'The People v. O.J. Simpson' - A lesson in U.S. social history

A look back on one of the year's most critically-acclaimed shows so far and how its timing couldn't have been more perfect. 

By: China Magno, Larry King Now

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson  wasn’t just a simple re-telling of the trial of the century.  By allowing us to experience it through the eyes of the courtroom figures, the show offered a new understanding of how and why the case unfolded in the way that it did.  And Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator, presented the trial as a window into American life – whether in 1994 or life as we know today.

But first, it would be remiss for me to not acknowledge the performance of the cast - which was phenomenal and shouldn't be news to you.  I personally liked Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J.  It made me feel like I was watching a darker version of Jerry Maguire – with his character being tried for murder instead of getting a contract.  And nothing was more painful watching Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden, share a moment of delusion that they may well have won the case.  It was like watching Jack and Kate from Titanic be convinced they were both going to live (the floating door had room, Kate.  Just saying.)

We watched how race, politics, celebrity culture, and the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle, all play a role in the final verdict.  It was a time when we allowed differences in race to pit us against one another once again.  In the clip below, Courtney B. Vance, who plays Johnnie Cochran, recalls the ongoing racial divide at the time – a divide that he experienced first hand when he watched the verdict come down with his friend and fellow actor, Tony Goldwyn.

Through the eyes of Marcia Clark we watched a single working mother, fighting for the custody of her children, take on the trial of the century and, at the same time, have her appearance, demeanor, and even mothering ability broadcast to the world only for it to be scrutinized.  In the following clip, Sarah Paulson admits that it wasn’t until she prepared for the role did she realize her perception of Clark had been wrong all along. 

And as a woman, Clark was also held to different standards because, well – that’s society for you!

Taking a look back on his coverage of the case for Larry King Live, Larry recalls the imbalanced scrutiny between Clark and Cochran.  “We had never discussed how they always talked about Marcia Clark - what she was wearing or how her hair looked,” says Larry.  “But they never discussed Johnnie Cochran’s suit or his wardrobe, which was incredible.  Nobody ever discussed that.  We never discussed feminism.  Never.”

The show almost seems to suggest that for Cochran, it wasn’t about defending O.J.  The trial was a means to an end – a way for him to push a racial agenda.  For Clark, it was about seeking vengeance for victims.  In the final episode, Clark tells Darden that she was raped when she was 17 as a way of explaining what fueled her to become a lawyer.

In his closing statement, Darden focused on the violence inflicted upon Nicole during her marriage with O.J.  And at the press conference that followed, Clark delivered a speech about fighting for victims of domestic violence and being a victim herself.  These final moments brought domestic abuse, an underlying theme throughout the series, front and center where it belongs.  It’s almost like the entire show was leading us to question what we can do to protect victims of domestic violence.

Part of the show’s agenda was to honor the lives of the two innocent murder victims, whose deaths were somehow left on the outskirts amid the media circus surrounding the trial.  At the end of the finale, a proper tribute to Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman was made with simple silence and their pictures on the screen.  In the clip below, Cuba Gooding Jr. recalls an overwhelming sense of guilt that he experienced while filming, after realizing he never grieved the victims.

When I try to think back to the time of the trial, It’s hard for me understand how big of a deal this case was because I was only four years old.   But when it comes to the polarizing racial and political climate, the feeling is all too familiar: as I watched the show, it felt like I was watching today’s news coverage.

The series revealed two truths about American life in the 1990s: 1) women who fall victim to powerful men are rarely protected, and 2) police are suspicious of and are likely to target black men for no reason. 

It’s been a little bit over 20 years and not much has changed.

In the final scene, where President Bill Clinton mentions the case on television, he talked about our country's tendency to view the world differently based on our race.

“I think the only answer to that is for us to spend more time listening to each other,” said the former president.  “Try to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and understand why we see the world in different ways and keep trying to overcome that.”

The ultimate battle between the prosecution and the defense showed us that we all have our own definitions of justice and what it means to be ‘right.’  Yes, Cochran fought to defend the unlikely innocence of a man, but what he was really doing was fighting for the fair treatment of a community by a larger system.  We’ll always have disagreements on who’s right and what’s right, but if we follow the advice of our former President (and possibly soon to be First Husband), then maybe history wouldn’t repeat itself so much. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to figure out what to do with my now available Tuesday nights...

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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