The People v. O.J. Simpson: Case Closed?
After 10 episodes, four Atlantic writers consider how the series illuminated history.
On Tuesday, FX aired the final episode of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Over 10 episodes, the show revisited, rehashed, and painstakingly recreated the details of the murder trial of Simpson in 1994, considering the case’s manifold implications regarding race, justice, celebrity, and the media. Four Atlantic writers consider how the show succeeded in examining the trial through a modern lens.
Spencer Kornhaber: In 2006, If I Did It, the book in which O.J. Simpson offered a supposedly hypothetical account of killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, prompted such public outcry that its first edition never even hit shelves. James Wolcott at Vanity Fair got hold of a copy, though. “Justice and injustice have always seemed incidental to the Simpson case, tangential to the cesspool soap opera,” he wrote in his review. “After finishing If I Did It, I didn’t feel any inward swelling of moral outrage or righteous disgust, didn’t hatch any profound insights into sex, race, and violence in America—I just wanted everyone connected with it to go away.”
The notion of the Simpson affair as a sordid and ignoble piece of history, at best a cautionary tale but mostly an embarrassment that should be forgotten, is commonly held. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, on some level, rebukes it. For nearly every figure transformed by the media spectacle into caricature or villain, it countered with a complicated human being trying to do the right thing. Last night’s finale left open the question of whether there was a wider lesson to be learned, but it made very clear that there were wider forces at work to explain the not-guilty verdict that many people found baffling. It also made clear that those forces are still at work today, and that to disregard them is to miss how the world functions.
The prosecution in the case, it often seemed, made just that error by ignoring the larger context of the trial and asking the jury to do the same. But Marcia Clark’s closing argument, as portrayed on the show, was pretty deft: It opened by acknowledging the vicious racism of Mark Fuhrman, but then implored for the jurors to separate that racism from the evidence. Watching it unfold, it seemed hard to imagine how she and Chris Darden could have done better. The facts were clear, the narrative straightforward, the logic seemingly airtight. What’s to argue with?
The answer: the entire presumption of logic, justice, and cause and effect upon which she built her case. Because Johnnie Cochran’s closing argument told the jury to think bigger than the blood splatters before them. He said the trial was about the struggle against racial injustice in America. It was about immoral police officers. It was about not being able to trust the evidence because of who was presenting it and who was implicated by it. When The People v. O.J. Simpson opened with footage of the Rodney King beating, it hinted that it would demonstrate that race is the lens through which the O.J. trial makes sense. In this finale, the divided reactions of whites and blacks reacting to the verdict around the country completed that task.
But one of the twists of this ending was that it brought in other lenses through which to view the case, too. Cochran’s, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” wasn’t really about race; it was about reasonable doubt. The jury was shown as arriving at its acquittal in an astonishingly quick four hours not through a profound debate about prejudice but through the simple impression that even if Simpson was guilty, the prosecution hadn’t proven it. Maybe that’s all this case showed: how standards for certainty and doubt can vary.
And it turned out, too, that the prosecution had a social agenda viewers hadn’t fully seen before. Marcia Clark used the post-trial press conference to tie Nicole Brown Simpson’s death to the plight of domestic-abuse victims more broadly. And in her conversation with Chris Darden, she revealed that her fervor for vengeance for victims was rooted in her own rape. Of all the capital-I Issues this show has focused on in the past nine weeks, domestic violence has not seemed high on the list. This finale snapped things into perspective: Of course the trial was about this topic. Just not in the jury’s mind and in a large part of the public’s mind, as much as it was about other topics.
The filmmakers constructed the final hour pretty smartly, I thought. The first half portrayed the final bits of legal maneuverings, and then lingered in the excruciating moment when the nation was made to sit through courtroom formalities before learning the verdict. The impact of that verdict was made wrenchingly clear on reactions within and outside the courtroom. Then came the aftermath, in segments. First we got the heartbreak and disbelief of the prosecution and the victims’ families. Then there was a happier corrective, with a focus on O.J. and the defense, most poignant when Cochran watched Bill Clinton address racial tension over police. The epilogue, imparting the fates of the various players and paying tribute to Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, added a bit of factual finality.
But the very last scripted portion, with O.J. throwing a party and realizing he’d lost friends, read the most ambiguously of all. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the show’s complex treatment of complex material all along. But 10 weeks of drama adds up to this: the decimation of O.J.’s social life? Or was it more profound: the survival of a human at the cost of his celebrity?
What do you all think? Did The People v. O.J. need more moral clarity—more side-taking, more condemnation? Or did it offer those things and I just miss it? And why didn’t we get more Kato Kaelin?
Megan Garber: Kato! I’d totally forgotten about Kato in all this. I have no idea about why he wasn’t around more; I do know, though, that I didn’t miss him. (Sorry, Kato.)
To the moral clarity question, though, I love your idea that the show explores “how standards for certainty and doubt can vary.” To me, one of the things the series overall accomplished so effectively was its Rashomonic illustration of events, from beginning to end: We got so many subjective takes on the trial, so many different ways of looking at the same thing. And what’s amazing: They were all, for the most part, equally viable. Most everyone here, in their way and on some very legitimate and true level, thought they were doing the right thing. Even, it seems, O.J.! Even Dominick Dunne, the Vanity Fair journalist! Even the show’s resident smarm-in-a-suit, Robert Shapiro!
The finale deftly—and really powerfully, I thought—brought all of that prismatic perspective-ing home: Johnnie Cochran, tearing up as he watched President Clinton publicly grappling with race because of the work he’d done, feeling that he’d just won a victory not just for O.J., but for an entire community. Chris Darden, bitterly informing his former adversary that all he’d achieved, in the end, was to hold that community back. Marcia Clark, revealing how profoundly personal the trial had been for her. Gil Garcetti, coming to terms with the fact that, after decades of public service, losing the “trial of the century” would be the thing people would remember about him.
And then there was Robert Kardashian (whom the show early on, after some groan-worthy, irony-dripping comments about the fleetingness of fame in the first few episodes, blessedly separated from his reality-star offspring). His arc, I thought, was one of the most fascinating the show offered. In slowly coming to doubt O.J.—and, in the end, in coming to be sure of O.J.’s guilt—Kardashian mirrored the evolution that I figure many, many Americans underwent during the real trial: a slow realization that O.J., that affable athlete-hero, might also be a murderer.
At first I wasn’t sure about the casting of David Schwimmer in that role—whether the sitcomic ham he had perfected on Friends would translate to true-crime drama—but, in the final episodes of the series, he swayed me. That moment, in the finale, when he burst out of the Ford Aerostar that had taken him and O.J. back to Brentwood after O.J.’s release from jail—the moment that found him looking like someone who’d almost drowned before finding a pocket of air to save him—struck me as especially powerful. Here was this man, the sycophant turned skeptic, escaping from a moral vacuum. Here was yet another person who did the right thing, as he understood “the right thing” to be: doubting O.J. Leaving O.J. And then leaving him with that powerful symbol of morality: a Bible.
That’s why I’m not sure I agree that the show was ambiguous about the meaning of that final (and, ooooof, horrifically awkward) party. To me, the finale at that point seemed pretty damning of O.J.: all those zoomed-in shots of his face, as if the show’s cinematographer were willing him into showing remorse. All those suggestions of how terribly tone-deaf, and disrespectful, that party was to O.J.’s children, and to the victims, and to the country. That scene that saw O.J. gazing at the statue he’d long ago erected of himself in his backyard, as the old stadium crowds cheered him along in his mind—that was the moment, as I read it, that O.J. decided to live in denial, and to surround himself with other people, in the absence of Robert Kardashian, who would think of him only as “Juice.” The moment, basically, when If I Did It sprang to life.
There was that last scene, too, as the show’s credits visually fused its fictional characters with their nonfictional counterparts, that focused on O.J., aged and rejailed and resigned, looking blankly at the camera’s lens. To me, the implication was that, with O.J.’s 33-year sentence for armed robbery, the legal system had once again been manipulated not to address a current injustice, but to correct a past one—in this case, to ensure that the killer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman would be put to justice. I thought that implication was driven home with the chyron’s note—haunting in its bluntness—that O.J. will be up for parole in 2017.
Then again, though, it really is hard to say for sure. The only thing I didn’t appreciate about the finale was how non-committal it was about what, finally, its real “finale” would be. There were so many different endings here. The Cochran ending, with plastic-cupped office champagne and a “Congratulations” cake. The Clark/Darden ending, with that lovely, terribly sad moment when the pair left their office, headed for a consolation drink, as “Feeling Good” played in the background. The Goldman ending, with the family—bereft of their son and brother, and bereft, too, of what they saw to be justice—alone in their car in the garage of the courthouse, not yet able to get on with their lives. This, I think, was the price the show paid for its fealty to subjectivity: It had so many loops to close. It had so many stories to conclude, if not conclusions to draw.
Which is all, I guess, another way of saying: No wonder there wasn’t more Kato.
Gillian White: On the topic of justice and moral clarity, I think Spencer hit on a great point: Marcia Clark built her case on what, in her mind, was a fair and logical outcome. But both Clark and Cochran had larger agendas, neither of which were inherently immoral. More than once the series showed that Clark’s fatal flaw in the case may have been her inability to understand that justice and fairness can mean different things to different people—and can be pursued in different ways.
To that end, I think the interplay between Chris Darden and Johnnie Cochran was incredibly important, and one of my favorite parts of the entire series. They both very clearly understood the importance of race in this moment in a much more visceral way than their colleagues could. In their final meeting after the verdict, it was abundantly clear that they’d never see eye to eye on what constitutes progress or justice. Their talk was deflating in the most perfect way. And, more generally, poor Christopher Darden. It was impossible not to cringe for him from start to finish, being pushed further and further into a trial he was reluctant to involve himself in, and then being slowly ripped apart.
To my mind, one of the shows greatest successes was its depiction of how O.J.’s largely black supporters were able to compartmentalize their personal feelings about O.J. the man from the O.J. the representative figure. Even in the earliest episodes, black families and neighbors were gathering and alternately condemning or supporting him. But the lines that were drawn weren’t ultimately about O.J. at all—they were about the larger narrative of racial inequality. Cochran’s wife, played by Keesha Sharp, helped to crystallize this idea perfectly in the penultimate episode, saying to her nervous husband, “O.J. is an imperfect vessel, but you got your message out there.” That’s abundantly clear in the juxtaposition of responses to the verdict shown in the finale. Black people celebrating, and white people aghast.
This entire trial was a moment in race relations that I remember distinctly. It had much less to do with the facts of the case than it did with the question of whether black people, especially famous, rich black people, could actually win in the justice system. That’s a pretty dark, uncomfortable question, especially framed around a murder trial, which is probably why there seemed to be the understanding that the O.J. trial wasn’t a topic to be casually discussed in mixed company.
For all the strings and story lines the series wove together, I think the non-ending ending was actually the perfect way to wrap up the issues and emotions brought up by this trial. Even for its celebrity defendant the controversial verdict wasn’t an conclusion, only a fleeting victory. Open wounds and unanswered questions abound more than 20 years later, the same problems crop up, and O.J. is once again behind bars (for now). So for me, the finale of the series felt fitting: unfinished, unsettling, and unsatisfying. For the families, it was an unfathomably painful murder trial, but for much of the nation it was about so many other things, race, policing, and questions about justice—topics that weren’t neatly going to be tied up after one lengthy trial or 10 episodes.
David Sims: The creators of American Crime Story, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, have gone on the record as saying that they wanted to tell the story from the point of view that Simpson committed the murders, and dig deep into how his acquittal could have happened. The miniseries was therefore rooted in that procedural approach, looking at every legal misstep and aggressive courtroom tactic and unpredictable public reverberation. So it was hard to manage a satisfying ending: Once the verdict was read and O.J. was being paraded around at a party and airily chatting to his kids, this story’s lack of resolution became abundantly clear.
Cochran and Clark’s character arcs were a pile-up of sympathy and frustration, Robert Kardashian’s moral crisis felt both perfectly understandable and too little, too late, and I was strangely infuriated by Judge Ito’s cry of “You’re shitting me!” when his jury rapidly returned a verdict. His mistake, to allow cameras into his courtroom, was made early in the case, but it was palpable: It turned the Simpson trial into the months-long slog that eventually curdled in the public eye. Those jurors were as sick of the whole situation, and the ruined institution of justice they were meant to serve, as everyone else.
Though everyone in this cast was fantastic—Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, etc., I want to give special mention to Cuba Gooding Jr., who was handed an especially difficult challenge and paid it off incredibly in this finale. Gooding was never quite the right physical match for Simpson, but he did a great job essaying his bizarre, childish state of denial, which was only reinforced as he got more distance from the murders and lived in some alternate reality where he was going to hunt down Nicole’s real killer. That moment with the statue, or giving his prison guard an autograph before he got out of the slammer—it was amazing to see how celebrity reinforced that reality distortion field over and over again. When Simpson tried to put on the glove a few episodes back, he seemed just as delighted as his legal team that it didn’t fit, as if he had forgotten the details of his own crime. Gooding made that childish glee feel very real—and very chilling.
The great trick of American Crime Story was that it always had the pulpy charm of the best Ryan Murphy shows, with propulsive storytelling, preposterous twists, meaty overacting, and crazy guest stars every week. Then, every time you felt like you were having too much fun watching, Karaszewski and Alexander would remind you how sordidly real the case was, how depressing its wider implications were for dialogue on racism and sexism in America, and how little has changed in the intervening decades. American Crime Story was so much fun—until it suddenly wasn’t.