American Crime Story: The Race Card review

Johnnie Cochran plays the race card, and may have a few aces up his sleeve as well. Here’s our review!

This American Crime Story review contains spoilers.

American Crime Story Episode 5

Uncle Tom accusations, a full-blown panic attack, and the most scathing line reading of “N—–, please”: The opening statements of the O.J. Simpson trial are cinematic even before we see Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne relaying all of the juicy details to his friends at a dinner party. “The Race Card” makes good on the promise that American Crime Story will thrill both viewers who lived through it and those who are too young.

Now, we have no proof that Johnnie Cochran murmured this damning aside to Christopher Darden after brutally dismantling the latter’s argument that the court not put allegedly racist cop Mark Fuhrman on the stand. But even so, the circumstances are juicy enough: The race card has been drawn from the deck, and it is being flung around like some sort of canny magic trick.

After the prosecution approved the (mostly black) jury without much argument, for fear of seeming difficult, Cochran is now using every angle of the race issue to his advantage. But for all that we watch a master at work the kind of sick dread of knowing the outcome, this episode is really Darden’s. He confesses to Marcia Clark that he fears his presence on the case is akin to the affirmative action mandates that made him feel like an outsider in college… and then the defense turns around and promotes Darden after Bill Hodgman suffers such severe stress that he can’t possibly be Clark’s co-counsel.

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“I wanted you because you’re creative and smart,” Clark reassures him, but does she really convince anyone? Sarah Paulson plays Clark with such a bad poker face that I’m fascinated to see how she falters in court as we get into the thornier issues.

Even before he’s thrust into a spotlight he’s clearly eager for, Darden stumbles in court. His request to Judge Ito to remove Fuhrman from the witness list disastrously backfires, as he allows Cochran—improvising, no less—an opening to accuse Darden of accusing black people of being unable to remain unemotional when the n-word is used. Next thing you know, Darden is being called an Uncle Tom in the press. As Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker review puts it, “He’d be an invisible man, if it weren’t for all the cameras.”

Speaking of could-have-beens, O.J. is so fascinatingly oblivious to the kind of people on his jury, or even the people representing him. (The episode opens with a flashback of Cochran being handcuffed to his car for no reason other than his race. As slimy as he seems in the larger series, you have to feel for the man and his embarrassment in front of his daughters and the white strangers who turn away from the sight.) But when Cochran tries to get O.J. to relate at least a little bit to the black people who will be judging his guilt or innocence, it’s clear how out of touch Juice is. Last week’s episode had Faye Resnick crowing about Nicole’s “Brentwood hello”—O.J. gets nicknamed “the mayor of Brentwood.”

But whereas Nicole is unable to defend herself from Resnick’s slanderous book nor what the defense will say in the coming episodes, O.J. is alive and well. For a man who has a larger-than-life statue of himself in his backyard, he still has a sense of perspective, as Cuba Gooding Jr. delivers in a powerful monologue:

“I want you to know I never left anyone behind, Johnnie. I did what I had the right to do. I manifested myself out of a messed-up situation. Don’t think there weren’t people from where I came from hanging on the back of my shirts with a hand out, waiting for me to drag them up, too. But it don’t work like that. You gotta get it on your own. Nobody can do it for you. I never apologized for buying a beautiful house in a beautiful neighborhood. A neighborhood where you don’t have people coming over the wall trying to get at me, trying to take what I learned. I ain’t never apologizing for that, you hear me?”

O.J. isn’t apologizing, but his image still needs some ironing out. Which is what prompts Cochran to transplant key pieces of political art (one with the n-word) from his own personal collection into Simpson’s house for the jury to observe. While it’s a short sequence, watching the court examine O.J. and Nicole’s homes—his made “more black,” hers scrubbed of any sign that she was a mother—is quite the mindfuck. Almost as much of a mindfuck, in fact, as Cochran telling Darden not to be the one to question Fuhrman, to make one of the white prosecutors do it. Is he helping Darden out in solidarity, or trying to trap him again?

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Of course, the reason may be unexpected, considering that we’re treated to a shot of Fuhrman’s meticulously maintained collection of World War II memorabilia… including some Nazi medals. Cochran is going to have a field day with this one.

We want to root for Clark and Darden, but these little bits of dramatic irony just seem to set them up for failure. They have obvious professional and personal chemistry—a scene of their late-night phone chat is reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally—but so far she’s been so wrapped up in this case that she’s failed to appreciate his perspective. When he brings up the affirmative action, she brushes it off with “I remember.” “No, you don’t,” he immediately counters. “You’re white.” And when Darden brings up the completely valid weird vibe he gets from Fuhrman, Clark turns it into being a fine, I’ll do it martyrdom: “What’s so difficult? It’s just a cop on a stand.”

Oof. If she doesn’t see what’s wrong with the obliviousness of that question, no doubt she will very soon.


4 out of 5