An Analysis – American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (2016)
The first episode of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson is entitled “From the Ashes of Tragedy.” It opens with footage of the beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, interspersed with the court verdict and the riots that ensued for days in which a city’s people and structures were on fire. Hardly audible amidst the rapid-fire sequence of crowds demolishing storefronts and vehicles is King’s anguished voice imploring people to just get along. The screen then cuts to two years later and the summer of 1994.
I remember that bizarre TV footage of the highway police pursuing the Bronco because they didn’t seem to be in a particular hurry. The convoy trudged along for two hours, long enough for crowds to form along the roadways. Honestly, I thought, where was O.J. going to hide? Where could he go?
Fast-forward to October 3, 1995 and I was a sophomore eating lunch in the “new” cafeteria at Memorial High School (actually, it was already nine years old but the seats were highly prized as that was where the snack bar was located) with hundreds of fidgety teenagers. That day, the criminal trial that had engrossed and polarized much of the nation over the past nine months was mere minutes from its explosive finale, yet most of us in that room didn’t really associate with the key players as it didn’t involve trashing a hotel room or any of the Dallas Cowboys’ weekend shenanigans. “The Juice” was a football hero of our dads’ time. I only knew him as the hapless Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies. The trial had become a soap opera that our parents discussed at dinner and late-night hosts pillaged for material. My most vivid memories are more theatrical than scientific: Johnnie’s showboating, Marcia’s perm, the glove, the bloody footprints, Judge Ito as the overwhelmed ringmaster barely restraining the antics of the courtroom. So why did that high-school cafeteria in deep south Texas fall suddenly silent as the televisions, mounted at least twelve feet off the floor, snapped on automatically to reveal the final moments within that Los Angeles courtroom? You could have heard a mouse hiccup. No one moved except to lean forward as the court clerk read aloud, succinctly and flatly, that Orenthal James Simpson had been found not guilty. Immediately, the cafeteria erupted.
For my generation, the trial of O.J. Simpson was our own cultural marker of “Where were you when..?” akin to our parents remembering when President Kennedy was assassinated. While the largely televised trial would soon morph into a telenovela of characters scattered through the different ranks of Los Angeles society, each treading the minefield of celebrity that could bolster their fame as capriciously as their infamy and leave them either a national meme or a joke, it also ended up a cultural microcosm of racial, socioeconomic, and gender tensions in the nation that still reverberate today.
As I watched the first episode of American Crime Story, now two decades older, I found myself engaging in the sequence of events with a combination of nostalgia and jaded dismissal of some of the smarmier, more sensationalist details. Back in the mid-90s, people watched C-SPAN with legal pads next to their arm chairs (or at least my grandma did) and lived through the case and its beautiful people. Watching this show is watching the celebrity machine at work, and how easily it lures people to come closer only to be sucked in and torn apart in its gears. We know who survived the trial, who retreated from the limelight, who had their moment of fame before disappearing, and who would eventually profit from the notoriety surrounding a last name.
This case was glamour and money and rage and control and drama and television and ratings, and the anthology series arrives at an ironically appropriate time. When Netflix’s Making a Murderer captivated the country in December 2015, the vast majority of the viewers had never heard of Steven Avery or the controversy surrounding his trial and conviction. Everyone, however, knew O.J. Simpson either as an athlete or spokesperson or actor, and the people involved in the Simpson case lived very different lifestyles than the Avery family in Wisconsin.
As we watch The People v. O.J. Simpson, the “people” part could not be truer as everyone had a theory and every one is still ready to argue their side of the infamous trial. For better or for worse, this case spawned a new level of engagement in celebrity lives and lifestyles, the advantages of the rich and famous, and the questions of racial equality along every social strata. “That’s the way things are sometimes,” Johnnie Cochran tells an overwhelmed young law clerk, “Money is the only way to get justice.” Indeed, money is the lubricant of this story, keeping the gears oiled far past what the machine should have allowed, forever coloring people’s opinion of the accused’s guilt or innocence.
Twenty years later, after celebrity and fame worship and the lust for sensationalism has gone postmodern and beyond, one can’t deny the slight sense of farce in Shapiro’s eyebrows, Cochran’s suits, or Clark’s hair – the commitment of the filmmaker to capture what we most remember, in order to illuminate what many have overlooked or forgotten. To watch a reenactment of the events surrounding the Simpson case in 2016 is to peer through the looking glass and think, “What have we forgotten that has allowed history to keep repeating itself?”