L.A.'s Racism and Geography Play Lead Roles in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson
Cuba Gooding Jr., left, as O.J. Simpson and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Michael Becker/FX Networks
The “Trial of the Century” saw uber celebrity O.J. Simpson fight the accusation that he committed a heinous double murder. A “Dream Team” of lawyers came to his aid and cast enough doubt on a mountain of damning evidence to (spoiler alert) convince jurors to exonerate Simpson. The whole thing was televised and packaged into tabloid fodder for the public to lap up 24 hours a day. And lap they did. The murder of two innocent people, in a cockamamie turn of events, helped foster our obsession with reality TV.
It's an L.A. story through and through.
In the first installment of FX’s Ryan Murphy–helmed anthology series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which recounts the events of the 1995 trial in meticulous detail, L.A. isn’t just a static backdrop; it’s complicit in the drama.
“Brentwood? Nobody gets killed in Brentwood,” prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) remarks in the first episode after she learns of the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.
“[That’s] us planting the flag about different worlds,” explains Scott Alexander, who adapted the show from Jeffrey Toobin's book The Run of His Life with his longtime partner in biopics Larry Karaszewski. As the show progresses, the characters’ worlds are increasingly defined by their disparate socioeconomic circumstances and conceptions of race, both of which affect their approach to the trial. L.A. natives and enduring transplants will have no difficulty seeing how the characters’ worlds are tied to the L.A. neighborhoods they inhabit.
Clark lives in a Valley ranch house (“probably in need of a new paint job,” Alexander says). Her co-prosecutor, Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), lives in a predominantly black neighborhood in South L.A. Nicole Simpson is found in her nice but unglamorous condo in Brentwood.
Meanwhile Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the “Mayor of Brentwood,” and his showbizzy lawyers all occupy a slice of L.A. glitz: Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) is tied to the gilded barrooms of West L.A. and Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) lives in a palatial Encino estate. (Fun fact: they shot scenes in the actual house, including Kim Kardashian’s childhood bedroom.) Only Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) effectively straddles both worlds, living chic in Los Feliz but still a fixture at his South L.A. church.
Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark
FX, Fox 21 TVS, FXP
In a startling scene, Cochran is pulled over in Westwood for “not signaling.” He’s not fazed; it’s the third time that week he’s been pulled over for no reason. “I know the drill,” he says. “I’m black. I’m driving in a fancy white neighborhood.” It’s implied that it’s this hard-earned insight into the city’s cultural divide that allows Cochran to win the sympathy of a predominantly low-income African-American jury — for a defendant who insists, “I’m not black; I’m O.J.”
“It’s so interesting when you think of L.A. as north of the 10 and south of the 10, and how different everything therein is,” says co-executive/director Anthony Hemingway, who is from New York but lives in L.A. “Just in terms of the class on either side of the freeway, there’s an interesting duality and dichotomy there that was very interesting to explore.”
“Clearly this was the first time O.J. got to see life from my side of the river, and it’s pretty fascinating,” Hemingway adds. “But regardless of where he lived, the reality is that, in this plight of racism, he was still a black man, no matter how much money he had.”
Insensitivity to cultural and racial divides lead to dire consequences for the prosecution. In what’s initially depicted as a throwaway event, Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) moves the trial from Santa Monica, near where the murder occurred, to downtown L.A. This invites a much larger number of black jurors, who many believe were particularly sympathetic to the defense’s argument that LAPD conspired in a racist plot against Simpson. Rodney King and the Simi Valley acquittal were still fresh wounds. They knew what the LAPD was capable of.
David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian
FX, Fox 21 TVS, FXP
Besides the serious role the city’s geography plays in the dramatization, it lends itself to comic relief and delicious visual iconography. We get to see Kato Kaelin jogging shirtless on Ocean Avenue. We even get to spy on the Kardashian kids lunching at Chin Chin. (It’s too good to be true: the Kardashian patriarch lectures them on the fleeting nature of fame.) Entrenched Angelenos will frequently be able to point at the screen and say, “Oh, I know where that is!”
Co-writer and executive producer Karaszewski says he’s thankful they were able to shoot in L.A., despite an increasing trend to outsource to cheaper locations.
“There were really cheap versions of the O.J. story done immediately following the trial, and after the first five minutes you say, ‘Hmmm, I think they’re in Vancouver,’” Karaszewski says. “It feels so fraudulent because — and it’s a cliché when filmmakers say this — but L.A. really is a character in this piece.”
No depiction of L.A. (or retelling of the O.J. case, for that matter) is complete without ample freeway porn. In The People v. O.J. Simpson, they don’t mess around; they actually shut down a freeway to capture the essence of the infamous Bronco chase. In the show, the world watches transfixed as Simpson is allowed to drive back to Rockingham on a barren 405 freeway. “The backup on Sepulveda must be unbelievable,” a character in the district attorney's office remarks.
According to Karaszewski, that joke got the biggest laugh at a recent screening. “It felt like an episode of 'The Californians,' the SNL sketch, because they talk about how to get home during the freeway chase and avoid the traffic.”
The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story debuts Tue., Feb. 2, at 10 p.m. on FX.
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