Netflix Essentials: The People v OJ Simpson
Before The People v OJ Simpson, I only knew about the infamous 1995 OJ Simpson trial -- in which the former NFL running back superstar was charged with the double homicide of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and 25 year old Ron Goldman -- through pop culture osmosis, and it was usually filtered through a bleak punchline of, “Wow. Fucked up that he got away with murder, huh?”. That Simpson later released a book maddeningly titled If I Did It only cemented the dark humour of the whole wretched thing.
Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1997 book The Run of His Life: The People v OJ Simpson, The People v OJ Simpson (hereafter The People), is a ten-episode and rather serious view into the chaotic trial and is shown mostly from the perspective of the legal teams. On the prosecution's side, there's Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown). On the defence is the notoriously wily Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), Bob Shapiro (John Travolta, vamping to the max with that hairpiece and those eyebrows), and F. Lee Bailey (played with delightfully smug condescension by Nathan Lane). And there’s OJ himself (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and OJ’s best friend Rob Kardashian (David Schwimmer).
By devoting much attention to the cat-and-mouse game between the prosecutors and the defence, The People wildly succeeds as a tense and thrilling true crime drama even though the verdict is obviously never in doubt. And the stunning recreation of the brouhaha and tabloid noise surrounding the trial resonates at such a frequency that it’s impossible not to be sucked into the circus.
But underneath the sordid legal game of what can and can’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt – a game whose ante is increasingly upped through a series of soap-opera twists so contrived they could’ve sprung from the mind of a Hollywood cokehead, but, truly, actually happened -- a nation's already terribly tarnished soul is revealed to be at stake. And so as the series goes on, Orenthal James Simpsons’ fate becomes incidental by comparison. Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman’s mutilated bodies become mere chess pieces for the tabloids and the 24 hour news entertainment stations and the scheming lawyers to play around with. Which is its own separate kind of tragedy that the show subtly and sadly acknowledges.
On a macro level, The People is about black people and white people in America living in different realities. Rodney King is often invoked as proof of this. Not invoked, though no less relevant, is James Baldwin’s quote: “To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time”. Defence Attorney Johnnie Cochran stokes this flammable rage like a master, and it’s dangerous and cynical and tawdry and noble, all at once. He harnesses and targets this rage toward the racist institution of the LAPD -- all in service of getting a rich killer off. Complicated doesn’t even begin to cover it.
What’s not so complicated is when Ron Goldman’s father, a man in the throes of unspeakable grief, lays out the facts of his son’s murder to his lawyer’s face; like the fact that he was stabbed in the face multiple times and the fear he must’ve felt in his final moments is beyond imagining; that all he did to deserve such a heinous death was to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. And Rob Kardashian's slow realisation that his best friend is likely an unrepentant murderer is equally tragic.
These and the other hard-hitting minor keys ring out loudly and clearly amidst the unseemly, undeniably compelling gladiatorial spectacle, and what elevates The People v OJ Simpson to the level of a masterpiece.