Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The People v. O.J. Simpson

I’m coming to this a bit late, but The People v. O.J. Simpson is masterful television. Not only does it manage to nail the drama of the trial itself, including all of the blunders of the prosecution and the ingenuity of the defense, but it also manages to address the many, many larger issues surrounding the trial, and that made it such a phenomenon in the first place.

These issues include the systemic racism of the LAPD, the crucial backdrop of the 1992 Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots, what it meant to be black in 1990s America, how the trial provided the spark that pivoted television news away from journalism and toward entertainment, and how media attention turned the Simpson trial from a murder case into a public referendum on racism in Los Angeles and in the United States more broadly.

What’s more, on top of all of that, it also creates empathy and sympathy for its characters, making those who previously had been reduced to flat caricatures by the unbearable scrutiny of the media turn back into fully-realized dramatizations of real people, particularly Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran, but also Lance Ito, Christopher Darden, and perhaps most shockingly, Robert Kardashian.

The series puts us inside the heads of all of these characters at various points, showing us what the trial meant to them and how it affected them. For Clark, it was about finding justice for a battered woman-turned-murder victim, and the anguish that came not only from slowly losing what should have been a slam dunk murder conviction, but also from being the target of a sexist media landscape. For Cochran, it was about using the Simpson trial to finally expose the systemic racism of the LAPD, a battle he had been waging long before this trial began, as well as trying to achieve at least one victory in his ongoing war against the wrongful murder, abuse, and conviction of African Americans by getting the greater American public to recognize it and start a national conversation about it. Even Kardahsian gets the same symapthetic treatment, as the series shows how the trial made him question what he thought he knew about one of his closest friends. His mounting doubt about Simpson’s innocence was conveyed brilliantly in a finely nuanced performance by David Schwimmer.

The show also never lost sight of the root of it all either: the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. The series returned repeatedly to the devastation of the Goldman and the Brown families, effectively undercutting whatever pleasure might be had from the legal brinkmanship of the prosecution and defense or the media circus surrounding the trial. Perhaps the most devastating scene of the entire series is when Goldman’s father lashes out at Clark for feigning to understand what the Goldmans are going through, and the epilogue for the final episode concludes with haunting epitaphs for Nicole and Ron. As much as the trial and the series were about race, racism, the media, and the American justice system, they were also about the tragic and brutal murders of two people, and how these larger systems and the individuals operating within them completely and utterly failed them. It's remarkable that the series was able to juggle all of these large and complex topics while never losing sight of the human figures - both living and dead - at the center of the drama.

Other thoughts:

- I singled out Schwimmer’s performance above, but make no mistake: nearly all of the principal roles here were wonderfully performed, particularly Sarah Paulson as Clark and Courtney B. Vance as Cochran. Paulson is someone I had been rather neutral about in everything I’d seen her in previously, but she was excellent here, and Vance’s Cochran was sublime. On the one hand, he employed his bravado in defense of a likely murderer, but on the other hand, it was also in the service of advancing a larger, noble social cause. As portrayed in the series, he’s a very complex character, as are most of the principals. Robert Shapiro is a glaring exception – his self-serving egotism was rather one-note, although I wasn’t as off-put by Travolta’s performance as others.

- The show itself seemed to have little doubt in Simpson’s guilt, although I imagine you could interpret Cuba Gooding Jr.’s performance of Simpson either way. Regardless, I greatly enjoyed how the non-epilogue portion of the series ended with Simpson scowling at his statue of himself, the sounds of a crowd cheering his name lingering in his head as it dawns on him that his acquittal is a Pyrrhic victory. He is technically a free man, but now he must adjust to his new reality where he is reviled for his presumed guilt by the largely white community he has adopted as his own.

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