Monday, December 18, 2017
TV and Media

An American tragedy: the O.J. trial

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.

Comments

Monday’s sports on TV/radio

TODAYCollege basketballHouston Baptist at Michigan State6 p.m.Big TenNorthern Arizona at USF7 p.m.820-AMNebraska-Omaha at Kansas7 p.m.ESPN2Charleston Southern at FSU7 p.m.ESPNU; 1010-AMNorthern Illinois at Marquette7 p.m.FS1Purdue-Fort Wayne at India...
Updated: 5 hours ago

Sunday’s sports on TV/radio

TODAYCollege basketballWomen: Florida State at Texas12:30 p.m.FS1Women: Georgia Tech at Georgia1 p.m.SECStony Brook at Providence2:30 p.m.FS1North Carolina at Tennessee3 p.m.ESPNSavannah State at Baylor3 p.m.Fox SunWomen: USF at Florida International...
Published: 12/16/17

Saturday’s sports on TV/radio

TODAYBoxingMiddleweights: Lemieux vs. Saunders9:30 p.m.HBOCollege basketballButler vs. PurduenoonFoxMiami at George WashingtonnoonCBSSNLouisville vs. MemphisnoonESPN2Detroit vs. MichigannoonESPNUNC-Greensboro at N.C. StatenoonFSFSeton Hall at Rutgers...
Published: 12/15/17
Adam Savage’s ‘Brain Candy Live!’ at the Straz Center: Canceled

Adam Savage’s ‘Brain Candy Live!’ at the Straz Center: Canceled

Looks like the idea of Brain Candy Live! returning to Tampa Bay in 2018 turned out to be a myth.The interactive science spectacular, co-hosted by MythBusters' Adam Savage, has canceled its upcoming North American tour, including a May 5 event at the ...
Published: 12/15/17
Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

Salma HayekSalma Hayek has spoken out against Harvey Weinstein, calling the producer a "monster" who threatened her career and her life after she reportedly denied his sexual advances. Hayek said working with Weinstein on the film Frida was like "goi...
Published: 12/15/17
What to watch this weekend: ‘A Christmas Story Live,’ Star Wars movie marathon, Hollywood Christmas Parade

What to watch this weekend: ‘A Christmas Story Live,’ Star Wars movie marathon, Hollywood Christmas Parade

OH, FUDGE! A CHRISTMAS STORY LIVE!The trend of live musicals broadcast on television isn't slowing down anytime soon, and A Christmas Story Live! — based on the classic holiday movie and Broadway musical — was ripe for the next taking. Fo...
Published: 12/15/17

Friday’s sports on TV/radio

TODAYBoxingSuper lightweights: Vargas vs. Herrera10 p.m.FS1College basketballWomen: Southern at USF7 p.m.1040-AMMaryland-Eastern Shore at Creighton8 p.m.FS1College footballDivision III, final: Mount Union (Ohio) vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas)7 p.m.ES...
Published: 12/14/17
Harry Potter’s Nymphadora Tonks, Natalia Tena, joins A Celebration of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

Harry Potter’s Nymphadora Tonks, Natalia Tena, joins A Celebration of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

The bubble gum pink-haired, shape-shifting witch Nymphadora Tonks from the last four Harry Potter films is headed to A Celebration of Harry Potter next month.Natalia Tena marks her first appearance at the annual wizarding world celebration Jan. 26-28...
Published: 12/14/17
Disney-Fox deal gives ESPN control of local cable rights to Rays, Lightning games

Disney-Fox deal gives ESPN control of local cable rights to Rays, Lightning games

As part of its deal to buy a massive package of 21st Century Fox assets, Disney will acquire Fox Sports Regional Networks, which control the local cable rights to a slew of professional teams, including the Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Lightning.Assu...
Published: 12/14/17
Poll: Most Americans say 'Merry Christmas' and prefer Rudolph over Charlie Brown

Poll: Most Americans say 'Merry Christmas' and prefer Rudolph over Charlie Brown

The Monmouth University Polling institute released the results of their Christmas poll today.
Published: 12/14/17