Brow Beat

What Made The People v. O.J. Simpson Trailblazing? Sterling K. Brown’s Chris Darden.

Marcia and Chris’ relationship is full of so many layers of racial tension.

Ray Mickshaw/FX

The first few episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson were, on a pure entertainment level, near perfect. Campy and winking in its treatment of a serious crime that would eventually beget a three-ring circus, the show hit all the right notes in its casting, hair, makeup, and Kardashian-related sensationalism. It clearly also wanted to dig deeper into the moral and social implications of the trial, but in the coverage of the show, all that often took a backseat to the spectacle of an elder Ross Geller saying “Juice” a lot and debates over whether or not Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. is a deceptively great performance or an embarrassingly hokey one.

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And yet now that the final episode of the Ryan Murphy–helmed saga has aired, The People v. O.J. stands to become one of the most fascinating, powerful, and illuminating depictions of the black American experience TV has ever seen. The series re-examines and dramatizes the now-legendary divide between blacks and whites on the subject of O.J.’s innocence, as well as Johnnie Cochran’s indictment of the Los Angeles Police Department as a cabal of racists. But more specifically and most importantly, the show serves as a smart, hard-hitting deconstruction of what it’s like to be “the only one,” the sole person of color in a room of mostly privileged white people and under the most extreme of circumstances.

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Enter prosecuting attorney Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), who in Episode 4, “100% Not Guilty,” becomes a key player in the O.J. case and an integral piece of the whirlwind narrative. At this point in the story, prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) is still feeling all but invincible, utterly convinced that battered women, regardless of race, will instinctively fall in line against O.J., a known domestic abuser. While talking with Chris, she scoffs at the “Dream Team” that the defense has put together, deeming them a bunch of “alpha males” who are sure to implode. “That may be true of all the white guys, but I wouldn’t be so quick to judge Johnnie,” Chris pushes back. He later cautions, “I wouldn’t underestimate him.”

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He’s right, of course, but that line is twofold, even if Chris himself isn’t aware of it in that moment: Marcia will not only underestimate Johnnie, but throughout the trial, she will continuously underestimate Chris as well. Earlier in that episode, L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti insists that she and her partner Bill Hodgman put Chris on the case for the “optics” of having a black guy on their side to counter Johnnie, against her wishes. Yet when approaching him about the opportunity, she plays it off as if she feels that they must have him, for honorable and merit-based reasons: “You and I have both been in this building for a long time, and I know that you feel you haven’t caught all the breaks you deserve,” she tells him. “But I have total faith in your abilities.” We know—and Chris, deep down, seems to suspect—that he will feel more like a show horse than a trusted partner on the team.

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The writers (and co-executive producer and director of five of the episodes, Anthony Hemingway, who also has credits on Treme, Shameless, and The Newsroom)—get at this lopsided dynamic in very detailed, nuanced ways that serve as a nice counter to the over-the-top antics of its surrounding scenes.* After interviewing the notably racist detective Mark Fuhrman, Darden warns Marcia that bringing him into the case could spell doom for their side.

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Chris: He’s one of those people who thinks that you can’t see how he really feels because he acts polite.
Marcia: That makes no sense, because when someone acts polite, they are polite. Am I out of line in saying you bring a preconceived perception to this because you’re black?
Chris: I don’t expect you to understand, but there’s a way that certain white people talk to black people. It’s disingenuous.

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Marcia is oblivious and plows ahead. Later, when he expresses concern again, she tells him to “toughen up.” Chris attempts to explain his position by recalling being in law school in the ’70s when affirmative action was a hot-button issue. “I remember,” she chimes in. “No you don’t, you’re white,” he retorts, calmly. He continues his story, elaborating on how he never felt as if he belonged in law school because everyone assumed he was only there to be a token—and how he worries that it’s happening all over again with this case. Marcia is, again, wilfully oblivious: “You are on this case because you are creative, dedicated, and smart. That’s why I wanted you.”

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Marcia is not a racist, and the show never paints her as one. (The two do get along on a genuine level, and by the end of the finale, have earned a mutual respect for one another.) Instead, she’s a stand-in for the much larger contingent of self-described white progressives in America, the ones who condemn true racists (like Fuhrman) and are quick to disassociate themselves from such people but also aren’t necessarily doing anything to actively fight against racism, either. The “I don’t see color” white people. Or the “Some of my best friends are black” white people. They are well-meaning, but in never taking the time to actually listen to people of color whenever they bring attention to issues having to do with race, big or small, they only make the environment that much more difficult and emotionally suffocating for them to deal with.

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Take Jon Stewart—last year, comedian Wyatt Cenac made headlines when he revealed an uncomfortable exchange with his former boss in the writers’ room of The Daily Show. As he told Marc Maron, Stewart blew up at Cenac after he expressed unease with the way in which the host had previously mocked 2012 presidential hopeful Herman Cain on air. (“It sounded like [the character] Kingfish,” from Amos ‘n Andy, said Cenac.) Stewart told him to “fuck off,” and the two argued for some time. According to Cenac, he later broke down and cried on the bleachers of an empty baseball field. “That’s how I feel in this job, I feel alone.”

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Chris also feels utterly alone, even as he and Marcia, despite moments of tension, find camaraderie under the unique pressure of this “trial of the century.” In a way, her inability to make him feel like her equal is what leads to one of the most damning parts of their case—perhaps if she hadn’t been so quick to dismiss his ideas, weeks of resentment from her treatment might not have compelled him to make such a bold and grave mistake as to have O.J. try on the gloves. He lays it out for her in the pivotal elevator scene from the penultimate episode, “Manna From Heaven.” You should’ve listened to me about Fuhrman, he says, enraged, after the detectives’ damning, slur-filled recordings have come to light. “You put me on this trial because you wanted a black face, but the truth is you never wanted a black voice.”

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I’d be remiss not to point out how much of the power of this role hinges on Brown’s performance as Chris. He captures perfectly the double consciousness that he must inhabit, whether he’s squaring off against his frenemy Johnnie or dealing with Marcia’s well-meaning ignorance. So often, he finds himself having to bite his tongue, out of a sense of decorum or just because he knows he won’t have a sympathetic ear—and that combination of frustration and sadness simmers with an intensity that is impossible to ignore. He plays the quieter moments so well—fully inhabiting the sense of defeat when calling to apologize to Ron Goldman’s father for the glove incident, for instance. Or when he can barely contain his frustration while reading aloud—in his office full of white colleagues—a poll in which he’s been deemed an “Uncle Tom” by the respondents. Everyone around him shifts uneasily, unaware of how to handle this racially loaded moment—he is, as usual, alone. On the rare occasion when he does explode, as in the elevator, it feels that much more earned; weeks of suppressed emotions spill out heatedly and justifiably.

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In the finale, at the press conference after the verdict, Chris is a man who is all but destroyed, unable to finish his speech. He says he’s not bitter, but it’s clear that the system has broken his spirit. Face to face and alone with Johnnie later on, he at least gets the final word in their odd relationship. “All the people saw is how well you can twist the system. This isn’t some civil rights milestone. Police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here—unless, of course, you’re a famous rich one in Brentwood.”

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Yet again, Chris is the one who refuses to live in a fantasy world, preferring to confront the realities head on even as they slowly eat him up inside. That’s what being the “only one” can do to a person of color. And its trailblazing depiction of this is what The People v. O.J. should be remembered for.

Correction, April 6, 2016: This piece originally misidentified Anthony Hemingway as a writer on the show.

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