By Michael Arceneaux, ebony.com
My memories of the O.J. Simpson trial are scant. I know it interrupted Days of Our Lives. I vaguely remember the Bronco chase. I recall the sentiment that we were all watching “the trail of the century” repeatedly being drilled into everyone’s heads.
What lingers most, though, is the day the verdict was reached. I was maybe 11 or 12, in choir (puberty unjustly stole my dream of being a trap soul artist), and I remember Black kids being elated that Simpson was found not guilty while the other Whites in the room—including our choir teacher—were angry. I’ll never forget my choir director’s look of disdain at what had just happened.
Middle school was the only time I was somewhat around White children and White teachers, and our divide along racial lines had never been clearer than that moment. The majority of us Black kids practically mocked the White folks appearing distraught by what they’d just heard.
I didn’t think much of any of that until last December, when I attended a screening of the first two episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson at the Paley Center, and a dinner with the cast, along with the prolific writer-producer-director Ryan Murphy, who helmed the FX miniseries.
Since then, I have now watched six episodes, and I can say without question that it’s one of the finest things I’ve ever watched on television. Initially, I was somewhat skeptical of Murphy, who does fantastic work with all things involving spectacle (though such a novelty has its limitations). See: select seasons of American Horror Story and numerous episodes of Scream Queens. But The People v. O.J. Simpson is phenomenal, and it’s a testament to all parties involved, particularly every single cast member.
Cuba Gooding Jr. adds a level of emotional intelligence to O.J. Simpson that I didn’t think existed. There is a strength and fragility to Sarah Paulson’s portrayal of Marcia Clark that manages to make you both resent and feel sympathetic towards her—especially now that we know more of what she dealt with at the time of the trial. John Travolta is illuminating as the comically egotistical Robert Shapiro. David Schwimmer is somewhat hilarious as Robert Kardashian; he comes across as an Armenian version of “Ross” from Friends with dated (even for that era) hair. Still, it works very well.
And Courtney B. Vance is simply riveting as Johnnie Cochran.
As good as episodes one and two are, during the entire night of the screening and dinner, the cast stressed to everyone one on one that the best is yet to come. So it is. The deeper you dive into the show, the more engaging the show becomes. You learn exactly how Johnnie Cochran managed to take control not only of the Dream Team that Shapiro essentially amassed, but how that decision ultimately spared O.J. Simpson from life in prison. (Well, at least that time anyway.)
Likewise, to learn how Cochran mastered the racial politics behind Simpson’s legal strategy recalls the current case Bill Cosby faces, i.e., his choice to hire Monique Pressley. The same goes for the prosecution and how Chris Darden came to serve alongside Marcia Clark in the trial.
The People v. O.J. Simpson has forced me to think about what O.J. Simpson means 20 years later, when I, as an adult Black male, can better process what all happened when I was only a young child.
In the Hollywood Reporter cover story about the show, Murphy’s producing partner, Brad Simpson, touched on how the recent tragedies involving Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and many others revealed racism in the criminal justice system. “As those things happened, we started to realize, ‘Oh, we’re not going to have to be telling people why the race story is important.’ ”
More recently, Courtney B. Vance spoke to NPR saying that he cheered for O.J. Simpson’s not guilty verdict. Not so much for him, but “I cheered for Emmett Till. I cheered for all the strange fruit that hung on the trees for three centuries.” And on Cochran: “Finally, on the biggest stage, a Black man worked the system and got another Black man off.”
Adults around me passed on those sentiments to me at the time, but whenever the subject came up years later, it was majorly met with, “Oh, he did it!” One thing The People v. O.J. Simpson does well is, it pushes me to challenge whether or not it was ever worth truly reveling in that verdict. It still feels amusing to see a Black man game a system that’s also played unfair, but it came at the expense of two people’s lives. Where’s the joy in that?
This is not to convey the sentiment “All Lives Matter.” Hell no. I’m no Stacey Dash type of Negro. That said, if you think someone is a murderous, abusive savage, there’s only so much excitement you can maintain for them getting off.