter, the newsrooms and analysis in writing by news people, as the axe of the digital age fell hard.
People are quick to say it was the natural progression of technology, but the O.J. case was the spark of this kind of vapid reporting on people who were clamoring for attention with an agenda solely of fame for fame’s sake.
EE: I also found the kerfuffle about the Time Magazine cover to be something of note too.
If someone looks back at the artist/designer on the cover, Matt Mahurin, and his work, then one would see how he simply applied his dark palette style and artistic impression of the mood surrounding O.J. in this time and yet, because it was on the rack next to Newsweek who chose to run the picture as is, it immediately became gasoline poured onto the racial fire.
They only briefly brush by it in this episode, but people read into whatever they want and in their own misinterpretations, agendas and desire to be offended (even when there is no motivation to inspire it) – predating all of the fake outrages you see being paraded today.
AN: I felt the cover captured the looming shadow of a bright shiny star. O.J. was without a doubt the main suspect, guilty or not.
The artist did a great job in my opinion, but I’m white…so does that fact cloud my taste? I don’t think so.
EE: I imagine this is by design, but have you noticed how quickly Nicole and Ron have been buried in the story?
I know next week we’ll have more on Nicole’s friend Faye Resnick (Connie Britton) and once the trial starts they’ll come to the front of the stage again, but it’s not like we haven’t seen the crime scene in episode one, or the chilling exchange at the funeral as O.J. stood over her casket.
Like in real life, Nicole (and Ron) has quickly faded away in the interest of this story, which is a bit sad, but this isn’t an episode of CSI – we’re not riding the experience of the detectives here.
The surreal events that followed the murders easily make it easy to push them aside. Look, there was a double-homicide, that was the vile act that went down.
But the real “crime story” happened in the actual courtroom, and the plot to devise it happened in this episode when the defense team figured out their angle, which makes this case all the more fascinating.
AN: I really feel for the Goldmans and for Nicole’s family – the drama of the case building, the larger-than-life personalities and the circus atmosphere completely obfuscated their deaths.
You and I have children. Imagine one of ours being found nearly decapitated, in so much blood, that it’s all the newspapers of the time talked about? It would destroy me.
Britton’s version of Resnick was interesting to me in that I knew little of her then but, like Kris Jenner, she had an accurate pulse on who O.J. was.
Her outward persona was so suspect, though – she looked like she wanted to make a quick buck based on her proximity to Nicole and that side of it.
If I am being honest, I believe the “angle” crimes that went down in the defense side, the manipulating of truth, was paid back by our good pal karma to the key players like Cochran, Kardashian and Shapiro too in their personal lives.
EE: Those are great points, April. Now, what else stood out for you in this episode?
AN: What stood out the most for me was how important it is to have money in America when things go south legally.
Also having a bird’s-eye view of how highly compensated lawyers manhandle each other behind closed doors.
You have to be a special animal to be a litigator or a defense attorney. It also brought home how goddamned hard it is to be a professional working mother too. In any career, but especially a male world like it was then in the courts.
EE: It was nice to see Paulson bring another side to Marcia to balance her out so she’s not such a one-note character as she was painted in the media.
Clark was put through the media wringer, but at least she was spared the gauntlet of social media comments.
I’m also a bit stunned that Simpson never admitted his guilt (thus far) to Shapiro and Cochran, though while Shapiro is certain of O.J.’s guilt, Cochran’s first meeting with Simpson is such a stark contrast.
I think that wraps up episode three, and we’ll see what next week’s episode, “100% Not Guilty” holds for us as Cochran takes over and Faye Resnick makes things even worse for the prosecution.
The Dream Team, Episode 3 of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, screens tonight at 10pm ET/PT on FX.