Were we complicit in ‘The People v. O. J. Simpson’?

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Courtesy FX's "The People v. O. J. Simpson"

Courtesy FX "The People v. O. J. Simpson"
Courtesy FX “The People v. O. J. Simpson”

The most important show currently on television is undoubtedly “American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson.” A 10-episode miniseries on the channel FX, “The People v. O. J. Simpson” forces us to reflect on our society as much as it examines the “Trial of the Century.” As I write this, the program has aired its sixth episode and has delved into issues of race, gender and media obsession.

The trial of O. J. Simpson was the biggest event of the 1990s. I was only 4 years old at the time of the murder, but I remember seeing the face of O. J. Simpson welded to the TV screen for over a year of my life. For those older than me, O. J.’s trial remains a moment of history that will forever imprint itself on their memories. It was inescapable. The O. J. trial had everything — race, sex, murder, sports, celebrity and, most importantly, cameras.

Every moment of the O. J. trial was captured for the American public to view. Like “The Truman Show” but set in a courtroom, the O. J. trial drew the American public into the lives of real people with dramatic pacing and intensity better than any daytime soap opera. At the end of the trial, people felt as if they knew everything there was to know about O. J. Simpson, Johnny Cochran and Marcia Clark.

It is no exaggeration to say every element of the prosecution and defense, including the lives of the defendant, detectives and attorneys, were the subjects of news articles, books and Saturday Night Live skits. The trial was covered by conventional media, Hollywood press and sports journalists. An area of entertainment did not exist that was not covering the trial. Even with all of that, it seems the American public might have missed the most important outcome of the trial: how much the 1995 trial of O. J. Simpson reflects the world we live in today.

“The People v. O. J. Simpson” opens its series by reminding us of Rodney King. Such presentation allows us to understand immediately that this case was fundamentally tethered to race and the perception and treatment of African Americans in 1990s Los Angeles. The writers of “The People v. O. J. Simpson” faithfully present the tension that existed at the time. African Americans in LA had reason to be wary of the legal system.

That wariness of the police had, by the time of the O. J. trial, transformed to rampant mistrust of a system that a significant portion of African Americans believed was systematically corrupt. The show uses that social reality to explain how it was that an entire community of people could see O. J. Simpson as an innocent victim of police tampering, even with the massive amount of evidence demonstrating his guilt.

Our legal system is adversarial by design, and one of the inevitable and obvious outcomes is the pitting of one side against the other. Never would anyone have imagined that the sides in this case would be so large and vehement. The O. J. trial had the effect of splintering our society into black versus white. One of the strengths of “The People v. O. J. Simpson” is that it highlights how strong that division was. If an African American believed O. J. to be guilty, he or she was met with anger and labelled a traitor by members of his or her own race.

Sterling K. Brown plays Christopher Darden. Courtesy FX "The People v. O. J. Simpson"
Sterling K. Brown plays Christopher Darden. Courtesy FX “The People v. O. J. Simpson”

In the show, Assistant District Attorney Christopher Darden (portrayed masterfully by Sterling K. Brown) is forced to confront the reality that his own community thinks him a traitor. Called an “Uncle Tom” by other African Americans, Darden feels the level of anger by the African American community, anger so intense that members of the African American community would resort to demonizing a man who stood as a symbol of black success in order to defend another whom they believed symbolized the same.

Spearheading the idea that race played a part in O. J.’s arrest is Johnny Cochran (portrayed in an Emmy-deserving performance by Courtney B. Vance). Cochran himself faces the uneasy nature of the LAPD in the show. In a scene that takes place years before the O. J. trial, when taking his daughters out to eat in an upscale “white” neighborhood, he is pulled over by an officer. After Cochran defends himself against the officer’s implication he isn’t the owner of his own vehicle, he is bent over the hood of his car and handcuffed in front of his daughters and the observing public.

Before the officer approached the car, Cochran reviews with his daughters how they must act in front of the police. It is a chilling but accurate representation of how many minority parents instruct their children on interacting with police. Cochran is eventually released from handcuffs after the officer learns Cochran is an Assistant District Attorney. The reason Cochran was pulled over and restrained in the first place? Failure to signal on a turn.

Courtney B. Vance plays Johnny Cochran. Courtesy FX "The People v. O. J. Simpson"
Courtney B. Vance plays Johnny Cochran. Courtesy FX “The People v. O. J. Simpson”

Cochran uses his experience as a lawyer and as a victim of prejudice to lay the framework for O. J.’s defense, taking every opportunity to force the prosecution to defend itself from the accusation that race played a part in O. J.’s arrest. While all indications were that the investigation was performed legitimately, the then-current status of relations between the LAPD and African Americans was enough to introduce doubt. The creators of the show want us to see, through Cochran, that this series isn’t about the evidence involved in the trial. Instead, “The People v. O. J. Simpson” is about how a seemingly guilty man could walk free.

Was Simpson set up by the LAPD? No. At least I don’t think so. Was he guilty? Without a doubt. Does that matter in a court of law? No. What matters is what the prosecution and defense can persuade a jury to believe, and the showrunners of “”The People v. O. J. Simpson” understand that fundamental aspect of criminal law.

The show is, in part, an examination of our legal system, which often isn’t focused on what actually happened. Evidence and truth matter less than how one side or the other spins them. Cochran states in one episode that they, the defense, will win because they will “tell a better story” than the prosecution. Using the most important criminal case in American history as the backdrop, the creators of “The People v. O. J. Simpson” expose the weaknesses of our legal system.

Concerned with narrative over evidence, favoring verisimilitude over the actual truth, O. J.’s trial is much like many other criminal cases. Both the prosecution and defense in every case weave a story, with some presentations more factual than others but all with equal weight in the courtroom. Ultimately, the decision to legally remove one’s liberty and freedom relies on a flawed process of pitching two stories to a group of 12 flawed people and forcing them to agree which story is more convincing. Both prosecution and defense have won using this strategy, at times sending innocent citizens to prison or letting guilty men walk free.

What makes the O. J. trial unique is the attention on those who pitched those stories. In “The People v. O. J. Simpson,” what happened outside of the courtroom was as integral to the verdict as what happened within it. Already detailed were the experiences of ADA Christopher Darden and lead defense attorney Johnny Cochran, but the examination of ADA Marcia Clark seems to be the most pivotal to the O. J. Trial.

Marcia Clark (portrayed by Sarah Paulson) faces the struggle of being a mother working in a professional setting. Her personal life is a specter that haunts her throughout the trial as she tries balancing the O. J. case with her ongoing divorce and the care of her children. All of these events put a burden on her that is only exacerbated by the media and defense constantly critiquing her at every moment. Her hair, her motherhood and her personality are all subject of attacks by various actors.

Sarah Paulson plays Marcia Clark. Courtesy FX "The People v. O. J. Simpson"
Sarah Paulson plays Marcia Clark. Courtesy FX “The People v. O. J. Simpson”

The biggest points of contention are the critiques tossed at her by the entertainment world. In the latest episode, she is called “frumpy” in reference to her style and personality by entertainment reporters. Members of the legal world and observers at large remark on her tough personality, with Clark being referred to as a “bitch.” When she makes attempts to change herself in response to criticisms, she receives more and with greater intensity.

Many women know this struggle today. How a woman looks can seem more pressing than the substance of her character, and the frustration of having a tough personality viewed as a negative quality in a woman, while for men it is a virtue, is still present today for many female leaders in business, politics and media.

Clark is devoted to her profession as a prosecutor. The crime, and justice for the victims of that crime, are her motivation throughout the series, yet she is constantly undercut in her efforts by anyone with an opinion and a following. That tension is gut-wrenching to watch and should be relatable to any woman who has worked in a professional setting.

The criticisms start to have an impact on Clark’s ability to perform her job. After a nude photo of her on vacation is released by a newspaper, she has a breakdown in the courtroom. Media obsession ultimately starts to cannibalize those who try to serve the public good.

In the end, the showrunners are interested in teaching us how O. J. could get away with murder, and what becomes evident is that a lack of evidence was not the culprit. We were. The series presents a society split along racial lines, with each side unwilling to acknowledge that their opposition might be right. This division led to increased media attention that benefitted the defense significantly more than the prosecution.

The defense was able to worry about the case, while Clark of the prosecution had to worry about all of the negative press and scrutiny she was receiving. The case, with neutral circumstances, would have been a slam dunk. Americans in favor of a guilty verdict played just as big a part in helping the defense win as those who believed O. J. innocent.

Instead of letting the legal process play out, our society decided to get too involved, and we didn’t allow the people we trust to seek justice to adequately perform their duties. We were more interested in the story we wanted to believe than in letting the process flesh out the facts as they happened. We let our opinions cloud the truth. We still see this today when a report comes out about an athlete involved in a sexual assault, an actor is accused committing domestic abuse or a politician is involved in a scandal.

Instead of seeking to find the truth, we allow our biased opinion of a person dictate his guilt or innocence. As beloved a person may be, it is possible for her to be guilty; and it’s also possible for the hated to be innocent. As the show suggests, it seems our society was too concerned about what we thought was right and less about actually exploring the truth. In “The People v. O. J. Simpson,” it is we who are on trial. Ultimately FX is informing us that, in reality, the “Trial of the Century” was really the trial of our lives.

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