The TV Room: American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, by David Bax
It’s always been true, even if it sounds paradoxical, that the best way to make a story relatable to a large number of people is to make it specific. If the particulars of a narrative are too broad or vague (like those movies that try to be cute by never letting us know what city they take place in), it begins to feel false and manufactured. The truth is that everyone’s own experiences are specific and we recognize that exactitude in the lives of fictional characters. After all, it’s not the occurrences themselves to which we relate; it’s the emotional, psychological and physical reactions to them. Few things are as specific as the trial of O.J. Simpson. It’s inexorably tied to its era. Nearly every American has their own thoughts and recollections about it permanently seared into their brains. And its cast of characters is so larger-than-life (Johnnie Cochran, Kato Kaelin, even Judge Ito) that it’s hard to find analogues for the everyman. Yet American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson managed, for ten weeks, to relate vital and immediate ideas that amounted to a staggering and impassioned dissertation on race in America while also being great drama.
Despite being bold in its presentation and casting, the series wisely avoided most of the tempting pitfalls of sensationalism by focusing less on Simpson himself and mostly on both sides’ legal teams and, in many cases, their families. The macro arc progressed in a mostly linear fashion over the ten episodes while each installment found its own micro arc, like the sexist pressures faced by prosecutor Marcia Clark or the increased agitation of the long-sequestered jury. This was a true television event – a miniseries that unfolded not like a long movie told in chapters but one that embraced the segmented nature of its medium and made a great case for a return to week-by-week viewing instead of binge-watching.
More than a little skepticism accompanied the announcement of this series. Much of it came from the casting decisions, which consisted of actors with outsized public personas playing real life figures of some notoriety (Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, etc.). But doubt also stemmed from the big name behind the series, Ryan Murphy. While undeniably a hugely successful television producer, Murphy has developed a reputation for creating shows that start promisingly but quickly go off the rails (see: the last few seasons of American Horror Story). This series managed to avoid that fate partially because it had to stick to the facts and therefore couldn’t stray too far from the reservation but mostly because of the simple fact that Murphy didn’t write it.
He did, however, direct four of the ten episodes. The overall aesthetic of the show was brazen but Murphy’s episodes were instantly recognizable because they were particularly arch. He favors the dramatic push in, the Dutch angle and the bird’s eye view. Though he remains a better director than writer, his episodes are the weakest of the bunch. Anthony Hemingway, who helmed fully half of the installments (the remaining one was handed to John Singleton and with great success), got things right. He largely avoided the medium shot middle ground, alternating instead between close-ups that hinted at the psychological turmoil of the subject or wide shots that fans may have felt the urge to pause and scan for clues. Hemingway’s style is a tad showy but he is mostly content to give the viewer the visual information to piece together themselves, whereas Ryan’s choices, like the whip-pan reaction shots every time Nathan Lane’s F. Lee Bailey uses the N word in court, instruct you on how to react.
Some of the main players have already been named but it bears mentioning how roundly stellar were the performances in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Gooding’s fidgety, grandiose Simpson provided insight into a man whose public reputation has only gone downhill since the trial. Travolta’s Shapiro was almost tragic as a man too arrogant to recognize—or at least to admit—that he has lost control. Schwimmer’s role was one of the meatiest, playing Kardashian as a thoroughly decent man who is loyal to the old friend whose innocence he increasingly doubts. The relatively unknown Sterling K. Brown held his own as prosecutor Christopher Darden, a smart and talented lawyer repeatedly frustrated by the ways his blackness is exploited by both sides. But two actors stand out above the rest. One of them is Courtney B. Vance, who so thoroughly inhabits Cochran that even his most cartoonish behavior is humanized; perhaps, one hopes, Vance has even made Cochran relatable to the white America that never understood him.
The second major performance comes from Sarah Paulson as Clark. I single her out certainly because Paulson is great but also because her story says so much about what the series aimed for and accomplished. Here is someone whose rep, a few months ago, could be boiled down to “the curly-haired woman who blew the O.J. trial.” That will never be how we see her again. Paulson and the writers gave us a woman who is smart, confident, passionate and compassionate. But they refused to overlook the fact that one of the major reasons she lost could be boiled down to what we now call white privilege. Often, in the harsh wastelands of the Internet, “privilege” becomes a cudgel, a way to ascribe malevolence or stupidity to an opponent in an attempt to shut them down. But privilege, in and of itself, isn’t evil. It’s just a fact. We all have it. Some, like myself, have more of it than others. The most important thing we can do is strive to recognize it and work forward from there. American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson gave us a look at everyday privilege that was sympathetic without ever making excuses. Perhaps if Clark recognized her privileged point of view—if she allowed herself to see Mark Fuhrman the way Darden did or if she realized that black jurors, even the female ones, might have different assumptions about the case than she did—she might have done better. Perhaps if we all take stock of our privilege and use it not to silence one another but, in fact, to open wider the lanes of dialogue, we all might do a little better. Earlier I said that this series was a dissertation. But this is the age of Twitter and Snapchat and endless comment threads. So, really, it’s not a dissertation. It’s a conversation.