The People vs. O.J. Simpson (2016) and O.J.: Made in America (2016)

Occasionally I try to come up with a contemporary parallel to show how bizarre it was that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a fairly well-known actor from a famous family. That’s something which is lost from history classes, and which it’s worth at least bouncing around. The best example I’ve come up with is if Kiether Sutherland had, at the height of his fame on 24, killed George W. Bush. (And in this scenario, he would presumably have done it with an irony gun.) That’s how weird that situation was. From what I can tell, the O.J. saga was about a zillion times weirder than the idea of Kiefer Sutherland assassinating George Bush.

Like many of the people who consumed 2016’s sudden O.J. Simpson TV burst – the Ryan Murphy vehicle American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and the Ezra Edelman documentary O.J.: Made in America – I’m not old enough to remember the O.J. trial. I remember seeing it as the second-to-last item on my U.S. History syllabus in high school (9/11 was last), and I asked my teacher why we would cover that; to people my age and younger, if we remember O.J. Simpson at all, we tend to think of him as something of a punchline, the guy who got away with murdering his wife and another guy and can’t stop talking to the nation about how if he did it. Johnnie Cochran is even more of a joke; depending on how you take your Parker and Stone, he’s either the guy behind the Chewbacca Defense or hanging around in Mormon Hell with Hitler, Genghis Khan, and Jeffrey Dahmer. I learned who Kato Kaelin was from a chance mention in Blink. My parents had to explain why a “white Bronco” joke in Shrek 2 was funny. I had never heard of Lance Ito until I watched Made in America. I am, in other words, exactly the right audience for a sudden influx of O.J. Simpson, and there are many, many more like me.

The murder case itself, which takes up about forty percent of Made in America and just about all of American Crime Story, is utterly fascinating for two broad reasons. First off, the O.J. saga is a culmination – or at least can be read as a culmination – of an unbelievably huge text made of personal and societal details, enough history in total to smother Francis Fukuyama. Whether you consider it mostly a personal story (the downfall of, as Edelman shows us, a surprisingly complex symbol of American royalty) or mostly a social history with unshakably deep roots (where O.J., guilty or not, must be spoken of in the same breath as Rodney King), it all seems to end with O.J. as he goes to bed on the night of his acquittal. The fifth segment of Made in America is, with the exception of Carl Douglas’ “fifth quarter” analogy, dull. It’s because the story is over. O.J. is no longer imbued with any special meaning; now he’s like any other over the hill athlete committing a crime. It is the upbringing, the glory days at USC and in Buffalo, the Hertz commercials and the bad acting, the domestic violence and the murderous violence and the courtroom violence which drew us in. That’s all gone once 1995 ends. Second, what stands out in the O.J. saga (and I keep calling it that because it is very much a national epic) is how badly everyone screws up. O.J. Simpson, aside from all his other sins, commits a profoundly gruesome pair of murders where they can’t possibly be hidden. The forensics team is sloppy. The officers who bring O.J. in for questioning fail to get anything useful out of him. Al Cowlings leads the strangest car chase in the history of the world. The prosecution is alternately arrogant and bumbling. Mark Fuhrman is not quite Hitler, but he is one heck of a lot closer than you’d want your star witness to be. The judge has no control over the courtroom, inviting media scrutiny and coverage that remains a landmark in journalism history. The defense, recognizing the incredible limitations of the case, puts a historically racist system on trial instead. And in the end, O.J. Simpson, who spent his entire life trying to push his race away from him, is forced to admit that, in the words of American Crime Story’s Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), that he is the first black man in the history of the nation who was found innocent because of his race. In the end, the O.J. saga came down to who screwed up the least, and while that’s a boring way to decide, say, an NCAA basketball final, it is a hugely compelling reason to tune in to a court case.

I’ve never kept up with American Horror Story – even if Ryan Murphy had not left a bad taste in my mouth after my short love affair with Glee, I’ve never been a big horror fan – and I assumed that Scream Queens could never make it to a second season. In fact, had I known that American Crime Story would be a Murphy joint, I don’t know that I would have been interested in watching it. My criticisms of him are many and have been bouncing around my skull since about 2009: he can’t develop a plot over more than forty minutes, his taste for the explosive destroys any subtlety which might actually get his point across better, everything he touches feels fake, and he can’t land the plane on a plot or a character arc. After having watched American Crime Story, I’m reminded of what he does well. In a short run, such as the ten-episode run of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Murphy’s flair for the dramatic is hypnotic, and he doesn’t have enough time to get bored with his characters. When the ending is already pre-written (and historic to boot!), Murphy’s trouble with finishing is no trouble at all. His gift for giving life to small characters is an absolute must in an ensemble drama like this one. In short, the showrunner with a taste for petty drama in lethal doses is utterly ideal for a miniseries about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Amusingly enough, from top to bottom American Crime Story is peopled with the talented debris of other Murphy shows. American Horror Story contributed Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Connie Britton. Dijon Talton and Romy Rosemont show up in small roles after having larger ones on Glee; Kenneth Choi, after having a very small role on Glee, shows up in a very large one in American Crime Story. 

I found myself reluctantly fascinated by David Schwimmer as Bob Kardashian. You can practically hear Ryan Murphy yelling “Squee!” about the presence of Kardashians in his miniseries, and when that happens it’s annoying. In the end, though, the Kardashians are more than a winky punchline to perceived glamor; Bob especially is forced to reconcile his friendship with O.J. to his friendship with Nicole who, it appears more and more, was killed by O.J. Simpson. Nicole is largely absent from American Crime Story in the same way that she was, so I hear, absent from the trial itself after a while, but when she comes up it’s overwhelmingly through Bob and his ex-wife, Kris (Selma Blair). Everyone calls O.J. “Juice,” but Kardashian does it the most. He begins to back away from him slowly, and then once the overwhelming DNA evidence comes into play, he cannot unhear the damning probabilities that O.J.’s blood and hair matches the blood and hair found at the scene. In a way he stands in for an interesting demographic of people who are not bound to their opinions by their race. Bob Kardashian is a member of a fascinating group of people who fell in with O.J. because he was famous, believed he was innocent because of his charm, and then had to change their beliefs when the evidence started to pile up. This could not have been a terribly large group, but it is one which has a unique angle on the case. As their representative, Schwimmer is surprisingly good as Kardashian. The telltale streak of gray in his hair helps, but he also has a set of go-to post moves: the head in one hand, the wide-eyed look of confused horror, the eyebrows raised in sadness.

Just about everyone is good in this miniseries, with the definite exception of Gooding and the possible exception of Travolta; I’m amazed Travolta managed not to run into walls with his chin sticking out that far. Gooding, for his part, was doomed from the moment he took the role of O.J. Simpson. I don’t often believe that one is required to recreate the appearance of the real-life people in a fictional work, but American Crime Story works so hard to recreate settings, especially the courtroom, and cast actors who look like their namesakes, that Gooding simply fails to keep up. (In particular, Sterling K. Brown in makeup and costume bears an unbelievable resemblance to Chris Darden, although Sarah Paulson and Kenneth Choi are close runners-up.) Gooding is not handsome or built like Simpson, whose sheer size and power lent a certain amount of threat just to his appearance in the courtroom. Even the voice is wrong; Gooding’s voice is a pitchy shell, where Simpson’s can fill an entire room. Luckily, he doesn’t have much to do. The real standouts of American Crime Story are Paulson and Brown. The two of them are given the bulk of the prosecutorial duties in Murphy’s O.J. trial, and they are fascinating next to one another. Marcia Clark is a control freak who watches her control slip excruciatingly from her grasp over the course of the trial, relatively enlightened but in some ways doomed by her patronizing attitude towards black people; Chris Darden is a desk lawyer who’s put into the courtroom because of his skin color and simultaneously knows it and resents it; he seems competent but is just not on the same planet as Clark, let alone Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) or F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane). The two of them are forced to interact with each other frequently, and those interactions are impressive. They have chemistry with one another, some of it friendly and much of it sexual. And their arguments are gripping, too. Clark seems to think of herself as an emissary to black people, and fails to understand how important O.J. is (and, incidentally, how important Rodney King is) to her predominantly African-American jury. She also seems to believe that Mark Fuhrman’s racism will either remain concealed or be disqualified as simply unimportant by the jury; this turns out to be the single biggest mistake any non-O.J. individual makes in the entire series. For his part, Darden lets Cochran’s showmanship and his barbed intimations that the prosecutor is an Uncle Tom get under his skin, and he makes the second biggest non-O.J. mistake; he asks him to put on the gloves. He does not know what the answer to that question will be, and yet he asks it anyway in the hopes of getting a slam dunk, leading story moment like the ones Johnnie keeps racking up. And O.J., of course, can’t get the gloves on his hands.

In Made in America, Darden, who chose not to be interviewed for the documentary, comes off as the biggest fool in the room. His choice, and his just about unilaterally, was to get O.J. to put on the gloves. And O.J., playing up how ill-fitting they were for all he’s worth, in the mind of one cop leaning on his time as an actor, creates arguably the most memorable image in American jurisprudence. Darden, in Made in America, is like a marionette duped by Cochran, ultimately prone on the ground with his strings tangled. Clark is merely read as hard to like; Darden can’t even get that. Where Clark, the lead prosecutor, is arguably the main character of American Crime Story, Darden is made a more important supporting character than her in Made in America. Darden’s race is deeply important in both tellings, but it reflects the central theme of Made in America, which manages to view the situation with bifocals.

Made in America has the gift of making elements of the case which everyone remembered seem new again. For example, the chase in the white Bronco is maybe the most indelible moment of the whole affair, and Edelman manages to pull in the strands of the day from multiple perspectives. We hear Al Cowlings’ badly done call to 911. Officer Lange recalls calling O.J.’s cell phone, and we get to listen to the two of them hashing it out. One of the cameramen from the helicopters above the freeway gives his take. We see footage of the LAPD ending other car chases with extraordinary force, and that’s juxtaposed with the way they allowed Cowlings and Simpson to drive back to Brentwood.

What was unexpected but far from unwelcome about the documentary is that it spends its first segment of five with surprisingly little to say about O.J. Simpson himself. His upbringing in a bad neighborhood is mentioned, as well as his football prowess at USC, but these are merely important and not truly vital. The background story of race in Los Angeles, especially as it relates to police brutality, is the true feature here; he comes of age during the Civil Rights movement, during Watts. Edelman brings in Rodney King and the Rodney King riots, of course, but returns Latasha Harlins and Eula Love to the conversation as well; one set of footage, which depicts the unreal vandalism of black homes by white cops, sends the clear message that African-Americans in Los Angeles weren’t even safe where they slept. Over the first three pieces of the documentary, O.J. begins to come into focus. Anyone who ever turned on a football game would watch O.J. run, hear about his quest for a 2,000 yard season, and then see that Hertz commercial; O.J. moves into Brentwood, picks up a white teenager named Nicole Brown, and marries her not long after his divorce comes through; the LAPD hated black people but went out of their way to accommodate O.J. after he beat his wife. When O.J. was in his early 20s, Muhammad Ali refused to go to Vietnam. John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists from the medal podium. The lesson O.J. learned was that it didn’t get you anywhere with white people who would want to play golf from you or cast you in rental car commercials. Over and over again, even in televised interviews with the man, Edelman finds a way to bring the point home that O.J. Simpson “didn’t see color.” He had stopped identifying as a black man, and he did not use his position of incredible influence to promote black people or to condemn civil rights abuses.

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