Rich Heldenfels


In 1995, Fox aired The O.J. Simpson Story, a TV movie taking advantage of the Simpson frenzy of the time. It was cheesy, clearly lawyered-up because Simpson’s murder trial was in progress, so misguided that the director had his name taken off it.



Justifiably dismayed by Fox’s movie, a critic for Variety said hopefully that “someday, someone may write a strong script about the tale, which touches on the issues of spouse abuse, racial relations in America, our Byzantine legal system, the nature of fame and celebrity and the Greek-tragedy plot of a fall from great heights.”



Although it has taken more than 20 years, a new production largely grants that critic’s wish.



The production is The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first in a planned series of dramas under the American Crime Story banner.



A 10-part series, it comes from writer-director Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Glee), based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life, and premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX.



While this alone would make the argument that there is much still be to talked about and pondered in the Simpson story, it is in fact not alone. ESPN has a five-part documentary about Simpson due to air in June; it has already been previewed at Sundance.



For people who were not paying attention then, or who have been numbed by the way social media creates a daily or hourly scandal and sensation, it may be hard to understand how huge the Simpson case was.



It consumed hour after hour of live TV, commentary and debate, and an accompanying pile of print. (Just about everyone, including peripheral players, published a book.) It elbowed into other parts of our lives, for example when an NBA Finals telecast went split-screen so NBC could also show viewers Simpson’s Bronco chase.



When in 1995 the Cleveland Indians were in their first postseason game in more than 40 years, they had to jockey for national attention because the game took place the same day as the Simpson murder-trial verdict. Saturday Night Live would eventually fire Weekend Update anchor Norm Macdonald and writer James Downey for making too many O.J. jokes — since their boss, Don Ohlmeyer, was a loyal friend of Simpson.



That aside, seemingly everyone connected to Simpson or the case was expected to have an opinion. In 1994, about a month after the murders, Canton native Dan Dierdorf was at a news conference for Monday Night Football, where he bristled when asked for comment about Simpson. “Half of what I see on television now is inappropriate,” he said. “So I don’t feel obliged to toss any more on the heap.”



But as big and gripping and appalling as it all was, so is the FX series. I have seen the first six hours and they for the most part wonderfully follow the strategizing, miscalculations, near madness and social upheaval that accompanied events following the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, specifically those involving the lawyers on both sides of the case.



In addition to Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, you have John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and Sterling K. Brown (known to viewers of Army Wives) as Christopher Darden. With the exception of Travolta, who tends to reduce Shapiro to a single expression, they’re all excellent — Vance in particular.



And regardless of where you stand on the Simpson verdict, the deeper you go into the drama, the more you will ask, How could this have happened?



In his book, Toobin argued that the Simpson case “at its core … was a horrific yet routine domestic-violence homicide. It metastasized into a national drama, one that exposed deep fissures in American society, for one reason: because the defendant’s lawyers thought that using race would help their client win an acquittal.”



In Toobin’s book, and in the new drama, race was an issue well before the lawyers seized on it. Simpson’s trial took place in an environment scarred by race through Los Angeles law enforcement’s unpleasant relationship with the African-American community, especially evident just a few years before in the Rodney King case and subsequent riots.



Already that puts us into a present-day issue, as repeated controversies over how police treat people of color keep arising. Similarly, the Simpson case illustrated how blind some of the principals were when considering race — especially Clark, who misread how African-American jurors would respond to her and to Simpson, and who underestimated the impact of detective Mark Fuhrman’s racial attitudes.



Making this even more fascinating is that, two decades ago, Simpson had built for himself a prosperous but seemingly race-neutral life (one of the much promoted quotes in the TV version is his declaring, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.”). Then his arrest reminded at least some observers that, in the eyes of the white power structure, black is black no matter how much green you have. In one of the more telling scenes in the drama, Simpson’s defense team redecorates his home before the jury visits, replacing most of his own memorabilia with items meant to convey black consciousness.



But race is not the only current rolling through The People v. O.J. Simpson. There is as well the matter of how the legal system can fail, how as Toobin observed a trial about one issue became about something entirely different.



There is the issue of how society views celebrities, embodied not only in Simpson’s dealings with the police even before the murders but in Judge Lance Ito’s embrace of his fame and Clark’s getting mocked by TV audiences and tabloids over her hairstyle.



There is the notion of “reality TV,” in which a court case becomes a serialized drama and creates its own characters. Then TV itself turned increasingly to real people for its stars; perhaps the most awkward element of this drama is the shoehorning of scenes of Kardashian with his children, as if these future reality-TV/social-media icons were getting schooled in the art of inadvertent fame by the Simpson case.



There’s the matter of money and the law. Simpson’s “dream team” clearly outspent the prosecution, assembling a fractious group of gifted (and in many cases flawed) personalities who could attack the outnumbered prosecution from a variety of directions. And, on that score, the drama (like Toobin’s book) shows that one of the best things to happen to Simpson was the addition of the brilliant, win-at-any-cost Cochran to his defense team, especially in contrast to Shapiro.



Vance is the standout in the production, capturing Cochran’s canniness, charm and, when needed, ruthlessness. It’s tough to pay attention to anyone else when Vance is onscreen. But the film works well structurally, moving chronologically through the case but taking time to deal with a single topic, such as Clark’s tabloid woes or Darden’s struggle with his place in the case and his community.



Over time, as I’ve said, we see that this case spotlighted issues that we are still wrestling with as a society. I still think Simpson got away with murder. But as a culture, we are all still on trial.



Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal, Ohio.com, Facebook, Twitter and the HeldenFiles Online blog. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.