I was a junior in high school in June of 1994 when football legend OJ Simpson drew the national spotlight; not for his hall of fame play as a running back for the Buffalo Bills in the 1970s, or his current charming and charismatic self, seen continuously in commercials, movie cameos, or mic in hand and giant smile on his face reporting from various NFL sidelines.
It was none of that at all.
In June of 1994, OJ Simpson drew the national spotlight after his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman were found brutally slain in a posh LA neighborhood, and a trail of blood and evidence, accompanied with a dark history of domestic violence made him the primary suspect.
The escapade of the crime, Simpson’s flight from the LAPD (which I watched in a zombie-like-state along with the rest of the country) and the subsequent ‘Trial of the Century’ became mankind’s latest obsession with a tragic event, joining the likes of the Titanic and the assassination of JFK.
The OJ Simpson case brought the names and faces of the players involved to the top of stardom in a dubious way. Lawyers would grace the covers of tabloids and style magazine alike. Each would write books, give lectures, and financially secure themselves for the rest of their lives as a result of the ordeal.
In 2016, the FX Channel launched the original series “The People v. O. J. Simpson” as a genesis to their ‘American Crime Story’ series. After watching the ten-episode docudrama, I was speechless in revelation at just how excellent the production was.
The series tells the story, one we already know too well, but it does so in a way that tears into the deepest roots of the people and entities that were involved in the mayhem some two decades ago. Like “Titanic,” the viewer goes in knowing full well the outcome, yet its three directors do such a great job of creating a perfect ambiance you’ll believe it’s possible for a result that differs with what’s recorded in history.
The trial itself brought to the forefront racial injustices concealed within the borders of America. The events occur in the fledgling aftermath of the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots. The opening sequence depicts these atrocities and lets you know that what you are watching is for real. It’s somewhat troubling to see these divisive tones still alive and kicking in the present day. While the issue of black vs. white are present, a contrast with numerous other social problems exists as well, many of which are still at the forefront of our conscious.
One aspect is men vs. women. We watch OJ’s “Dream Team” of high priced celebrity attorneys wage a vicious courtroom battle with Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor and a single working mother who tries desperately to balance the needs of her young children against a historically popular case that swallows her entire being. With this facet brings about the horrors of domestic abuse, and how the men involved seem oblivious to its impact. Clark unintentionally takes stage as an impact player in the women’s rights movement.“He got away with beating her.” She sternly warns at the onset of the investigation. “He’s not going to get away with killing her.”
We also see the contrast of rich vs. poor as impoverished black folks rally to support OJ, much to the chagrin of assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden, a black attorney, himself labeled an ‘Uncle Tom’ for his role in the case. “It’s not like OJ is a pillar in the black community.” Darden tries to explain to a neighbor. “Once he made his money he split and never looked back. He became white.”
I also appreciated and watched with awe as ’90s countercultures (and accompanying soundtrack) goes up against the established norms and standards of the era. In the days before the internet and social media, we witness as the case itself serves as a launching pad for Court TV, CSI television shows, and today’s generation of fame hungry nobody’s (such as the Kardashian family who managed to cash in). Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer playing in his final US Open, and the NBA Finals were both interrupted by networks showing the infamous Bronco chase throughout the LA freeway system. In can be argued that the OJ Simpson case and trial broke ground for Reality TV as we know it.
What ultimately makes the project so fulfilling is the chilling perfection of the cast members who each look, act, and sound nearly identical to their real-life counterparts. OJ’s Dream Team is led by Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance). The rivalry between the two is a thing of beauty, with each wanting to take the credit and pass the blame as needed. “If there’s going to be a media circus, you better be the ring master,” another attorney lectures. From the start, Shapiro and Cochran seem to care more about themselves looking good for the cameras than the innocence or guilt of their famous client.
Opposing the dream team are the prosecutors, with Sarah Paulson taking the spotlight as Marcia Clark. Clark’s disdain for Shapiro and Cochran’s trickery is obvious as she continues to hold true the notion that the facts and evidence will ultimately prevail. “We have all the aces, lets hold the high ground.” Clark is in charge of what should be a slam dunk case, but as a colleague reminds her it will be an uphill battle to garner a conviction for a popular celebrity. “We can’t even execute Charlie Manson.”
One of the most powerful scenes you will ever witness occurs when Fred Goldman, the father of one of the victims, meets with Clark in her office. As Goldman lets his emotions out with a tribute to his son, his daughter remains perfectly silent, letting her eyes and her tears convey her emotions. This scene shows that Clark wants justice to prevail, not only for herself, but for the victims as well.
Sterling K. Brown is a perfect complement as Christopher Darden. As an educated black man, Darden is held to a different standard. He must do his job as a prosecutor, but also a representative of his community, who feel like second class citizens when going up against the LAPD. Darden is met with adversity throughout, but remains honorable with his role in the case, despite the objections from fellow black citizens. “OJ spends his days playing golf with old white men, and his nights sleeping with young white girls.” Darden sates when being accused of choosing the wrong side.
One of the best characters in the series belongs to David Schwimmer in the role of ‘Dream Team’ attorney and OJ’s best friend, Robert Kardashian. The arc of Robert Kardashian is an amazing one that sees him steadfast at OJ’s side at the beginning as any best friend would be, to a man who can barely muster the courage to look Simpson in the eyes as the evidence continues to mount up. Schwimmer made his fame in the ’90s with his role of Ross on the sitcom “Friends” and is thoroughly remarkable in appearance and acting in this series.
Initially, I thought the weakest casting choice was Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ Simpson. At first, Gooding Jr. just didn’t seem the part, with his small stature being historically inaccurate in playing OJ, but as the movie progresses, Gooding Jr proves his acting talents in winning over the part. We get an actual glimpse of how Simpson acted behind the scenes with the portrayal, as he makes inappropriate sports analogies when communicating with his attorneys and is seemingly aloof to the seriousness of the ordeal.
The production itself manages to put the viewer back in the mid-’90s as it was really happening. The off-center angle of the courtroom cameras, nuances like Christopher Darden constantly adjusting his glasses, the racially divided spectators on the streets of LA like scenes from “A Time to Kill” – it’s exactly the way it was as we watched on TV so many years ago.
If you wrote it as a script, no one would believe it. “The People v. O. J. Simpson” is so well done it serves to educate as well as entertain. From the opening scenes to its powerful ending, it’s a great binge watch that you will burn through in a weekend. Its much more than a trial. Its a window into a historic event.
by – Matt Christopher