FX’s landmark miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson more than sticks the landing
I wanted to write something about The People v. O.J. Simpson‘s brilliant finale and fantastic overall series run last night. I chose to wait, though, for a few reasons. First, even though it was fresh on my mind, Simpson finished late on the east coast. And I ain’t no spring chicken. But, more importantly, I wanted to sit with the series. I wanted to soak it in a bit more before putting thoughts to paper. Ironically, it’s a valuable lesson I learned in college thanks to Mr. Simpson.
On the afternoon of October 3, 1995, I and a lot of other Americans were glued to their televisions, waiting to hear the verdict for which we’d waited 10 months. Even then as now, I was convinced of Mr. Simpson’s guilt. It just seemed so completely clear to me. After all the testimony and DNA evidence and ample justification, I felt a guilty verdict was the only possible outcome. How naive I was.
The jury handed down its infamous “Not Guilty” decision. I was incensed. And it wasn’t an anger that passed quickly like so many emotions you have in your early 20s. It was a seething anger, perhaps even rage. Unfortunately for me, I worked for the North Carolina State University student newspaper Technician at the time, and I used my platform to write a vitriolic essay about the verdict. As I remember it, it wasn’t without merit. I justly brought up several valid points about how the jury ignored the strength of DNA evidence and the dangers of spousal abuse (having once interviewed Denise Brown). But as I also remember it, it was the writing of an immature, petulant child. I’d committed the cardinal sin of op-ed writing. I’d written with an angry pen. A few people (rightly) called me on it. I fielded an angry phone call or six. I deserved it. Thankfully, that was pre-internet days. It exists only in archives somewhere. Don’t go digging it up.
Greater than 20 years later, The People v. O.J. Simpson brilliantly taught me something about the trial. I think it’s the fortunate result of an older, calmer mind combined with the perspective only time can bring. As director Ryan Murphy and his enormously talented stable of writers seemed to be conveying, the verdict was unfortunately not really about the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson or Ronald Lyle Goldman. The trial had been co-opted for bigger scale issues.
Thanks to the defense team and the strategy of lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (vividly rendered by Courtney B. Vance), the theme of the trial evolved into one of race relations. Of racism. Of the LAPD and of Mark Fuhrman. Lead prosecutor Marcia Clark (the amazing Sarah Paulson) tried her best to bring it back to the victims. The jury wasn’t having it.
The People v. O.J. Simpson makes a lot of important statements about our culture. None is more devastating than the terror and brutality waged against Los Angeles-area African Americans by members of the L.A.P.D. Now, do I think all L.A.P.D. officers are racist and evil? Absolutely not. Were (are) some? Absolutely. In the end, Murphy and team seemed to tell viewers that, in my opinion, the verdict really wasn’t about saving O.J. Simpson. It was about fighting back against police brutality. It was about taking a stance against the predominantly white authoritarian figures. In the finale “The Verdict,” African American jurors clearly bonded through their 10-month sequester, and they shared a cultural experience by voting O.J. Simpson not guilty. By effectively sticking it to the man in a cataclysmic way.
How do I know that’s what Murphy wants to say? The miniseries ends with O.J. Simpson standing alone at a party populated with white and black hangers-on. He’s standing in the shadow of the enormous statue in his backyard. Standing in the shadow of former greatness. Alone. Even Robert Kardashian ran away from The Juice as fast as he could.
No, the verdict wasn’t about setting O.J. Simpson free in American Crime Story. It was a bigger “Fight the Power” message shouted to the roofs in an L.A. County courthouse by at least 10 jury members. It was a complete refutation of the authority and stature of the L.A.P.D. It was a battle cry against those who’d mercilessly beaten them without repercussion, and it continues today. It was an early birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps. It was a bigger picture that my 20-year-old self could possibly have grasped or understood then. This message is deeper and more resonant today.
Thanks to Ryan Murphy for bringing that clarity and perspective in The People v. O.J. Simpson. We’ve already discussed it’s Emmy potential, and little has changed to shift our thinking. Provided HBO’s All the Way doesn’t dominate, Emmy, Golden Globe, SAG, and Critics Choice awards will rain down on Murphy and his enormously talented cast. Who were my favorites? Paulson, Vance, and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden all have my votes in their categories.
When I saw the first episode, I considered it Ryan Murphy’s finest direction to date. That opinion has not changed. The People v. O.J. Simpson is his finest work to date. Bravo.