Reliving O.J. Simpson's Trial Through 'American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson'

The People vs. OJ Simpson looks at how this trial impacted us today.

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Complex Original

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The second episode of FX’s new 10-episode anthology series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J Simpson—created by Ryan Murphy, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander focuses on June 17, the day O.J. was going to turn himself into the authorities for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ron Goldman. The wanted man sat in Robert Kardashian’s (sympathetically played by David Schwimmer) Encino home, surrounded by Kim Kardashian’s teen heartthrob posters and wrote a suicide note, ending it with a happy face. A few minutes later Simpson’s accomplice, A.C. Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), pulled up in an identical white Bronco to O.J.’s, and the two embarked on a low-speed chase along the 405 Freeway, with plans to head to Mexico. On the freeway overpasses, people cheered him on, mainly because they saw him as an everyman dethroned from his pedestal and not as a celeb running from the police. Though we’ve seen similar footage repeatedly looped for the past 20 years, the re-creation of it is nonetheless chilling and riveting, all over again. 

From the moment everybody stopped what they were doing during on the 17th, tuned into the chase, and ordered pizza like crazy, our culture hasn’t been the same, and over 20 years later, we’re still feeling the aftershocks from the greatest car chase L.A. (and the world) ever saw. Crime Story covers the months between June 1994 and October 1995, a perfect shitstorm of race and celebrity played out in a media that birthed the 24/7 news cycle. The events became a baffling aberration in our society. How did this even happen? 

The opening frame of episode one tries to explain. It shows black-and-white footage of 1991’s notorious Rodney King beating, and the following shows the 1992 riots that occurred when those dirty cops were acquitted (the same footage was used in the politically-charged Straight Outta Compton). Murphy’s trying to connect the police brutality to The Juice in a not-so-subtle way, while also drawing parallels to our current-day problems of immense police misconduct. 

Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the show follows O.J., the prosecutors, and his crackerjack legal team—The Dream Team—from the night of the murders to the trial, where he pleaded not guilty. The crux of the trial was race, or the systemic attempt “to pull him down and put him in chains like they do with any black man who rises up,” says a reporter on the show. “It’s not like O.J. was a pillar of the black community,” Marcia Clark says. Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), the second lead prosecutor, put it even more harshly: “Once O.J. made his money, he split and never came back. He became white.” When lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran approaches a jailed Simpson about playing the race card, The Juice defends his lifestyle. “I did what I had the right to do,” he confesses. “I manifested myself out of a messed up situation…I ain’t never apologizing for buying a beautiful house in a beautiful neighborhood, a neighborhood where you don’t have people coming over the wall trying to get at me taking what I earned.” 

It’s hard to believe this is the first time Simpson’s saga has been adapted into a mainstream production. In 1995 a TV movie called The O.J. Simpson Story aired, and the excellent 30 for 30 documentary, June 17, 1994, that juxtaposed the NBA Finals and O.J.’s disreputable white Bronco car case, debuted on ESPN in 2010. But with Murphy at the helm for a full series, we see the inner-workings of the events from all points of view, how everything was open to interpretation, and how everybody was culpable. 

We get the always exemplary Sarah Paulson as the ridiculed Clark. In a stand-alone episode, “Marcia Marcia Marcia,”Clark struggles through media scrutiny and an ex-husband selling a topless photo of her to the tabloids. She’s trying to balance raising two kids and manning the greatest trial of her career, yet she’s vulnerable against Cochran and the rest of the Alpha defense team, who unfairly try to crush her both professionally and personally. Courtney B. Vance—who does not parrot Jackie Chiles—immerses himself into hypocritical civil rights attorney Cochran, the attorney who had the idea to play the race card, thus helping to acquit O.J. We get a glimpse of Cochran’s pre-O.J. life, a scene where a cop pulls him over in Beverly Hills just because he’s a black man driving a Mercedes. Later, in the same episode, he contradicts his morals in doing everything he can to get O.J. acquitted—even if that means using the condemned “n” word to cross-examine the racist Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale). Then there’s the hammy John Travolta—in his first TV show since Welcome Back, Kotter—as august Dream Team defense attorney Robert Shapiro, who gets demoted from the lead defense, and broods about it; and Gooding Jr., who embodies O.J. as a more amped up yet indifferent version of Rod Tidwell, except without the Kwan. At times the show seems to parade celeb cameos just for the fun of generating caricatures of real-life people. Connie Britton snakes her way into the salacious Faye Resnick, and Nathan Lane, as F. Lee Bailey, is really just Lane wearing a white wig. They don’t add much to the story, but they’re enjoyable to watch. 

Because Orenthal James Simpson was the most famous American to go on trial for murder—and remains so today—Crime Story shows how anybody remotely associated with The Juice was able to cash in and have 15 minutes of infamy. We can thank O.J. for all of the Kardashians’ reality shows, which have not necessarily made the world a better place. Robert Kardashian takes his pre-fame whippersnappers Khloé, Kim, Kourtney, and Rob to a family dinner at Chinese restaurant Chin Chin. While Michael Bolton’s cheesy “Said I Loved You…But I Lied” plays in the background, Robert tells his children, “Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing without a virtuous heart.” Crime Story knows its viewers are already familiar with much of the story—but not everything—and uses self-awareness to dictate salient points on celebrity and race. 

Murphy and team understand how much Americans love a tragic, ambiguous true crime story. Akin to the Netflix hit Making a Murderer, Crime Story’s a legal procedural, a “howdunit”, with the outcome already known, seeing the interior lives of all the major players brings new light to the case, but it doesn’t solve the crime. Today, we don’t know if O.J. truly did kill Ron and Nicole, much in the same way we don’t know if Steven Avery murdered Teresa Halbach. The biggest difference between Avery and Simpson is, O.J. had the clout and the money to dig himself out of his hole—and he invited the LAPD over for pool parties. 

Two decades on, Murphy still wants us to obsess over Simpson in the same way we’re currently besotted with Avery. With Crime Story, Murphy deviates from the Grand Guignol of American Horror Story, but Crime Story is just as horrific in how O.J. literally got away with murder. Under Murphy’s auspices, in what could’ve succumbed into being a Lifetime channel The Unauthorized True Story—or just an excuse for Paulson to wear a permed wig, have Travolta wear caterpillar eyebrows, and blast Above the Law’s a little too on-the-nose “Black Superman” on the soundtrack—Crime Story transcends in tackling heavy-handed material earnestly and occasionally cracking caustic jokes.

The mini-series echoes how the trial upended our culture and how America hasn’t learned a damn thing from the O.J. case. We’re still a racially divided country. We’re still pandering to celebrities, and we’re still making the same terrible mistakes. As Rodney King pleaded on the news, “Can we all get along?” Today, that question—along with the questions Crime Story ponders—reverberates more than ever. 

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