If you search for the Top 10 Most Controversial Court Cases in the world, the Murder Trial of O. J. Simpson would definitely be on that list. Touted as one of the most high-profile cases in American history, it had all the elements of a sensational, socially divisive court-room drama. As the very first season of FX’s American Crime Story, People v OJ begins with a backdrop of the Rodney King trial which had resulted in mass riots in Los Angeles in 1992. These massively destructive riots were sparked by a singular incident which brought the invisible racism towards african-americans into public scrutiny. In March 1991, an African-American Rodney King and two more passengers were asked to stop on the highway for a standard traffic check by the California Highway Police. When they did not comply, the police started following their car which eventually turned into a high-speed chase. Once they were finally taken into custody, the police went on to inflict some serious injuries through tasers and hammering the baton on the alleged culprits multiple times.
The whole encounter was video-taped and became the basis for the infamous trial which led to the acquittal of the Police officers who had participated in the aggressive handling of the situation. Even though the video-tapes clearly indicated that the officers had used almost brutal force on the individuals who had already surrendered, the jury was not convinced that the tapes showed the full story thus letting the officers go. The tapes which were later made public, turned into a social frenzy and became one of the worst blemishes in the history of America.
This back-story gave a significant precedent to the O J Simpson case as many of the elements of the Rodney King story were utilized as legal ammunition in it. For those of us who are from the other part of the world which is more inclined towards Football and Cricket, O J Simpson is one of the most accomplished people in American Football. With several records under his belt, O J also known as The Juice, soon became a household name through multi-million dollar ad deals and movie offers which is almost an American tradition. However, all his fame was about to go through the ultimate litmus test. On the fateful night of June 12, 1994 just two years after the Rodney King Trials, O J’s ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman were found stabbed to death outside their home in Brentwood, LA. Simpson, who was initially a person of interest, soon turned into a suspect when he failed to turn up at the Police department for questioning. In fact, he led the police on a highly publicized car-chase through town eventually turning himself in.
Now O J Simpson, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. was a huge celebrity and as can be ascertained, held a lot of influence through his close friends Robert Shapiro, a powerful civil litigator and Robert Kardashian, yep you got that right – Kim Kardashian’s dad, who had been a lawyer himself. Since, the case involved a celebrity as big as O J, it was assigned to the District Attorney’s office to become a trial between the People of California and O J Simpson. Despite being a true account of what transpired before, during and after the trial, The People v O J Simpson is by no accounts a documentary or a biography. The creators of this gripping drama made sure that this remained a story about the characters.
Orenthal James Simpson is shown quintessentially as a hero who has fallen from grace. Stories of his domestic abuse are raked up by the media as if implicating him of the crime before even the courts got to him. From a successful african-american symbol, he became a figure of controversy pleading trust from his friends and family. Gooding Jr. portrayal is exactly how you would imagine a rich man who is afraid of jail would be. His personality teeters between a loving father and a spoiled brat who treats even the most serious of situations with nonchalance.
Robert Kardashian as I see it was a huge casting risk from the audience’s point of view. David Schwimmer is too well-ingrained as Ross from the wildly popular 90s Sitcom Friends and has not really been able to throw off that character in Hollywood due to which his career almost came to a standstill after the series went off air. Having said that, David proved me wrong. From the moment he came on screen, all I could see was a concerned family friend who was ready to do anything for his dear friend O J. All I could see was Robert Kardashian, the man who was the only other person emotionally devastated after O J’s arrest. Whatever may have been the reason behind the neglect but Schwimmer deserves another chance in Hollywood. Outside the characters he has played, he is an excellent actor and is a rare talent, playing both comedy and drama with equal flair.
Robert Shapiro was the first litigator who came forward to defend O J as a long time family friend. With an illustrious career behind him, he was a respected and influential man in the LA social circles. An age-wizened John Travolta, again seemed like a casting risk for the role of a litigator considering the kind of roles he has done in the past. Travolta’s projection of a typical high-society bourgeois lawyer was accurate starting from his bushy eyebrows made to look like the real Shapiro to his sophisticated mannerisms which also culminated into an individual who loved the comforts of life practising law in the same way, refraining from getting his hands dirty.
Johnnie Cochran was the exact anti-thesis of Shapiro, even though they were on the same ‘Dream Team’ defending O J. A staunch proponent of the well-being of the african-american community, Cochran was a powerful orator. He understood it well that O J was going to become a scapegoat, an example for all the world to see, if they would let it. So Cochran shrewdly found a way to use the Rodney King situation as his shield. Through his tactics, he turned a homicide investigation into a racist anti-black propaganda alleging that the police had planted evidence in order to inculpate O J. Courtney B Vance is phenomenal as Cochran. His confidence is contagious with an enormous screen presence even in front of big actors like Travolta and Gooding Jr.
Marcia Clark played by Sarah Paulson and Chris Darden played by Stering K Brown form the DA Team who are trying to convict O J in light of damning evidence based on DNA analysis found on a leather glove found on the crime scene and in a Bronco along with the DNA of both the victims. Paulson and Sterling fight a losing battle thanks to the misleading testimony from the opposition which sways the almost black jury in favor of O J. On the one hand Clark faces stereotypical sexism being a woman leading the attack while Darden is frowned upon being from the african-american community himself.
What came to be known as the Trial of the century, was followed by millions of viewers for months. For a few nerve-wracking days, it was feared that there might be a clash between O J’s supporters and the supporters of the victims which came down to mostly a black vs white tussle but thankfully, the Rodney King trials had made the people more mature. The gripping courtroom drama and the preparatory research that went behind it is refreshingly authentic, rife with all the political and racial tension throughout the series. At one point, we even see TV broadcasters canceling primetime shows to provide the slot to the Trial coverage broadcast. It had become a national pastime.
The fast-paced, amazingly edited court-room scenes with intermittent cuts showing the scene through a VHS style court-recording camera, makes for an authentic experience as if you were watching the events live on TV.
The People v O J Simpson was nominated for an astounding 22 Emmys in the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards, winning the ‘Outstanding limited series’ and 8 others including Courtney B Vance, Sarah Paulson and Sterling K Brown winning one each. Through the very first season, FX has redefined how real-life drama is created for on-screen adaptations. The fast-paced, amazingly edited court-room scenes with intermittent cuts showing the scene through a VHS style court-recording camera, makes for an authentic experience as if you were watching the events live on TV.
It would be interesting to see which high-profile case becomes the subject for American Crime Story Season 2. Adjourned till then…
gobblpoint: With incendiary ingredients like racial drama, a celebrity trial and a double homicide, its a no brainer actually. One of the most realistic drama we have seen in a long time with some great performances !
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