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Worth the Binge: The People vs OJ Simpson

In many ways, it’s hard to forget the O.J. Simpson trial.   “The Trial of the Century” seemed to permeate every part of the mid to late nineties.  For many, the white Bronco driving through Los Angeles, the infamous fitting of the glove, and the verdict being announced are flashbulb memories that can be told like old war stories… “I remember where I was when I saw the Bronco driving down the 405.”  But what might be so easily forgotten is the foregone conclusion that O.J. was guilty, the divisive context in which this trial took place, and the now-famous players who were not-so-famous at the time.  The People v. O.J. Simpson:  American Crime Story does a superb job of capturing the cultural context and relationships that went into trying O.J. Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Perhaps it’s easy for some to forget that there was a time when O.J. Simpson was known primarily for his prowess as a running back in the NFL, or winning the Heisman, or even as a charismatic rental car spokesperson.  It may also be easy for some to forget that just a few years prior to O.J. being charged with murder, Los Angeles was still dealing with the aftermath of the acquittal of the Los Angeles policemen who had been charged with beating Rodney King.  It may be hard to remember a time when cameras weren’t a permanent fixture in courtrooms, let alone airing coverage of trials around the clock. Maybe it’s easy for some to forget there was a time when they’d never heard of Marcia Clark, Lance Ito, Johnny Cochran, or, of course, Robert Kardashian.  It may be easy to forget that there was a time when DNA was a new technology and that collection protocols were not as well known.  And perhaps we have all forgotten that O.J. was innocent until proven guilty.  This series takes us back to that time and humanizes the experience of the key players in the trial.

A few episodes into the series, Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) joins the prosecution team.  The trial is a big chance to impress for Darden, who routinely has been passed over for opportunities in the prosecutor’s office.  Yet, as a black man, Darden is seen by neighbors and even by defense attorney Johnny Cochran as being a traitor for prosecuting O.J.   In a telling moment, Cochran screams, “Choose a side!” at Darden.

The show focuses less on O.J. and his actions or feelings and more so on the experiences and strategies of the legal teams.  Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), the deputy district attorney who is the lead prosecutor on the case, is portrayed as a stressed out mother and career woman who is paving her way through the old boys’ club that is the L.A. legal system.  She is unshaken in her conviction that O.J. is guilty and that the prosecution will be victorious.  Clark is committed to her job and is clearly unprepared for the onslaught of media coverage and criticism that comes her way.  She is routinely criticized for her outfit and hair choices, with a healthy dose of sexism being slung by both the media and the defense.  At one point, she even tries out a new hairdo to go along with her new on-camera personality. She is subsequently harpooned by the media who calls her hair the “Curls of Horror.”  The scene ends with Clark crying in her office because she is “not a public person.”  She clearly contrasts defense attorneys, Robert Shapiro and Johnny Cochran, who lap up the media attention.

A few episodes into the series, Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) joins the prosecution team.  The trial is a big chance to impress for Darden, who routinely has been passed over for opportunities in the prosecutor’s office.  Yet, as a black man, Darden is seen by neighbors and even by defense attorney Johnny Cochran as being a traitor for prosecuting O.J.   In a telling moment, Cochran screams, “Choose a side!” at Darden.  Not only does Darden remain committed to his position, but he also supports Clark as she is harassed by both the media and the defense.  At one point, he is shown calling into a radio station to vote that Marcia Clark is a “babe” in a sexist poll about her level of attractiveness.  Darden’s character is both endearing and formidable, particularly as it relates to supporting Marcia Clark.  Although these two lawyers are committed to justice, they are viewed by many members of the media and the public as the enemy.  The effects of their unexpected shove into the spotlight and into a case that divided the country are clearly evident throughout the series.

Photo: Public Domain.
Photo: Public Domain.

The struggles in the courtroom are not only between the defense and the prosecution, however.  The show clearly demonstrates the power struggle that was going on within the defense team throughout the trial.  Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) is initially hired as the lead defense attorney but makes several questionable decisions in his interactions with the LAPD and the media.  Travolta’s portrayal of Shapiro is somewhat awkward, but clearly drives home the point that Shapiro was not the best man for the job.  As the defense moves on a strategy to “play the race card,” Johnny Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) joins the defense team and takes on a major role.  He purposely thwarts Shapiro with both the media and the judge.  Cochran is portrayed as being both shrewd and strategic in angling for O.J.’s acquittal and the prominent role on the defense team.  Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) is also included on the defense team, but plays less of a role as a defense strategist and serves as more of a confidante and protector to his long-time friend, O.J.  Kardashian, who is not actively practicing law at the time, reactivates his legal license in order to join the defense team.  Kardashian’s conflict over what has happened to Nicole Brown Simpson and his desire to protect O.J. are palpable as he counsels the “Juice.”  Kardashian is one of the most heart-wrenching characters in the show as he deals with the death of one close friend and the aftermath of choosing to support the accused murderer.

Considering O.J.’s diminished role in the show, it’s not surprising that Cuba Gooding, Jr’s portrayal of Simpson is the least impactful of all.  Gooding Jr. plays O.J. as being discombobulated and out-of-sorts, instead of charismatic and confident.  He seems less like the O.J. of 1994 and more like the O.J. of 2016, who is currently serving prison time for an unrelated incident.  Fortunately for the viewers, the real intrigue is with the attorneys, anyhow.

The series, which is based on the book, The Run of His Life:  The People v. O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin, expertly captures both the time and the people of the O.J. Simpson trial.  Even if you think you know everything about the O.J. Simpson trial, this series will provide new insights into this iconic period in American history.  Watch The People v. O.J. Simpson:  American Crime Story Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

About Jennifer Stevens

Jennifer Stevens is a Greencastle native and a DePauw University graduate, who later earned her PhD from Purdue.

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