TV

Review: ‘American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson’ Is Fascinating, Deeply Relevant TV

In the age of Black Lives Matter and true-crime as entertainment, the "Trial of the Century" is more important than ever.

There is a brazen, series-defining moment in the third episode of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.), accused of a gruesome double-homicide, listens as his lead defence lawyer, preening narcissist Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), implores him to allow Johnny Cochran, a famous black lawyer, to join his defence team.

“We need someone who can communicate to the Downtown jury,” Shapiro explains, feigning diplomacy. “It’s just the conditions on our football field.”

“You want to make this a black thing!” cries Gooding Jr. in a sob-coarsened croak. “Well, I’m not black; I’m O.J.!”

This moment neatly encapsulates the brilliant retrospective approach of American Crime Story, a new anthology series from camp-TV giant Ryan Murphy and his producing partner Brad Falchuk (Glee, American Horror Story). The first season, developed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski from The Run of His Life by New Yorker journalist Jeffrey Toobin, tracks the real-life trial of O.J. Simpson, an American NFL star who was acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, in what is now known as “The Trial of the Century”.

The O.J. trial was two decades ago; still, in American Crime Story, Murphy and co.’s astute observations about race and fame clamp vice-like to 2016. American Crime Story draws a line from O.J.’s trial back to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, and forward to the fatal shooting of unarmed black men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, to the Black Lives Matter movement, even to the ever-expanding sexual assault case against comedian Bill Cosby. For Australians, there are parallels to the horrendous death in custody of Ms Dhu in 2014, the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004, and the recent WNBL blackface debacle. The series is surprisingly, deliciously good: a mostly restrained, meticulous exploration of the O.J. case that proves his 1990s trial was not just a referendum on race and fame for last century, but for this one as well.

The “Trial Of The Century” And The LA Riots

As in Toobin’s book, in American Crime Story O.J.’s trial is marked out along racial lines. O.J.’s acquittal for a crime he likely committed (a view that Toobin shared in his book, and about which Murphy et al are remarkably coy) was in large part due to the clever airing out by O.J.’s defence team of America’s appalling racial history. In one of the first televised trials in the US, centred on one of the most famous athletes in American history, O.J. was not just adjudicated by a local LA jury, but also by the entire country.

In his book Toobin makes clear the tense, festering national racial injustices that likely won O.J. his victory: the reality of systemic violence against black men and women at the hands of a racist police force versus the wilful fiction of “colour blindness” conjured up by an uncomfortable white elite in “post-racial” America.

After all, the O.J. trial, which ran from 1994 to 1995, was just three years after the LA Riots, and O.J. was tried in downtown Los Angeles, where the black communitystill remembered the brutal beating by police officers of taxi driver Rodney King. Those police officers were acquitted (a verdict that draws an unpleasant parallel to the myriad injustices perpetrated by the U.S. police forces and courts of law against people of colour today) and that verdict sparked the riots.

In the post-riot climate, and with the sordid details of the trial splashed across the media, O.J.’s defence team saw an opportunity to put the racist LAPD on trial. Johnny Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), a passionate defender of black rights, no doubt knew that exposing the bigoted underbelly of the police force was the only possible way to get O.J. off, in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable evidence linking him to the murders.

On the other hand, the prosecution, led by Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), believed they had a slam-dunk; to them O.J. was simply a domestic abuser who had escalated to murder. Clark refused to see that the trial might be made more complex by race, or by O.J.’s celebrity. By the time she and her team realised their mistake it was too late.

Murphy and his team inextricably link the O.J. trial and the LA Riots; the series opens with newsreel footage of the unrest that followed the scurrilous miscarriage of justice against Rodney King. There’s also an implied link to the surging Black Lives Matter movement of today: two groups of protesters, separated by decades, but fighting similar battles. Footage of the LA Riots recalls the horror at Ferguson, where those protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown were met with disproportionate violence from a militarised police force.

Perhaps it’s faded a little from the public consciousness, but the O.J. trial was once ubiquitous to American life. In the 1990s O.J. was a national hero; the larger-than-life figures comprising O.J.’s defence “dream team” and the beleaguered prosecution appeared in the media as towering caricatures; and there were unnumbered melodramas, including O.J. evading arrest in a white Bronco that led a ludicrous slow-crawl car chase up and down the LA highways.

When the trial verdict was read out in court in 1995, televisions were wheeled into school classrooms so that students could hear the jury proclaim: “not guilty”.

How John Travolta And Ross From Friends Bring The Trial To Life

In many ways the O.J. Simpson saga is the perfect vehicle for Murphy, whose predilection for high camp, celebrity gloss and gory horror-drama match well with an infamous and gruesome murder trial. However, in American Crime Story Murphy and his cohort are unusually reserved. They never tip the scales into ham-fisted frivolity, preferring to walk a line between reticence and a kind of prescient, thrilling irony.

The result is a series that’s unaccountably watchable, beyond the mere binge-ability of TV’s recent true-crime exposes like HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. American Crime Story is juicy yet substantial, peppered with uniformly excellent performances and muted by a dark, chewy tone.

Captured in ten measured episodes, the first two directed with eagle eye and arched brow by Murphy, American Crime Story shines the most when its opposing players bounce off each other. First there’s the stand-off between Robert Shapiro, played by John Travolta as a vaudeville clown wearing a mask of his own stretched face, and Marcia Clark, the dogged, dowdy prosecutor who falls prey to a viciously sexist media cycle. Paulson, who is to Ryan Murphy what Meryl Streep is to the Oscars, does some of her best work as the sharp, principled Clark. When a jury consultant suggests that she softens her image, Paulson’s thin, twitching mouth contorts to the furthest thing possible from a smile.

Then Shapiro butts heads with Cochran, whose ability to “translate for the Downtown” puts at risk unctuous Shapiro’s place at the head of O.J.’s defence team. Courtney B. Vance is a bright spark of electricity as Cochran, at once thoughtful and excessively fun. He gets the better of Shapiro in a series of brilliant, bolshie chess moves.

Finally, Cochran goes up against the prosecutor’s ringer: Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), a black lawyer unearthed from the bowels of the District Attorney’s office to provide so-called “flavour” to Clark’s all-white prosecution counsel. In the real trial, Darden was presented as an Uncle Tom figure, a man who betrayed his community to persecute one of their own. In American Crime Story Darden is examined with a deftness that reveals his impossible, unenviable position: forced to weaponise his identity in the name of justice.

The final two players on the board are also the most dangerously sympathetic: O.J. and his adulating BFF, the late Robert Kardashian (yes, that Kardashian). Played hangdog by David Schwimmer, the Robert Kardashian of American Crime Story is a sanctimonious but well-intentioned Good Samaritan – prostrate before the powerful O.J., always rallying, eternally convinced of his innocence. Schwimmer is surprisingly great as Kardashian, putting the hooded, daffy Ross Gellar stare to good effect. (My only complaint is that the hair isn’t quite big enough.)

In one of a few signature Murphy moves, the series has a little too much fun imagining that the O.J. trial was the birth of the Kardashian clan’s thirst for fame. Selma Blair is a mewling, brittle Kris Jenner, she and Robert surrounded plague-like by their brood of mini-Kardashians. They thoroughly over-do it in just one scene: Robert takes his attention-hungry kids to a restaurant, where because of the trial he is recognised and given preferential treatment. When the kids celebrate the victory, he lectures: “Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”

Cuba Gooding Jr. is a ruptured, rasping O.J., always midway between blind rage and violent, soul-shattering fear. He never quite captures the innate charisma that gave O.J. his rank (and probably kept him out of prison, at least initially), but his fear and confusion are so profound it radiates through the TV. He flicks between posturing and messy, infantile terror at a whiplash-inducing rate; it’s uncomfortable but you can’t take your eyes of him. His performance, unnervingly sympathetic considering Simpson’s violent track record, should earn him at least an Emmy nomination.

These are characters, to be sure, but ones made three-dimensional by the sensitivity of the writing and by the tremendous performances. They all circle each other, jabbing, snapping, landing hits wherever they can. Each episode feels like a dizzying dance class.

For those old enough to remember the O.J. trial, perhaps American Crime Story brings a fresh perspective, focused by hindsight. For those people, like me, who were too young (or too far away) to remember, it’s a fascinating insight into the cruel whimsy of justice: although the LAPD was fairly exposed as racist and corrupt by the O.J. trial, it was at the expense of a different kind of justice.

In the end, there was no justice for Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, two murder victims who were largely sidelined by the surrounding media circus – and who are sidelined again in American Crime Story. As Ron Goldman’s father laments in a tragic, impassioned speech: “My son has become a footnote in his own murder.”

At least American Crime Story gives some uncomfortable insight into how little has changed in the way of global racial politics. With its parallels to the current climate in the US, and in Australia, the show appears to be asking: How many times do we have to re-learn the lessons of history before they sink in?

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.