‘The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story’ Analysis

I watched the 2016 Emmy’s this past Sunday and was floored by the numerous awards given to the cast and crew of The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. It nearly swept the Miniseries awards, both in front of the screen and behind the scenes. I had to see what the acclaim was about; I had to watch the show.

I started watching the show around 2:30pm on Monday and finished it less than 24 hours later. In a few words this miniseries was amazing on all fronts. The directing is brilliant with Episode 5 (“The Race Card”) and Episode 6 (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”) being standouts. The acting is top tier from almost all of the leads. There is so much to get into; I wish I had followed the show as it aired to do episode reviews and recaps. Instead I offer a brief analysis and my thoughts on the show’s importance.

The question that the series, by the very nature of its title, begs is “What makes the OJ Simpson trial a particularly American one?” The answer, as Johnnie Cochran (portrayed brilliantly by Courtney B. Vance) quickly realizes is race, or how Americans deal with race.

The first shot in the entire mini-series is not one of Simpson’s face or a clip from his acquittal. It’s a collection of news broadcasts about the aftermath of the Rodney King verdicts. Black men and women rioting in the streets after none of the police on trial for the brutal beating of unarmed and black Rodney King were convicted. The awe-inspiring destruction of downtown LA in a cathartic release of anguish, pain, and most importantly anger. Anger at a criminal justice system that failed Rodney King, that fails black men and women every day.

Non-black onlookers couldn’t believe the level of rage pouring out of the black community because to them, the Rodney King trial was only the Rodney King trial. To the black community though, the Rodney King trial was the trial of every black man who has ever been beaten at the hands of the police. It was about the years of silencing and discrediting when trying to bring attention to racial injustice. It was the perfect snapshot to indicate just how far we haven’t come on the topic of institutional racism.

This backdrop is important in contextualizing OJ Simpson’s trial and the “Not Guilty” verdict that he received. In the last episode, District Attorney Gil Garcetti (played by Bruce Greenword) says that the jurors decided based on emotion and not logic, insinuating that the decision was an irrational one. By all evidence, it certainly appeared so. The show does a beautiful job showing in each episode the almost insurmountable amount of hard evidence against Simpson. The various DNA samples alone would’ve been enough to convict a lesser defended man. And none of it matters in the face of a predominantly black jury. It did seem illogical and irrational.

And yet, it makes sense. The key in the defense’s strategy was the idea that the LAPD could’ve framed Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. It was all about painting the LAPD and the police officers that constitute it as racist with a history of unjustly targeting and attacking black men and women. For black people, this idea is not far-fetched. Rodney King was simply one of the first times since the Civil Rights Movement the entire nation had visual proof of the unfair treatment black people receive. The fact that one of the lead investigators at the crime scene that day was a horrid racist was just confirmation of what black people already knew. The jury’s verdict, like much of this case, wasn’t about claiming Simpson wasn’t guilty of the murders (though that is its major effect). It was about denouncing the LAPD, assigning guilt to the larger institution, and lashing out at a criminal justice system that all too often fails black people. In not convicting Simpson, they condemned the systems that continue to allow the systemic perpetuation of racism.

Though indirect, it wasn’t necessarily the wrong move. Det. Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale) didn’t beat black people alone. He had other officers who joined in with him. Nor was the LAPD in the dark of these actions. He had dozens of internal investigations on his use of force against minorities. Most damning is the fact that he was hired to begin with. Multiple people within the LAPD at different levels knew what kind of guy Det. Fuhrman was before evidence of his racism came to light. The LAPD tolerated racism. The idea that an outright bigot would be tied to the OJ Simpson trial in which the defense based their entire case on race seems like a miracle. That is, until you realize more of the LAPD at the time was composed of people who if not as racist as Fuhrman, were at least tolerant enough of his bigotry to keep him on.

In addition, the different ways Prosecutor Marcia Clark (in Sarah Paulson’s best performance to date) actively invoked a race blind ideology to her detriment is also representative of this larger disregard for the black experience. At each turn, co-prosecutor Chris Darden (a strong showing from Sterling K. Brown) tries to warn her that she is greatly underestimating the ways race influences one’s experience with the world. And each time she shoots him down, claiming that race does not and will not matter. In her words, Clark suggests that in 1994, a mere two years after Rodney King, we as a society have “gotten past race.” While this brilliantly engages with the idea of white feminism and the importance of intersectionality, it mostly serves as a critique of race-blind ideology. Clark couldn’t see how effective Cochran’s strategy was going to be until it was too late. Another of Simpson’s lawyers named Rob Shapiro (portrayed by John Travolta in the worst performance of the entire cast), can’t even get himself to say the word “black” despite the fact he is defending a black man and his entire strategy relies on race.

All of this shows how ignoring race and racism does not make it go away or lessen its real world impact. A verdict that implicates the racism in the LAPD would also challenge this race-blind mindset that allows racist systems to continue existing.

The nation as a whole is now familiar with the idea that there is racism in our police force. More importantly, we know it is not a one off thing; it is systemic, across the board. With hindsight, it is far easier to sympathize with the jury — and also Johnnie Cochran who led the persecution of the LAPD, though his goals were also polluted by his own ambitions — and their decision to essentially let Simpson go.

That being the case, they allowed a man who almost certainly killed his ex-wife and her friend free.

In the pursuit of justice for black people against racist institutions, justice for Nicole and Ron was loss. And the justice that black people received was hollow at best. After all, OJ Simpson traded in his blackness for fame; he didn’t give back to the community he came from and distanced himself from black people. By the simple metric of whether he even identified as being black, he was certainly not worth the outpouring of support he received (re: “I’m not black. I’m OJ Simpson!”). The People v. OJ Simpson shows how the OJ trial is a Pyrrhic victory for the American nation and our idea of justice.

The Simpson verdict was as violent a rejection of America’s disregard towards the issues of racist policing and structural racism as the LA riots were. It was a rejection of so-called logic that fails to see the logic of the habitually oppressed. In the OJ trial, our national inability to talk about and address racism prevented true justice from being served. It shows how we as a nation have failed to adequately address racism, how we have actively turned our eyes away from reality to embrace the falsehood of a post-racial, race-blind America.

In a country founded on racism and slavery, that still struggles with acknowledging that history and its long-lasting effects, that continuously tries to suggest that racism is behind us, what is more uniquely American than that?