Monday, January 16, 2017

American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson Mid-season Analysis

I started watching American Crime Story this weekend.  

It was toward the end of my 8th grade year when the whole thing with OJ Simpson started.  I am too young to remember OJ's heyday as #32.  From what I'm told, he was to football in his day what Michael Jordan was to basketball in my day.  And so, it was quite the big deal when OJ became prime suspect in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her boyfriend Ronald Goldman.

I never really did follow the trial.  I knew the basics.  He tried to escape.  There was a highly publicized car chase.  One of the NBA finals games was interrupted just to show this chase, and many fans were offended.  

I knew that OJ hired a "Dream Team" of lawyers.  I knew that they were calling the trial a media circus.  My father once said that if he was Judge Lance Ito, he would have put each and every one of those lawyers in contempt.  

In the end, OJ was acquitted.  However, there was later a civil trial where OJ was found liable for the murders of Brown and Goldman.  Many people I was raised around considered OJ to be clearly guilty as sin.

But one thing was clear.  In the end, this trial was not just about OJ and whether or not he committed double-homicide.  It wasn't about Nicole Brown or Ronald Goldman either.  And it especially wasn't about the showboating.  It was about the racial tensions in LA, especially with the police and the court system; it was about celebrity culture; it became much bigger than even OJ could fathom.


American Crime Story tries to show the story from the perspective of the multiple parties involved.  It's not just about OJ, who is adeptly played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.  I always pictured OJ as being more stoic and laconic than the way Cuba portrays him.  I guess I'm basing this on the Naked Gun movies but also the footage of the trials that I had seen.  Generally, OJ appeared to be strong and steadfast.  But this show portrays him as being very emotionally delicate.  He is seen having serious mood swings, crying a lot, being quite indecisive, but then going back to being strong and egotistical.  He is shown to have a scary side to him (one that pleaded Nolo to battery of the same woman he was accused of murdering).  He is also shown to have written a suicide note, attempting suicide (or feigning it...), and generally being at the whim of the many lawyers who were trying to help him.

On the other side, we have Marcia Clark.  She is a hard-working competent ADA whose hubris is that she thinks this case is a slam dunk for her.  When the case becomes the circus that it does, she is clearly overwhelmed, but she still rolls with the punches.  Even when it is pointed out to her point blank that her public approval ratings are quite low, that she’s commonly seen as a bitch with bad hair who needs to soften up her image, she hardly cracks.  Marcia is willing to do anything to get her win, even against a plethora of celebrity lawyers and with a media that is bipolar about whether they’re with her or against her.

At first, OJ has a lawyer named Howard Weizmann, who is clearly too small time for this case.  So per the advice of family friend Robert Kardashian (played by David Schwimmer), OJ hires Robert Shapiro (played by John Travolta).  It’s hard to divorce Schwimmer and Travolta from their previous roles.  Schwimmer, in particular, still has some semblance of Ross Gellar.  But soon, it is clear that Kardashian (who was also small-time) and Shapiro would not be enough.  One of Shapiro’s main Achilles’ Heals is that he is a negotiator who usually takes a plea bargain for his clients.  Though he has successfully defended many celebrities, it appears that OJ has too much to lose by accepting a plea bargain.

And so, it comes to a point where the team consists of some of the biggest names, but also the biggest egos, in the legal field.  I’m told that Alan Dershowitz is not fond of Evan Handler’s portrayal of him.  Indeed, Dersh is made out to be a snooty Ivy League intellectual who can’t go 15 words without mentioning something about Harvard.  But there are some things this show definitely got right about Dersh.  For one, Dersh has a reputation as being a whore, a man who has no scruples about whom he will defend, and how he will defend them at all costs.  Plenty of people I know castigate Dersh freely for the fervor he has defended alleged rapists, and the way he comes down on the alleged victims, trying to invalidate their testimonies—they say Dersh is the embodiment of “rape culture”.  On one hand, everyone does deserve legal representation, and Dersh is consistent about that.  On the other hand, people do consider a lot of his methods underhanded. 

And then we have Johnny Cochran.  Yes, he was famous before the trial, but OJ made him a superstar.  I had a Hebrew teacher in high school who used to call him “Johnny Cockroach.”  He had a reputation for playing the “race card”, for making Mark Fuhrman out to be racist, for rhyming “if it don’t fit you must acquit.”  But this show gives him some dimension.  Like at first, he didn’t want to accept the trial; but he was outspokenly on OJ’s side.  Eventually, Kardashian and F. Lee Bailey convinced him to join.  And once Cochran was on board, they finally had a solid litigator—one who could potentially make OJ a winner.

And so, we do see plenty of “clash of the egos.”  Marcia Clark did predict that it would happen.  And so it did.  It came to a head when Shapiro (as predicted) suggested they plea for a charge of manslaughter.  This pissed Cochran off to no end, and he in a very backhanded way got Shapiro removed as lead council (with Bailey and Kardashian talking OJ into following suit).  We see that OJ never wanted it to be that way.  He wanted it to be like back in his days playing football, when he could put his differences with his teammates behind him every Sunday when playing the game.  He didn’t originally want a guy like Cochran to play the race card.  He just wanted to go home and be with his family.

But then, when Cochran was point blank accused of playing the race card, he delivered a very powerful monologue about how history has been one big racial tension, and that if his pointing that out means playing the race card, then so be it.  It does amaze me that here, Cochran is seen as a man of principle—manipulative, but still principled.

To be continued when I finish the series.