When Orenthal James Simpson, the former NFL star and actor, was arrested for the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman, it marked the beginning of a chapter in American society that extended far beyond the subsequent criminal proceedings and Simpson’s eventual acquittal. Famously dubbed ‘the trial of the century’, it was a modern-day Greek tragedy that was as much a cautionary tale as it was a perfect microcosm of the state of American society in the 1990s.
In the pre-internet age, it revolutionised the face of media coverage and arguably gave rise to the 24-hour news cycle and our ongoing obsession with celebrity gossip. It re-exposed the racial tensions that had come to the fore following the Rodney King beating and subsequent LA riots and came to represent the latent political and social divides that continued to split the country.
Fox’s ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’, created by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski and based on a book by Jeffrey Toobin, is a painstaking portrayal of this iconic episode in American criminal justice history, presented through the eyes of those intimately involved in the trial.
From the initial arrest and investigations to the infamous car chase involving Simpson’s white Ford Bronco and the trial itself, ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ is impressively comprehensive in its version of events, often playing as much like a fly-on-the-wall documentary as a dramatic re-enactment.
The show rings every last drop of tension and drama out of a story whose outcome we all already know, using the personal conflicts of the characters as a way to thrust the narrative forward. That it can remain so gripping for the entirety of its 10-episode run is a testament not only to the cast, but the detail to which the writers manage to infuse each character with believable depth – a reminder that this is the story of real people caught up in a maelstrom beyond their control.
Courtney B. Vance as Simpson’s infamous lawyer Johnnie Cochran and Sarah Paulson as lead prosecutor Marcia Clark are undeniably engaging as legal opponents who struggle to compartmentalise the trial that would come to define their lives and careers. Vance is particularly captivating as the mercurial Cochran, who approaches the case as something akin to a moral crusade and ultimately emerges triumphant.
There are some issues – Cuba Gooding Jr lacks the physical presence to convincingly capture Simpson’s imposing charisma and the casting of John Travolta as Robert Shapiro and David Schwimmer as the late Robert Kardashian seem slight missteps. Schwimmer is given the unenviable task of having to navigate Kardashian’s crisis of faith as he comes to question the innocence of his friend, whilst serving as the vehicle for a series of knowing references to the future fame of his celebrity offspring. Yet these are minor nitpicks for a show that, on the whole, manages to expertly humanise a disparate cast of characters whose personal stories are often lost beneath the wider media narrative.
Given the wide-reaching cultural impact of the trial, it would be easy and extremely tempting to editorialise and use the story as a framework to push a particular ideology or offer an ad-hoc explanation of events. Why ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ excels is precisely because it refuses to do that – instead giving us the story of the people behind the trial whose flaws, successes and failures symbolised so much.
The Emmy Award nominated true crime series of the year, American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson is out now on Blu-ray & DVD.