Much like the Babyboomers can recall where they were when they found out about JFK’s assassination, Americans of a certain age can all remember where we were when the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict came in, and to a lesser extent the infamous white Bronco chase. Although it is a bit cynical to compare a presidential assassination to a celebrity murder trial with regard to real-world, consequential impact, the entire nation’s attention had become hypnotically fixated on the O.J. Simpson murder case. It was a watershed moment for news media, the cult of celebrity, race relations, and even a seminal moment for reality television.
I was a sophomore in high school on October 3rd 1995, and we stopped class to listen to the verdict on the radio. I don’t remember exactly how I felt, but it just seemed that there was racial partisanship in that black Americans thought (or hoped) O.J. was innocent, and white Americans thought he was guilty. All I knew at the time was that people who were closely following the televised trial felt that there was a staggering amount of convincing scientific evidence pointing to O.J.’s unequivocal guilt, and the prevailing narrative after the trial was that a guilty man had gotten away with murder because of fame and money. I believe that black America would eventually come around to accepting this as well, although this sentiment was often kept in hush tones. In 1995, I was a bi-racial kid new to a mostly white, wealthy prep school. Maybe if I was in my former, predominantly black and hispanic inner-city high school in New Brunswick, NJ, I would have heard cheers for the “not guilty” verdict. It’s impossible to know how that difference of environment would color my recollection.
With two decades allowing us to collectively process these events, it seems to be the perfect time for the arrival of the wildly entertaining, well-made, thought provoking, and slightly sensationalized American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. ’90s nostalgia is in full effect, and this was clearly present in the thought process of the producers, as they casted ’90s icons in several starring roles. Cuba Gooding Jr, who won an Oscar not so coincidentally playing a football player in Jerry Maguire (1996) stars as O.J. Simpson. John Travolta, whose career was revived by Pulp Fiction (1994), plays lead attorney Robert Shapiro, and David Schwimmer, who rose to fame as Ross on the massively popular Friend’s series, plays O.J.’s best friend, Robert Kardashian.
The timing is also appropriate for the modern political atmosphere as America’s criminal justice system is currently being called into question for proliferating the prison industrial complex through unjust policies. On both sides of the aisle, the drug war is viewed as a failure and systemically geared to disenfranchise young men of color, which was ramped up by the tough-on-crime Bill Clinton endorsed legislation of the ’90s. The ubiquitous presence of camera-enabled smart phones have brought light to seemingly rampant abuses by police nationwide where race is often a factor. After experiencing racially motivated riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland, the backlash to the Obama presidency, and now the Trump uprising, it’s difficult to tell how much racial progress this country has made since the O.J. verdict.
I applaud The People v. O.J. Simpson for not only addressing race, but the series understood that the racial politics of the moment were the guiding theme behind almost every important event – from the hiring of lawyers, to the jury selection, and how the media was manipulated. It put the ugly and imperfect ways in which race infected our inner dialogue and thought process at front and center. That confrontation is bold, and rarely examined on modern television.
The centerpiece of this confrontation is star defense attorney, Johnnie Cochran, played masterfully by Courtney B. Vance. What the show illuminated was that Cochran used the O.J. case as a means for a personal crusade to prosecute the entire American system for historical racism against blacks. The fact that this trial took place only a couple years after the Rodney King beating, LAPD acquittal, and subsequent LA riots created the most opportune setting for Simpson and his case. The defense team was able to get the trial in downtown LA, a majority black (and sympathetic) jury, and the collective frustration of black America, especially Los Angeles, was coalesced to make the O.J. Simpson trial about American racial injustice in the macro sense. It is a type of compartmentalization, but it’s understandable when you consider the raw emotional damage of the time and place, which still lingers to this day. The show highlighted some of the racism by police Cochran personally experienced, despite his overachievement and success, and it’s difficult not to empathize with that anger.
The show is also fitting for the current atmosphere being released on the heels of the vastly popular and stirring true crime documentary series’ Making A Murderer, The Jinx, and the most popular podcast of all time, Serial. These supposedly true stories paint a picture that rich, powerful people like O.J. Simpson and Robert Durst are acquitted and poor people like Steven Avery and Adnan Syed are convicted, despite what the evidence may suggest.
The juxtaposition between the O.J. trial and both of Steven Avery’s (Making a Murderer) trials is especially staggering. The truth is that most defendants have paltry resources, and stand very little chance against state prosecutors. As referenced by this excellent piece about the pitiful condition of public defense featured on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 90-95% of state and federal criminal cases end in guilty plea bargains.
In the O.J. case, the state was the underdog. They had less manpower, less resources, less flexibility to engage the press, and a disadvantageous political climate to contend with. The series even went out of it’s way to show Marcia Clark’s personal struggles and ongoing custody battle, which happened to be occurring during the trial. I’m not saying I feel bad for the state, which usually has most of the advantages, but it is just fascinating to learn and understand how unique this case was, and how it is completely unrepresentative of the way our criminal justice system usually works. If the case hadn’t happened soon after the LA riots, if racist detective Mark Fuhrman wasn’t the guy who found the glove, if Clark wasn’t going through a custody battle, maybe O.J. gets convicted. It’s odd to think about how much luck factored into the results as much as resources.
For every unnecessary and cheesy reference to the Kardashian kids or John Travolta scene-chewing overacting, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson did many things that were effective and engaging. I hope its honesty about racial divisions and biases further opens up a dialogue within our country. These are challenging times with regard to these issues. Most of all, these examinations of our criminal justice system make me ponder what justice truly is. Justice means different things for different people, but from my vantage point, the fundamental flaw is that much like politics, our legal system is just sports; winning is more important than discerning the objective truth of any given situation. My hope is that one day we will understand that everyone wins when the truth is valued above the glory of victory.