The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

FX’s mini-series feels as urgent and compelling today as the trial did in 1995.

American Crime Story.
Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

Ray Mickshaw/FX

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 tentacularly 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 powerful, electrifying charge. The series’ timing is so propitious as to be vertiginous. The truth is more prompt than fiction.

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 of 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. His case proved that there was a voracious national appetite for celebrity and crime stories, to say nothing of celebrity crime stories, and media outlets have been feeding it ever since.

When the verdict came down I was in ninth grade, and like nearly everyone else in America, I heard it. My chorus teacher put a pair of speakers on the piano, and we sat around them, listening to the not-guilty verdict instead of singing. Just try to imagine a present-day circumstance in which teenagers would be spontaneously assembled to listen to breaking news during school hours: It would likely involve guns and bombs, not celebrities. The O.J. trial was the first of its kind of sordid spectacle, but in its reach, it was also the last.

The 10-episode FX series, which begins Tuesday night 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 adapted by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and 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 shares this interest and traces, qua the Toobin book with some embellishments, how Simpson’s legal “dream team” realized the racially polarizing nature of Simpson’s arrest and successfully harnessed that polarization by putting a racist, postriot 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. The series does not show the murders, contain a confession, or declare O.J. guilty, but it gives even less quarter to the possibility of evidence-tampering or alternate suspects. The show is faithful enough to Toobin’s source material that it carries the intimation of O.J.’s guilt.

The People v. O.J. Simpson is not, unlike much of Murphy’s output, particularly campy. Yes, John Travolta plays Simpson’s fatuous lawyer Robert Shapiro, looking as if he were wearing a mask of his own face, but despite certain such grace notes, the show eschews outright kitsch. Yet it is not exactly the somber and sober retelling one might expect of serious-minded awards bait, either. There is a bubblegum veneer to the series, a preference for watchability, enjoyment, and juicy asides rather than for the propriety of the prestige drama. It is, perhaps, a little more fun than might be strictly appropriate for a true crime story about the brutal murder of two people—but even solemnly told true crime tales such as Serial and Making a Murderer are ultimately experienced by their audiences as fun-adjacent. The People v. O.J. Simpson has no internal angst about delivering on true crime’s unseemly pleasures.

For those who were relatively young when the trial took place (to say nothing of not yet born), 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 Travolta’s unabashedly oleaginous turn as the lawyer Shapiro to David Schwimmer’s performance as the devoted and decent Robert Kardashian, stalwart friend of O.J., who now has the reassuring ballast of Ross Geller. (One of the series’ more eye-rolling moments arrives when Kardashian tells his preteen brood, “Fame is hollow. It means nothing without a virtuous heart.” It’s not squicky because Robert doesn’t mean it, but because it is so knee-jerkingly snooty about the Kardashian sisters, a snobbishness that the series avoids when treating other personalities that have long since been stamped as trashy, such as, for example Kato Kaelin.) 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 here 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. Vance and Paulson both are excellent, but only Paulson’s performance works as a kind of reinterpretation and resuscitation of a historical personality, because Clark was more widely reviled.

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.

As much as The People v. O.J. Simpson is about race, writ large, it is also about the interplay of race and the workplace. 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.

Both the defense and the prosecution were ultimately multiracial teams, and Simpson’s was riven with far more conflict, enormous egos bumping up against one another in a racially charged atmosphere. Shapiro brings Cochran aboard because he will have a way with the “downtown demographic,” with “those people,” only to watch his hold on the case slip away because he does not believe it can be won, because he does not really believe in O.J.’s innocence. Meanwhile, Clark and eventual co-prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) have a sweet and supportive friendship, easily the loveliest in the show, full of mutual respect as well as unstated power dynamics and things left unsaid. Darden frequently tells Clark what she’s missing about certain racial dynamics in the case, but collegial appropriateness, an entrenched sense of hierarchy, and an instinct to keep things civil keep the two from intense conflict about things they might have benefited from hashing out completely, such as, for example, putting Fuhrman on the stand at all.

If there are any weaknesses to The People v. O.J. Simpson, they are the weaknesses of all true crime: the victim and the suspect, one absent, one unfathomable. The victim in such stories is almost always unknowable because she (and it is so often a she) is no longer there to speak for herself. The People v. O.J. Simpson does a particularly half-hearted job of making Nicole Brown Simpson or Ron Goldman real to its audience. Goldman’s father gets a powerful, searing speech about what it’s like to have your murdered child become an afterthought, but that is all his afterthought of a son gets from the show. Brown Simpson does not get even this: The most we learn about her comes from the inappropriate and boozy memories of her doped-up and mercenary friend Faye Resnick (Connie Britton).

And then there is O.J. himself, played with pathos and conviction by Gooding Jr. At the time of his arrest, O.J. was one of the most famous men in the world, 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 currently 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. It is as if the show comes in on him in media res, already not the man he was, but not yet the man he will be. His flashes of charm, menace, and ego never coalesce into a clear picture, which is perhaps as it should be: Our sense of O.J., and his own sense of himself, was radically changing.

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 Darden are well-meaning overdogs, 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.