Choose A Side: “The People V. O.J. Simpson”

Post by Ryan Pumroy

The pilot of the new FX show The People v. O.J. Simpson takes us back to the early 1990s, a time in America when racial tensions sizzled anew and we witnessed the “trial of the century.”

Fade in. Shaky handheld camcorder footage. Several police officers beat a black man while he’s on the ground. Time stamp: 1991.

Jump a year ahead. Los Angeles. News footage and helicopter shots. Buildings burn. Windows are smashed. Black protesters fill the streets. Sounds unfortunately familiar, doesn’t it?

The Rodney King trial and following riots are used as the preamble to the events of FX’s new show, The People v. O.J. Simpson. It is the first installment of Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series, American Crime Story. It begins on the night of the Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman murders. The show will depict the LAPD investigation, legal preparations, and trial – not to mention the famed Bronco chase, and more than likely a scene about gloves fitting and acquitting.

With the countless books, articles, documentaries, and TV specials, what more is there to be illuminated here? O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in the criminal trial, but few can seem to agree on there being any objective truth in that.

Yet the LAPD’s investigation was mismanaged. The prosecutor could not prove Simpson committed the murders beyond a reasonable doubt; the motive was there but murky, forensic evidence was tainted, and the trial became a media sensation and an allegory for racism in America.

We’ll likely never know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The People v. O.J. Simpson isn’t about the truth, though.

In going behind-the-scenes, the main thrust of the pilot is the idea of choosing a side. Black vs. white. Prosecution vs. defense. Police vs. black people. Celebrity vs. anonymity.

One particular scene shows Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) meeting with prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) about a race-related police brutality case. Cochran chastises Darden for his minimal efforts to change the system. “Choose a side!,” shouts Cochran.

The first episode depicts the agendas of those involved in the case, and it does so without judgment. Each side has strong arguments. Prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), divorced white mother of two, rails against Simpson for being a wife-beater who gets off due to his celebrity. Cochran, a black man and outspoken advocate on racial issues, originally dismisses the Simpson case as “a loser,” but will later join the defense team to highlight racism in criminal justice. For each, the case is about setting an example.

Rounding out the cast are John Travolta as Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro, David Schwimmer as Simpson’s best friend and attorney Robert Kardashian, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson.

The Juice’s character in the show is an interesting mix of pathos and instability. He’s a fading celebrity, no longer co-starring in movies but instead playing golf. When Marcia Clark is first told about the case, a detective says to her over the phone, “O.J. Simpson. The football player. He was in the Naked Gun movies.” Many of Gooding, Jr.’s lines are shouted as Simpson rails about the television coverage and the police. He pops pills throughout – tranquilizers, perhaps. When the firestorm begins, it’s as if one made a deal with the devil to be back in the spotlight.

Despite the hell these characters will go through, The People v. O.J. Simpson should provide an important look back at issues of race, celebrity, and flawed justice – all of which we are still trying to grapple with today.


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