The People v. O.J. Simpson. and dramatising history

American Crime Story concluded a compelling first series in the UK this week. If you didn't watch, here's what you missed out on...

On October 3rd, 1995, O. J. Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Over a year of obsessive media attention and prurient speculation culminated in a polarising verdict. Most such crimes eventually pass from the public imagination, replaced by newer horrors. The Simpson trial, however, continues to fascinate, repel and confound in equal measure.

The many disturbing facets of this hugely complex case – domestic violence, racism, police brutality, the power of celebrity – remain all too relevant almost twenty years on. Any dramatised retelling of this familiar episode in American history must contend with the layers of ingrained assumptions and prejudices that have accumulated in the years since the trial. Handling these issues with appropriate sensitivity is no easy task.

The first season of FX’s American Crime Story has offered new insight on the case, capitalising on the historical perspective provided by two decades of debate while carefully examining a horrific double murder that is still well within living memory. Over the course of its ten episodes, the show has scrutinised every aspect of the killings and their aftermath.

Drawing on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, writers and producers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander blended dialogue drawn from court transcripts with fictionalised material intended to capture the thoughts and feelings of the key players. As the first run of a new anthology series executive produced by, among others, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (also responsible for American Horror Story), this account of the Simpson trial has remained utterly compelling from start to finish.

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Writing fiction is one thing: fictionalising history is quite another. There’s a duty to present all sides of an argument, to avoid exaggeration and unfounded speculation, and to ignore, as far as possible, the overwhelming power of hindsight in looking at the past. Instead, a successful fictional treatment of historical events will encourage its audience to draw parallels between that time and our own, while allowing the events it depicts to live again on screen. We find ourselves in the curious position of experiencing this time and place as those living through it did, but with a knowledge of what will happen that lends even seemingly trivial incidents a grim significance.

Given that many of the key players in this case are still alive, there is also a responsibility to handle the distressing details of the killings with immense care. American Crime Story is no Wolf Hall: the adaptation process is not one of filling in historical blanks, but more of paring down the array of material available in order to do justice to all concerned. Events are conflated, omitted or pruned to create a coherent narrative. As prosecuting attorney Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) puts it: “People like stories. It helps them make sense of things.”  To a medieval chronicler, this was history; for us, it’s fiction ‘based on a true story’. The distinction is a fine one indeed.

The performances in The People v. O. J. Simpson had to give us more than mere impressions of the real people involved. Surface resemblances are important, but a deeper engagement with character and motivation is crucial here. Its incredible cast deliver on all fronts. Cuba Gooding Jr. faces the most difficult task of representing Simpson himself while never confirming or denying the man’s guilt or innocence. Courtney B. Vance and John Travolta make an indelible impression as his chief defence attorneys, Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro, with their incessant jostling for power only serving to underline the fact that the truth is often more ridiculous than fiction.

For the prosecution, Sarah Paulson’s thoughtful portrayal of beleaguered attorney Marcia Clark is matched by Brown’s empathetic depiction of Christopher Darden. A relationship between the two has been hinted at, though never confirmed, in the past; here, it provides a bittersweet foil to the bizarre intricacies of the courtroom drama. Other important figures, from Kenneth Choi’s increasingly weary Judge Lance Ito to Connie Britton’s unforgettable portrayal of Simpson family friend Faye Resnick, are perfectly judged. All these people, often reduced to caricature by successive depictions of the case, regain a humanity denied them elsewhere.

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The People v. O. J. Simpson manages to sustain the difficult balancing act between contemporary resonance and period-appropriate detail. The mid-1990s are brought back to vivid life, with all-too-familiar hairstyles and costumes, clever use of fitting music, and judicious interweaving of real footage and news clips from the time. The weight of historical accuracy could obscure the larger themes handled by the show, but somehow, this level of realism highlights the parallels between that decade and the present day. The outdated clothes and pop culture references underline the distance in time, while delivering a stark reminder that very little has really changed. Try as we might to avoid the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to overlook the connotations that have since been acquired by the name of Robert Kardashian, Simpson’s loyal friend, sensitively portrayed here by David Schwimmer. The show deals with this head-on by mischievously – and perhaps a little unfairly – focusing on his children’s increasing enjoyment of the family’s sudden notoriety. Such brief glimpses into a future we already know are rare, however; for the most part, the vivid immediacy of its retelling of this familiar case immerses us in that era.

The final episode demonstrates the show’s ultimate success. As the accused, the attorneys, the bereaved families and the wider world await the verdict, there is a strange tension. For a few moments, it’s almost as if we’re with them, unsure of the outcome and paralysed by suspense. Of course, it’s an illusion. As we watch the key players leave the courtroom and return to their places in history, the spell breaks. When we think of them again, however, there will be a new understanding. We can only hope it will one day be extended to us.