There were no happy endings when the OJ verdict was read on October 3, 1995. There were no riots, as the media had been predicting. There was no coming home, as OJ had hoped. There was no justice served for anyone. Even the community that had rallied support around OJ and wanted to see him acquitted would always have to carry that burden, knowing it was unjust verdict that it was retribution for the unforgivable past, the long history of wrongfully convicted black men with all white juries, not to mention what had been happening to black citizens for centuries at the hand of law enforcement. The People vs. O.J. Simpson on FX concludes that way, as a reminder that everything about the case was tragic.
For some of us here in Los Angeles, the OJ trial remains part of our DNA. I remember just having dropped out of graduate film school, enduring a terrible breakup and just kind of drifting when the OJ murder and trial began. I had one room, a computer and a television. No one was really on the internet yet. Sure, there were a few of us online — college students or government officials or early adopters combing through Usenet but the “world wide web” hadn’t yet been fully developed. That, too, would change everything, as you all can see. Back then we had television — news programs like Larry King or tabloid TV faux news like Inside Edition making sense of the day. We shaped our water-cooler conversation around those shows, and that commentary. We watched people argue. We didn’t argue ourselves unless we happened to be at a bar or coffee shop. Otherwise, our views were formed by media commentary. Now I get the feeling news commentary is shaped by our views, so readily available are they, reflecting back at us the views they thinks we want to hear.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson rips off the scab but it does so with the kind of compassion and hindsight only possible these twenty years later. Toobin’s book is more punishing of prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden. The series redeems them. Toobin had apparently told Sarah Paulson, who plays Clark, that she was supposed to be more haughty and arrogant. And indeed, Marcia Clark was a force to be reckoned with. The series is as good as it is because it was not only carefully and perfectly cast (mostly), but the writers did not stick to Toobin’s sarcastic tone (the book is funny but isn’t as moving as the series). They elevated it to the American Tragedy that it was, carefully reviving the memory of the victims Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
What kept me watching, though, I think wasn’t really OJ Simpson himself, and it wasn’t his slick dream team, and it wasn’t the racial tensions that had erupted in the city at the time — though looking back on it all through today’s lens, we all should have been paying a lot more attention to that. No, what hooked me was Marcia Clark putting it all on the line to avenge a brutal murder and not giving a whit about celebrity. She was a great prosecutor. Anyone who says they bungled the case wasn’t watching the trial. You did not watch that trial, or her closing arguments — or Chris Darden’s — and think, why did they do that? Or why didn’t they say that? They were outspent, outmatched and really had a losing game from the outset. Clark herself was put on trial. The show gets this stunningly right in one of the best episodes — Marcia, Marcia Marcia.
If you want to see what the trial did to Clark and Darden, you must first watch the preliminary hearing, where Clark has not yet been tested and tried and then watch the closing arguments.
Even now, all of these years later I can’t watch the “dream team” give their closing statements because — as we all knew at the time — it was total bullshit. We watched in horror as our legal system was stretched and exploited by skilled attorneys, the slickest money could buy, all to get a rich celebrity off the hook. Watching Clark and Darden, however, continues to confirm that they absolutely did put forth an open and shut case.
There was probably no jury that could have withstood the likes of F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz and of course, the Chairman of the Board, Johnny Cochran. The show gets this so right. It gets the high drama, and focuses its attention on the key players. If you want to find out how badly the jury suffered during their eight-month ordeal you ought to read Toobin’s book, where it is laid out in detail. It didn’t matter if they were white or black, honestly, the media narrative notwithstanding. No group of people could have been confined for eight months and then spent any more time than absolutely necessary deliberating that verdict. They wanted out. Everyone wanted out. The defense had put forth the escape route for “reasonable doubt” and that was that.
The two standouts in the FX series are Sarah Paulson as Clark and Courtney B. Vance as Cochran. But all of them are really good, even the presumed weak links like John Travolta as Shapiro and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian are fun to watch. I probably would have cast someone much taller as OJ because as good as Cuba Gooding, Jr. is, there is no replacing what a figure OJ was in that trial. He was smooth, and handsome and really really tall. But despite that, Gooding captures the boyishness of OJ, that thing about him that made it impossible to imagine him capable of murder, and also his infamous, petulant tirades. Sterling K. Brown is excellent as Christopher Darden — at times, such a dead on performance and likeness (down to specific details like how Darden pronounced “the defend-ant”) that you forget you’re watching an actor at all. This is likewise true of Paulson, who imbues Clark with sympathy rather than judgment, and Vance who has that Cochran thing of being incredibly likable no matter what.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson stings at the end, echoing the still lingering feelings of resentment of those who observed the trial, those who were blamed and how it ended up shaping the way we view “celebrity” now. That was really when “famous for being famous” started, and now there is no difference between a Kato as a celebrity and an OJ. They are well-known for whatever reason, and that makes them worthy of our attention. Most will draw the through-line to the Kardashian empire as being the epitome of this, but take a look around. It’s everywhere.
Today’s internet would never have let these lawyers get away with slut-shaming Nicole as they did. Their strategy of making her seem like a “loose woman” that OJ would want nothing to do with never backfired because no one called them out on it the way they would today. Conversely, Clark would probably be getting a lot of attention for what some would deem as cultural appropriation with her tight curls. The domestic violence was downplayed considerably at trial compared to real life, as the prosecution was not allowed to submit evidence that Nicole had called a battered woman’s shelter a week before she was murdered. Toobin called the case a “run of the mill domestic battery charge,” and looking back now we all plainly see that of course he murdered a woman he was obsessed with. It happens all of the time. Back then, though, we didn’t look at domestic abuse the same way. How easy it was to blame Nicole for his tantrums, to downplay his beatings and stalking.
Even after all of this time, there are questions that remain — not necessarily left unanswered by the show itself, but from the OJ case. Things we’ll never know like what was Nicole doing by lighting so many candles at her home and playing music? Was she relaxing? Did she do that all of the time? It seems like an insignificant detail but I’ll always wonder. Was she expecting someone that night? It means nothing, of course, but I’ve always wondered. The defense used it to insinuate that yes, she was waiting for someone and I always thought that it was the final straw for OJ, who went to her house that night. Toobin thought that OJ probably grabbed a knife on the spot and executed the murder then and there. I think I agree more with Marcia Clark who believes it was planned. Why else would he establish an alibi with Kato? How could he have committed a murder that swiftly? Either way, we’ll never know unless Simpson himself confesses, something he really should have done back in 1995.
As the People vs. O.J. Simpson fades to black, it holds on the image of Simpson alone, in Rockingham, with not much else. Only the truth could have set him free. He paid a lot of people a lot of money to keep that truth hidden and, as we can all see from the final shot of the film, it ruined him. Perhaps for some that is just desserts. Why feel sorry for someone who committed such a brutal murder? We feel sorry for him because compassion is humanity’s only redemption.