'The People v. O.J. Simpson' v. 'O.J.: Made in America'
Occasionally two movies with the same subject matter get released at the same time, whether that’s asteroid-headed-for-Earth action flicks Armageddon and Deep Impact or Truman Capote penning In Cold Blood biopics Capote and Infamous.
It's rarer for two television series to be simultaneously released with the same subject, much less two excellent ones. Yet that’s the case with FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN's O.J.: Made in America (which just finished its run this weekend, but all episodes can be watched here), which both follow the former football player turned murder trial defendant.
It’s certainly understandable why someone would be interested in revisiting Simpson and particularly his trial now. The choice to allow TV cameras into the courtroom launched a future when Making a Murderer would become comfort food entertainment. And the media circus where even small-time players such as Kato Kaelin were in the spotlight helped foster a time where people could become famous for being famous.
Most relevant in the age of Ferguson and Eric Garner is what Simpson’s story says about black America’s relationship with the police. Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran worked to put the LAPD’s troubled racial history — including the acquittal of multiple white officers in the recorded beating of black man Rodney King — on trial as much as Simpson.
One of the numerous ironies of the Simpson saga is black activists’ most prominent victory against the LAPD was for a man who entertained police officers at his house and infamously claimed “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” An anecdote shared in both series is a visit of the largely black jury to Simpson’s house, where the photos of his predominantly white family and friends were switched out with pictures of him with African-American personalities. In many ways, Simpson tried to reject his race until it became in his self-interest to do otherwise.
As its title suggests, The People v. O.J. Simpson focuses almost exclusively on his trial in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and waiter Ron Goldman. The series is the first in an American Crime Story anthology developed by American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy.
The other key figures are Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, best known for penning biopics like Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt. The combination of the duo and Murphy results in a work that’s simultaneously sensational and socially conscious, much like the trial itself.
And as broad as the show can get (including John Travolta’s divisive, eyebrow-heavy acting as defense attorney Robert Shapiro), one of its greatest strengths is how it expands on the stereotypes of the trial’s major players. Prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, often dismissed as arrogant and incompetent, are shown as skilled lawyers who made some key missteps, often due to ideological disagreements. Cochran is characterized as a publicity hound who also genuinely cares about the civil rights issues he’s invoking.
Many of the series’ best episodes single in on one of these characters. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” focuses on the sexism Clark faced throughout the proceedings, while “The Race Card” centers around Darden and Cochran as black men on opposite sides of the trial.
Helping matters tremendously is the excellent cast assembled for the show. Courtney B. Vance as Cochran, Sterling K. Brown as Darden and Sarah Paulson as Clark in particular are eerily reminiscent of their real-life counterparts, and almost sure to secure Emmy nominations.
The weak link in The People v. O.J. Simpson is the title character. It’s not that Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a bad performance, though he neither looks or sounds much like Simpson, but that he remains something of a cipher compared to the fleshed-out supporting characters.
That’s where O.J.: Made in America steps in. Though nearly half of its seven and a half hour running length is dedicated to his murder trial, the documentary also examines his fame as a football player and movie star, and his downfall after his acquittal.
Director Ezra Edelman makes a case for Simpson as a Great Gatsby-esque American tragedy, a rags-to-riches-to-rap-sheet tale. One interviewee argues almost no one has had a greater fall from grace, and the documentary makes a convincing case.
The film starts with Simpson’s time as a star player at University of Southern California, and his rejection of the civil rights stances fellow black athletes Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown took, instead carefully cultivating a personality that led to endorsement deals, movie roles and hosting gigs. Simpson got fame and wealth, while white America got a nonthreatening black celebrity whose affection for they could point to as proof they harbored no racism.
Unfortunately, Simpson’s controlling tendencies went beyond his public image, as evidenced by his jealous, abusive behavior towards Nicole. A later romantic partner of hers recounts a moment when he barged in on them, got into a behind-closed-doors screaming argument with Nicole, then immediately pivoted into his polite public persona, shaking hands with him.
And though O.J.: Made in America’s trial coverage heavily focuses on its cultural implications, it doesn’t forget the brutal killings of Nicole and Goldman. The fourth episode forces viewers to confront it as well with graphic crime scene photos.
Simpson may have been found not guilty of the murder, but trouble soon returned, losing a multi-million civil suit filed by Goldman’s family that he paid off in increasingly desperate ways including writing a book called If I Did It and getting involved in the world of sports memorabilia. The latter is what led to a Las Vegas armed robbery where Simpson was found guilty and sentenced to more than three decades in prison, where he currently is.
O.J.: Made in America stands as one of the great televised documentaries alongside Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina doc When the Levees Broke. And American Crime Story has made a very strong start with The People v. O.J. Simpson (the next series is supposedly about Hurricane Katrina.)
The only question is if there’s any territory left to cover on Simpson after these two works. It won’t take long to find out — he’s eligible for parole next year.