The queasiest thing about American Crime Story’s (FX) retelling of the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial is how easily such a flagrant miscarriage of justice could happen all over again. The twin forces that most warped that case, after all, still plague us today: a tabloid culture that reduces flesh-and-blood people to incendiary archetypes and a police state that treats the African-American community as Public Enemy No. 1.
American Crime Story opens with a montage of Rodney King’s assault by four Los Angeles police officers and the explosion of rage and violence after those officers' acquittals. What follows is a devastating cautionary tale of how the pursuit of a greater justice can result in a smaller but still stingingly shameful injustice. For prosecutor Marcia Clark (played by a magnificent Sarah Paulson), the case for Simpson’s guilt is as clear as it can be: Police had more than five dozen reports of the football star beating his wife, Nicole Brown — a pattern of abuse the prosecutor believes culminated in the murders of Brown and Ron Goldman. Plus, a literal trail of blood links O.J. to the double homicide, stretching from the crime site right into his bedroom.
But Johnnie Cochran (played by Courtney B. Vance, also at the height of his game) sees what his white rival can’t, or won’t: that many in outraged black Los Angeles prefer to view the handsome, genial athlete as a latter-day Emmett Till, a sexual trespasser denied his due protection from the authorities on account of his race. Never mind that Simpson was a popular mainstay at the golf courses in Beverly Hills–adjacent Brentwood or that his most famous statement of his racial identity, uttered here by a manic-depressive Cuba Gooding Jr., is “I'm not black. I'm O.J.” Cochran turns Simpson’s trial into a referendum on the LAPD — and Simpson’s victims lose their right to a fair trial to the racial politics of the times.
Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, American Crime Story is enormously compelling, even bold, as a legal procedural that illustrates, step by incremental step, how righteous rage is exploited and misdirected into setting a killer free. (The series is agnostic about Simpson’s guilt, but not convincingly so. In any case, the evidence — Simpson’s history of domestic violence, his inability to account for the cuts on his hand, the suicide note he wrote before attempting to flee to Mexico in that infamous white Bronco and the overwhelming physical evidence — speaks for itself.)
It takes a few episodes for the writers to find the show’s strengths. The story begins with the discovery of Brown's and Goldman’s bloodied bodies, and much of the pilot simply serves as a prelude to the media circus to follow, as news of the murder of O.J.’s wife — and the athlete’s possibility as a suspect — pings from the police department to the district attorney's office to the disbelieving world at large. The writers strain to include every last salacious detail about the crime and personalities involved, bogging down some early scenes — why the overreach just to name-drop Kim Kardashian? “Do not kill yourself in Kimmy's bedroom,” pleads O.J.’s closest friend, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), as we see the star brandish a handgun under an arch of Tiger Beat posters. In a later episode, the father of four warns his children, “Fame is fleeting, it's hollow” as a young Kim turns away.
But by the fourth hour, after the more-dryly-funny-than-dramatic Bronco chase is over with and Simpson’s legal Dream Team has been assembled, the show self-actualizes as it enters the courtroom. There's a sprawling cast: a creepily waxen John Travolta as oily celebrity lawyer Robert Shapiro, Nathan Lane as Machiavellian criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, Sterling K. Brown as co-prosecutor Christopher Darden, Connie Britton as an opportunistic friend whose memoir about Nicole becomes a lurid bestseller and Selma Blair as Kris Kardashian (possibly the show’s only purely sympathetic character). But the case is used sparingly as the focus turns to Clark and Cochran, who emerge as the series’ protagonists. (O.J. himself is sidelined, and his weepy, squeaky, childlike helplessness is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the confident charmer that he was in his public life and the vicious brutalizer he was in his marriage.)
Eight black women serve on the Simpson jury, and the lead lawyers’ efforts to win their hearts and minds make for the show’s most thoughtful and provocative scenes. Based on the first six episodes, it’s not clear what this Cochran thinks of his client’s possible guilt. Highly practical yet deeply embittered, the attorney is determined to use his powers of sincere showboating and media manipulation to convince the jury that Simpson is just another hardworking black man persecuted by the police — and it’s time for the jury to fight back on his behalf. There's a personal stake for Cochran, too: The loss of O.J. to prison would amount to one less African-American hero in the world for the lawyer's young daughters, who have to watch their father handcuffed and bent over the hood of his car in his Sunday best by a white cop who doesn’t like the idea of a black man driving a fancy car through an affluent neighborhood.
The show occasionally strikes a condescending note when it portrays the jury as gullible pawns to Cochran’s church-inflected mellifluousness. But there’s no doubt that the real-life lawyer’s words landed where they needed to. In O.J.: Made in America, ESPN’s upcoming eight-hour documentary about the trial, one juror confesses that she chose to acquit Simpson as retaliation for Rodney King.
While the fifth episode dives into Cochran’s past, the achingly brilliant sixth hour explores Clark’s present, where she’s under constant bombardment as the only prominent woman in the courtroom. The jurors think she’s a bitch, strangers make period jokes to her face, the fashion police calls her clothes “a cry for help” and her husband, with whom she’s going through a foul divorce, sells her out to the media. When Cochran makes a patently sexist crack at her expense in court, no one — including Judge Ito (Kenneth Choi) and her co-prosecutor, with whom she begins an affair — comes to her defense. And that’s still not the worst of it.
Yet Clark is the one we can’t help root for. She’s confoundingly blind to the racial dynamics that Cochran so expertly maneuvers, but she seems to be the only member of the bar in that courtroom who cares that justice for a dead woman and her friend is at stake. As Clark explains, Nicole Brown had just turned 18 when she began dating O.J., 12 years her senior. Each time she tried to leave her batterer, her parents convinced her to try to make it work with O.J., prolonging their daughter’s abuse. (For each of Nicole’s returns to her husband, her father received a car dealership.) Clark notes that Nicole was stabbed so many times in the neck that she was “practically decapitated.”
For all of her passion for her work, Clark is maligned — as dumpy, shrill and racist — as often as Nicole herself in the press and treated as a hysteric by her boss (Bruce Greenwood). As she cries in her office, feeling lost and lashed in the spotlight, her stranded loneliness is as weighty as anything else in the series.
Clark’s anti-abuse crusade is urgent, but so is Cochran’s public scrutiny of the LAPD’s institutional racism and Shapiro’s dread that a guilty verdict might incite another riot. (Ignoring Clark’s wishes, the DA’s office immediately takes the death penalty off the table despite the severity of the crime.) To its enormous credit, the show humanizes pretty much all of its characters. Even O.J.’s desperation to avoid jail flutters the heartstrings, if only for sorrow for his children.
In future seasons, American Crime Story will present a new real-life case each year. If the first half of this first one is any indication, it’s a gripping new direction for true-crime stories going forward: told with all the scandal we want, but also the complexity and empathy that the victims deserve.