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An American tragedy: the O.J. trial

Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays O.J. Simpson in the 10-part FX series starting tonight at 10.

FX via AP

Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays O.J. Simpson in the 10-part FX series starting tonight at 10.

The trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman is often described as the "trial of the century," a cliché that does what clichés do: dulls and deadens. Simpson's trial, which stretched from late 1994 to October 1995, was not just the trial of the 20th century. As FX's hugely watchable new miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story demonstrates, it is the trial of our current century as well.

It extends its tentacles into the present moment, when we are once again in the midst of a national reckoning about the intrinsic racism of our police forces, when the NFL is grappling with violence done to and by its players, and when a 24/7 celebrity news culture is dominated by the O.J.-connected Kardashians. Race, sex, violence, fame, football: the live wires of the O.J. trial are still sparking with the same electrifying charge.

But Simpson's trial was also, in its way, a time capsule: the last gasp of our national undivided attention. From the moment in June 1994 that Simpson's white Bronco sped across Los Angeles' freeways to his acquittal, Simpson held the spotlight in a way no one has replicated.

The 10-episode FX series, which begins tonight and stars Cuba Gooding Jr. in the title role, is based on Jeffrey Toobin's book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. It is produced by Ryan Murphy, the creative force behind Glee and American Horror Story. Murphy has said that the series is agnostic on the subject of Simpson's guilt or innocence, but this is coy. In the opening pages of his book, Toobin flatly states his belief in Simpson's guilt, as well as his belief that this guilt is a lesser feature of the trial. Its essential aspect is race and how a seemingly straightforward murder case, insofar as such things can ever be straightforward, became a racial litmus test.

The People v. O.J. Simpson traces how Simpson's legal "dream team" realized the racially polarizing nature of Simpson's arrest and successfully harnessed that polarization by putting a racist LAPD on trial before a jury composed largely of middle-aged black women. This strategy proved so effective that the prosecution, made complacent by the bounty of physical evidence and miscalculating the depths of the divide between the black and white citizenry of Los Angeles, did not know it had lost until it was too late to win.

For those who were relatively young when the trial took place, the show is a crash course in a fascinating case full of twists so twisty they seem scripted. (See, for example, that Detective Mark Fuhrman, the racist cop who found O.J.'s gloves, was a collector of Nazi paraphernalia.) But even for people who were of age during the trial, and therefore automatically inundated in its every particular, The People v. O.J. Simpson has something to offer — a new perspective on characters long ago written into the national consciousness as one-dimensional versions of themselves.

The performances are uniformly enticing, from John Travolta's unabashedly oleaginous turn as Simpson's lawyer Robert Shapiro to David Schwimmer's performance as the devoted and decent Robert Kardashian, stalwart friend of O.J. But the two standouts are Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson, who play the dueling lawyers at the center of the case.

Vance is Johnnie Cochran, Simpson's lead defender, who comes across less as a showboat than a tireless and brilliant lawyer and advocate for racial justice. Paulson plays the prosecutor Marcia Clark in a performance so sympathetic she completely upends the widely held conception of Clark as a brittle and bitchy public figure who lost her case through hubris.

The People v. O.J. Simpson catalogs the deeply sexist ways in which Clark was put under the microscope: Her looks, her hair, her manner were all judged and found wanting for being insufficiently soft and feminine. And Paulson brings the weight of these judgments home, showing that the exterior steeliness for which Clark was so derided was a kind of miracle of self-preservation, a reflection of the professionalism of a workaday prosecutor desperately trying to secure justice for two innocent victims, while being chewed up in a media feeding frenzy of unprecedented size.

Cochran out-strategizes Clark not only because he is more attuned to the feelings of black people, but because he has no truck with the concept of color-blindness, a view of race that, in the '90s even more than now, well-meaning or even just appropriately acting white people were encouraged to take. The defense, led by Cochran and the brazen operator Shapiro, observed that black and white people felt very differently about Simpson and acted on this observation, while Clark and the prosecution were acculturated not to mention this as a possibility, even when not doing so permitted racism to flourish. So much of what went wrong for the prosecution was a matter of what they could not foresee, in part because they did not have the language with which to safely discuss it.

At the time of his arrest, Simpson was one of the most famous men in the U.S., an extraordinarily handsome and charming man who had transcended racial lines to become a beloved player and celebrity to both black and white Americans. Some 20 years later, Simpson, who is now in prison on other charges, is something completely different: a broken, haggard man. Gooding shows the beginnings of this long descent, playing O.J. as a volatile presence, hopping swiftly from misery, remorse, and resignation to anger, umbrage, and righteousness.

Ultimately, watching the trial play out as a fait accompli gives it the heft and structure of a classical tragedy in which everyone is undone by his or her seeming strengths turned to weaknesses. Cochran is a swashbuckling advocate who gets justice in the largest sense — the LAPD was certainly guilty of systemic racism — by aiding a specific injustice and helping a likely murderer go free. Clark and co-prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) are ruined by a failure to reckon with the larger backdrop of injustice against which their just cause took place.

And then there is O.J., who believing himself to be above the law and race — "I'm not black; I'm O.J.," he would say — finds himself, like the country that made him, entangled forever with both.

An American tragedy: the O.J. trial 02/01/16 [Last modified: Monday, February 1, 2016 4:51pm]
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