FEATURE

Double Jeopardy

ANNUS HORRIBILIS 2016 suits the appearance of The People v. O.J. Simpson, a ten-part miniseries. It reinvents, but doesn’t reenact, what some called the trial of the century, O.J.’s racially and sexually controversial trial.

Attitudes and reactions don’t happen in a void; the past is also present. In 1991, Rodney King suffered a vicious beating by LA cops. Even with a video showing King being assaulted, the cops were acquitted. A conflagration of protest, rage, and despair broke out. In June 1994, football hero Orenthal James Simpson “allegedly” murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman. His now-legendary journey, or flight, was televised as it occurred—O.J.’s white Bronco ferrying him, gun to his head, across a Los Angeles freeway (or, the River Styx), the police slowly following in a phalanx. The eerie, unique chase ended at his house, where O.J. emerged from his bleak ride to nowhere and was arrested, a destroyed figure, it seemed to me.

In 1995 O.J.’s trial was televised. I watched it every day—prosecution witness Mark Fuhrman’s unveiling as a racist cop; the DNA evidence; Judge Ito’s passive annoyance; Denise Brown, Nicole’s sister, saying she hadn’t known what domestic violence was; and the so-called Dream Team’s successful defense of Simpson: “If the glove doesn’t fit,” Johnnie Cochran rapped brilliantly to the jury, “you must acquit.”

I wondered at my fascination, and won’t rule out some prurience. My attention would have wandered, though, if the narrative hadn’t been An American Tragedy redux, Theodore Dreiser’s novel embracing not just class but also race, sexuality, money, celebrity. If O.J. hadn’t been famous, the trial wouldn’t have been on TV, since domestic violence is common and regularly deadly. If Nicole Brown were not a white blonde, the murders might not have been covered; crimes against black women, for instance, are regularly underreported. If O.J. didn’t have money or celebrity, he couldn’t have hired the Dream Team lawyers. O.J. crossed the color line, and yet he didn’t.

The trial exposed the way the law works and fails—I’m a legal-system junkie—along with American racial and sexual attitudes. The jury’s not-guilty verdict underscored the vehement divisions between a majority of whites and blacks. Of the LA police, Dream Team lawyer Alan Dershowitz allegedly said, “They framed a guilty man.”

The People v. O.J. Simpson is a fascinating curiosity. Not surprisingly, the series lacks the trial’s suspense; instead, it substitutes revelations. Bits of the opposing lawyers’ opening and closing statements and witness testimony are folded in, but the story, and camera, is set, primarily, behind closed doors. The drama unfolds through innuendoes, suppositions, and unembarrassed interpretations of motives and incidents. O.J. is technically the central figure, but his place in the narrative yields to the lawyers’ internal arguments and intrigues, and the sequestered jury’s eight months together and their stun-a-nation verdict.

O.J. Simpson wearing gloves found at the scene of his ex-wife’s murder, June 15, 1995. Sam Mircovich/Reuters/Files.

Movie directors often say that 80 percent of their work is casting. But if “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” back in the 1990s the actual O.J. personified it. He couldn’t have told a lie.

Playing O.J., Cuba Gooding Jr., with his kind, sweet face, needed to bypass, even ignore, O.J.’s physical grace. He embodied, instead, O.J.’s unknowable side, his irrational, rageful unconscious. Gooding’s O.J. has a face in deformation, crumpling into tears and anger. His O.J. is like a mask of ruin, like the truth of Dorian Gray’s portrait, guilt turning a handsome narcissistic man not old but ugly.

Most curious, the heart of The People v. O.J. Simpson belongs to the bedeviled, bewildered lead prosecution team, Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, played by Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown. Phenomenal, compelling actors, their unseen “trial” seems greater than O.J.’s. They are so sympathetic; they make the wrong moves and seem almost noble just for attempting them. Their intense work involvement swings into a titillating extralegal romance. Fact or fiction, the series found its only suspense: Would they or wouldn’t they? I felt for them most. This can’t be what was intended, or maybe it is. During the 1995 trial, they were pitied or reviled.

Whatever happened behind the scenes, the actual trial’s political and social importance can be interpreted with the distance of twenty years. Now it seems that the verdict shouldn’t have been shocking—Americans, black and white, women and men, holding such extremely different attitudes about O.J.’s guilt or innocence. The People v. O.J. Simpson brought it back home, where we still live with the violent consequences of racial and sexual prejudice.

Lynne Tillman is the author of novels, short stories, and essays, most recently What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (Red Lemonade, 2014). In the fall, a new fiction collection, The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories, will be published by Semiotext(e).