History’s “Verdict”: Episode 10, The Series Finale

EP 10 OJ RK in Brentwood

Trials end. A long criminal trial is like a capacious balloon. In a conviction, the air that filled the balloon, no matter how stale and fetid the testimony was, stays inside, settling uncomfortably into history. An acquittal, on the other hand, lets out the air instantly. The prisoner is released. “There is no red tape after an acquittal,” writes Jeffrey Toobin. “The handcuffs come off, and you’re on your way” (431).

“The Verdict,” the 10th episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, by necessity has an altogether different tone from the rest of the series. In place of process, we have finality. The characters we gotten to know over ten weeks and ten hours get to the endings of their stories, whether we like those endings or not. The conflicts are resolved. At least the questions this series raised, like that balloon in the sky, about how movies and television differ from one another gets answered in soaring fashion. In Episode 10, those dialectics–Is is the ten-hour movie or the ten one-hour movies–come colliding against each other with a force that would leave Eisenstein shining with approval. In “The Verdict” those questions of whether or not there could be a hung jury or a mistrial in the O.J. Simpson case; about which one will win: the prosecution’s mountains of evidence or the defense’s race card and its “better story”; about whether a freed O.J. could go back to the life he had before; about whether the verdict would spur race riots in L.A. like those that followed the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King–they all get answered. But who is satisfied with the answers? And more immediately, what do we, over two decades later, make of it all?

I believe that the key moment in Episode 10 comes when Chris Darden sweeps into MarciEpisode 10 What if 1a Clark’s office when they know there is a verdict and that it was arrived at in under four hours. “Marcia,” Chris says in a medium  close-up, “What if we won?” A tight close-up on Marcia’s face as it threatens to break into a smile, is followed by a Spaghetti Western-tight choker close-up on Chris, popping a griEpisode 10 What if 2n that he still holds from breaking out into a a full 16 x 9 smile. Director Ryan Murphy lets us take in the full implications of this “What if?” It’s a brilliant moment. It beings back for a second director Anthony Hemingway’s fugue of faces–a ready Marcia and an uncertain Chris. What if O.J. had been found guilty? It would have meant that a jury of ten blacks and two whites found an African-American, white-identified superstar culpable on the evidence. It would have meant that the defense’s suggestions of a shadowy conspiracy in the absence of any other suspects or plausible clues pointing to anyone by O.J. Simpson failed to convince the panel most likely to believe Johnnie Cochran’s “better story.” It would have meant that the defense could not manage to deflect O.J. Simpson’s guilt onto the LAPD. It would have meant that the evidence was so overwhelming that even the monstrosity of Mark Fuhrman couldn’t distract from it. Would it have caused riots? It was a downtown jury, not the ten whites, one Latino, and one Asian in suburban Simi Valley who exonerated the white officers who were caught on tape beating a black man within an inch of his life. In fact, however, the U.S. Justice Department was bracing for riots if the verdict was guilty.

Even if somehow the viewer didn’t know the outcome in advance, the way Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski structure their script of Episode 10 cleverly forecloses the possibility that the prosecution will win. In the previous scene, the deputy, who is a middle-aged white guy like those LAPD officers who had deferred to O.J. throughout his life in Brentwood, tells O.J. he has nothing to be nervous about and asks for his autograph on a football; does he think he had better get it while the “football great” is still his prisoner? Just as the prosecution seemed ill-starred even on its good moves, so omens that should presage conviction don’t. Statistically, as Darden tells Clark, fast jury deliberations mean guilty verdicts. The only testimony the jury asked to hear again was that of Allan Park, the limousine driver who drove O.J. to the airport the night of the murders. Toobin wrote,

Park struck me as the most powerful government witness in the case. It was absolutely clear that the Bronco was not parked on Rockingham when he arrived to pick up Simpson. Its absence . . . doomed O.J. Even worse, . . . was that Park was fairly certain that the Bronco had returned by the time they left for the airport–an even more incriminating fact.” (427)

From Darden’s line, “What if we won?,” Murphy boldly cuts to an equally tight close-up on O.J. in court to the sound of Ito’s gavel. There will be no more “What ifs,” but one was more than enough.Episode 10 What if 3Episode 10 O.J. and gavel sound

Everything else is straight action. In actual footage, crowds of African Americans cheer wildly, while whites are shown shaking their heads or staring in stunned silence. So much of the dramatization, including the reading of verdict, with the clerk stumbling over the name of “Orenthal James Simpson” the final time she will read it, is enacted close to the way it happened. After a commercial blackout, Kardashian rushes to the men’s room and vomits–into the sink; he doesn’t even make it as far as a toilet. Everything O.J. does after leaving prison confirms Kardashian’s suspicions.  O.J. says he’s glad he’s not being taken home in a Bronco (Is it because of the Bronco’s notoriety from the events of the slow-speed chase, or because riding in a Bronco would put him back in the vehicle that took him from his home to the Bundy scene and back?). He gives back to Kardashian the Bible his friend gave him as he entered jail, an act that O.J. seems to intend to as a show of gratitude for his friend’s deep cRK Tuboncern but that instead demonstrates just how little it meant to him. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he want to keep it? Is this the Bible that Bobby has open by the side of his tub as he prays for his friend at the beginning of Episode 2? As the Goldmans get in their car to leave the courthouse for the last time, Kim asks her father, “What do we do now?” We know that what they do is press a civil suit against Simpson, a legal action that Simpson will lose.

As O.J.’s Brentwood friends shun the party he throws for himself, and the Riviera golf club refuses to take his reservation, and his former friend Bobby drops the Bible so that it lands next to an ice bucket, O.J. begins to recognize that he is now a pariah. He goes outside in the dark and confronts the statue of O.J. the football hero. The distant sound of crowds is heard; the echoes of stadiums full of crowds cheering for O.J. the star running back seem to blur into the raucous, contentious protesters outside the courthouse and the angry cries that presage everything from outraged citizens in Ferguson, Mo. to the purposeful demonstrators of Black Lives Matter. No one brings down the statue, but one senses that it’s only a matter of time.

The final 35 minutes, after the verdict is read, double down on the entire series’s even-handedness. Cochran patronizingly offers to help Darden “come back into the community,” and Chris devastatingly replies, “this isn’t some civil rights milestone . . . You haven’t changed anything for black people here, unless of course your famous rich one in Brentwood.” It’s a wonderfully satisfying moment because for once Cochran doesn’t have a comeback. He receives vindication of a sort in the next sequence when back in his office he sees President Bill Clinton on TV, in a bi-partisan meeting with Congressional leaders, saying that Americans should “put ourselves in each others’ shoes and try to see why we see each other in different ways.” An irony is that among all the faces at the table, not a single one is black; this is probably due to the fact that Clinton now had to deal with the many white conservatives swept into office in the 1994 “Contract with America” midterm election, which brought in the first GOP House of Representatives in forty years, as well as a Republican Senate.

Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton “our first black president.” Clinton actually had played golf with O.J. not long before the murders. By the time of the verdict, however, according to George Stephanopoulos in the memoir he published after leaving the Clinton White House, “the . . . acquittal made Clinton anxious. He feared it would fuel white resentment and feed the prejudiced notion that ‘blacks can’t be trusted with the criminal-justice system.’ An acquittal would deepen racial divisions” [1]. No doubt Clinton wanted to calm the waters, which he continued to try to do in his address, “Racism in the United States,” delivered the morning of the October 1995 Million Man March on Washington, which was organized by Louis Farakkhan of the Nation of Islam, the presence of whose famed Fruit of Islam bodyguards to protect Cochran and the defense team so infuriates Robert Shapiro in Episode 10 [2].

The fact that the O.J. Simpson verdict came down just twelve days before the planned March allowed Clinton to speak to the divisions opened up by the jury’s decision stand. Johnnie’s tears on the president’s response seem a wishful reaction to what Darden more justifiably deems “payback.” Darden’s bitterness, and the dislike of Affirmative Action that he expresses in Episode  5, apparently moved him to declare himself a Republican in the months after the verdict and to request a speaking slot at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego; GOP officials scheduled Darden to give a five-minute speech on the third night of the four-day convention, but then scratched it, citing time limitations [3].

Episode 10’s bombshell may be the revelation that Marcia’s special motivation comes from her desire to find “vengeance for victims,” resulting from her own rape in Italy by a waiter when she was seventeen. Among the many smart choices the series made, this was one of the shrewdest; one can easily imagine this motivation being revealed in Episode  6 “Marcia, Marcia,  Marcia,” where it would have added to that segment’s emotional dynamite. Or it could have been revealed even earlier. But here, in the anticlimax, after Marcia’s private outburst in front of Gil and Chris–“I’m so ashamed!”–and her professional performance in the government’s official press conference with the Brown and Goldman families, she shows Chris why her job isn’t just about career and image. In the last time Chris and Marcia will be seen, he appears in her office door. “Hey, Big Time,” he says, as he has addressed her in her doorway since long before he was involved in the Simpson case. It’s like a reprise, a repeated stanza. Marcia tells Chris what she went through, her repression of the rape until she tried her first rape case as a prosecutor.  Her story told, and with Chris having already said that it’s quits for him, he asks “What do you want to do now?” She replies, “Is it too early for a drink?” And out they walk into the proverbial, fluorescent-lit sunset, turning off the lights as they leave. Nina Simone sings her a capella song, “A New Life.” The End, for them.

Part of me thinks that the rape motivation is too neat, as if Marcia’s overwhelming drive, which was clear almost as soon as we met her in Episode 1, let alone through all ten hours, needed to be explained. But another part of me is very glad I know it, and glad that it doesn’t color every action she takes, as an earlier revelation of it would have done.  A & K needed to hold it until now. The jury that she felt wouldn’t listen to her, so intent were they on “payback,” gets their last rejoinder. And the series is already done with the jury. Judge Ito dismisses them and thanks them for their service. Lon Cryer, a volcanic mountain of a man, turns toward O.J. and makes the Black Power sign. Marcia takes astonished note, and they are gone.

“The Verdict” unavoidably invites back into the show the sensationalism and recriminations, which moved a few of us to shut the trial out of our consciousness while it was going on. Episode 8 “A Jury in Jail,” for instance, created empathy with these sequestered souls. With the jury’s deliberations, and the majority’s feeble objections to the prosecution’s case and clear indications that they bought the defense’s racial appeals, the book deals by jurors who lasted on the panel until the end, and appearances on talk shows by others as soon as they were dismissed come trickling back. Regardless, the O.J. Simpson case, the series persuades us, mattered; it summed up twentieth-century postwar America in its last TV-dominated, pre-internet, pre-HDTV era. (Remember when HDTV was supposed to come in at the beginning of 1997?) In a sense, the series manages to vindicate nearly everyone the case  touched (with one exception whom I’ll get to). It manages to consider all sides, a nearly impossible feat.

The show’s most lasting achievement may be to demonstrate what long-form television can do that a two- or three-hour work of cinema cannot do, even though I envy those who saw at least some of this show on a big screen either at the premiere in January or the showing of the  finale last week. Even the commercial blackouts serve aesthetic purposes. A movie could not use three different directors, two black, one white. The four episodes–1, 2, 6, and 10–that Ryan Murphy directed have a kinetic flair and editorial spark that Hemingway and Singleton do not match. Murphy’s episodes, on the other hand, lose a bit of the tension of Hemingway’s. The longer takes and hand-held camera favored by Hemingway wield a bite, satirical yet objective, especially in EP 4 “100% Not Guilty,” EP 7 “Conspiracy Theories,” and EP 9 “Manna from Heaven,” that Murphy moves a little too quickly to register.

Is this story a tragedy?  As a personal drama, the O.J. saga may have been a contemporary version of Othello, with no Iago necessary. O.J. supplied all the rage, jealousy, and anger himself. Chris Darden’s summation, as the series portrays it, narrates how O.J. was driven to murder. Johnnie Cochran, with his ambition for a better story to tell the jury, admires it, and that’s why he congratulates Chris on it. As a social phenomenon, the “Trial of the Century” was another dividing line between the races in America. Many found the whole case to be sadness, terror, and media exploitation on a mass scale, while the legal machinery of the trial gave the country a lesson in how its court system worked; I recall hearing a filmmaker say  that courtroom dramas could no longer show lawyers walking right up to the witness stand and the jury box, after the world had seen an actual trial in which the lawyers take their places behind lecterns and microphones. The series, however, has performed the alchemy of great art, making something  beautiful out of human faults, emotions, mistakes, and accomplishments.

Finally, even a ten-hour series has had to elide much about this exceedingly complicated case. There are characters eliminated and events streamlined, even in the “Where are they now?” epilogue shots (For instance, Gil Garcetti did lose a re-election bid in 2000, as the epilogue states, but after he won a second term the year after the O.J. trial, in the 1996 campaign we see him preparing for in Episode 9). Actuality is not terribly compatible with drama, which is exactly a reason why we need it, and despite the fact that real life often makes great drama.

Does O.J. get his just deserts*? Well, probably not, at least not in his criminal trial of 1995. Episode 10 has what we can call an onion-peel structure; as each layer peels away, we are finally left, or more precisely we and Robert Kardashian are left, in the series’ final twelve minutes, with O.J. As I’ve said before, the series is at its most modernist when we are with O.J., whose actions require our interpretation. Cuba Gooding Jr. must have felt as if he were acting in the Theater of the Absurd, while everyone else is in a mid-century legal drama, say, The Crucible or 12 Angry Men. In the impending Emmys, Courtney B. Vance will probably win Best Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for his bravura Johnnie Cochran, and deservedly so. But it’s Gooding who has the most difficult role, and probably a thankless one. He doesn’t look like O.J. (Who would?), but he’s a likable actor and compelling presence. He doesn’t look like a killer, which makes him just right to play O.J. Simpson, who didn’t look like one either. Simpson put a twist on the main principle of American jurisprudence, that one is “innocent until proven guilty.” O.J. was famous until proven guilty, charismatic until proven guilty. As Lon Cryer says in the jury room, “I will never, ever think that they proved it.” “Never,” seconds another. “Never, ever, ever,” says a third.

O.J.’s priority after he gets home is to have “the party of the century.” David Schwimmer, another superlative actor, is called upon to react queasily to everything O.J. does to prove he’s still the Juice, able to retain his old life. As he takes a shower–the nudity FX warns us about at the outset–it looks as if he thinks he can wash off everything he has experienced since June 12, 1994, and probably long before that. EP 10 Faux baptismIn his perfect home and his perfect robe, he slumps into an overstuffed chair in his den–and weeps. What is he weeping for? Is it release of emotion, as Toobin describes the tears in the courtroom following the verdict from “everyone in all the families . . . for joy, for sorrow, at their release from this extraordinary tension” (431)? His tears, like nearly all his actions, are ambiguous, left to the beholder. In one of the most telling moments in the episode, O.J.’s eldest child Jason, then 25, comes in holding a puppy. “I just wanted to make sure you always had a friend,” the young man tells his father. He knows what life will hold in store for Orenthal James Simpson.

This blog has been a new and rich experience for me. I thank my readers for your interest amid the wealth of weekly blogs and recaps on this series from every media outlet imaginable, I’m happy if mine somehow stood out. I avoided looking at those, and didn’t even realize how very many of them there were until the last few days. I had no idea what I was getting into at the beginning, although I had no illusions about how much work it would be or how long each post would take me (I know how I work). I embarked upon it because, just as Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Brad Simpson, and Nina Jacobson had never worked in television before, I had never done anything like a weekly blog. I set out to do this because with my particular interest in Karaszewski and Alexander’s biopics, and my sense that this series would sparkle with their unique flair for real-life stories with a quirky and off-center touch, I just thought I could contribute something. I couldn’t have known what a milestone the series would become or how nearly universally acclaimed it would be. Thus I am humbled by learning that the show’s creators, among  other readers, would look forward every week to seeing what I had to say. I will say I am embarrassed by the way, with classes, grading, committees, and the day-to-day responsibilities of being a faculty member during a semester, I fell behind as the semester went on. I hope my blogs have been worth waiting  for.

Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander visit with Dennis Bingham and his audience for English Week at the IU School of Liberal Arts, IUPUI. 7 April 2016.
Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander visit with Dennis Bingham and his audience for English Week at the IU School of Liberal Arts, IUPUI. 7 April 2016.

I want to thank the Department of English at the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI for sponsoring this blog and for giving me a spot in English Week, which happened to coincide with the week the series concluded. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski did us the extreme honor of joining us via Skype and sharing with us their special passion and creativity, as well as their insights into how the series came together the way it did.

Thank you for sharing this remarkable series with me. And if you’re just now finding the site, I hope you’ll go back to the beginning, my prologue back on February 1st, and move with me through the series.

 

* . . . which, incidentally, is proper spelling.

[1] “O.J. Simpson and President Clinton.” American Presidents Blog 5 October 2008. http://www.american-presidents.org/2008/10/oj-simpson-and-president-clinton.html. Accessed 8 April 2016.

[2] Jill M. Weber, “William Jefferson Clinton: ‘Racism in the United States’ (2006). Voices of Democracy: The U.S. Oratory Project. http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/jill m-weber/ Accessed 8 April 2016.       

[3] William R. Macklin, “Indignation Intact, Darden Becomes Best-selling Author.” Philadelphia Inquirer 3 April 1996. http://articles.philly.com/1996-04-03/living/25662279_1_christopher-darden-trial-predominantly-black-jury. Accessed 3 March 2016.

Richard L. Berke, “Dole Hailed as an Honorable ‘Quiet Hero,’ as Republicans Give Him Their Nomination.” The New York Times 15 August 1996. https://partners.nytimes.com/library/politics/camp/960815convention-gop-ra.html. Accessed 9 April 2016.

Incidentally, in an article written after the acquittal of accused Trayvon Martin killer George Zimmerman, Darden appeared to indicate that his Republican days are behind him, writing that “the election of Barack Obama pulled us up from the bleak hole created by the Simpson trial and unified many black and white people to believe and hope again—together.”  Christopher A. Darden, Michele Noble, “Christopher Darden Believes There May Be Justice Yet for Trayvon.” The Daily Beast 14 July 2013. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/07/14/christopher-darden-believes-there-may-be-justice-yet-for-trayvon.html. Accessed 3 March 2016.


 

“This Whole Situation Is Toxic”/”Manna from Heaven”: A Paradox, Episode 9

Episode 9 - Fuhrman

Men Against Women

I had expected to write a post dealing with  authorship before this series ends, but Episode 9 winds up taking it as its subject matter. In one of the “Only in Los Angeles” touches of the O.J. Simpson trial, Detective Mark Fuhrman ends up damning himself when he provides research for a screenplay. An aspiring screenwriter, Laura Hart McKinny, meets Fuhrman in 1985 in cafe, and tells him she’s working on a screenplay about female police officers. “McKinny immediately recognized Fuhrman as a potential resource–an insider who could give her the perspective of the hostile, sexist LAPD traditionalist” (Toobin 392). The script McKinny finishes in the late 1980s, Men Against Women, is titled after the secret intra-LAPD organization that Fuhrman bloviates into the would-be scenarist’s tape recorder during their numerous interviews. McKinny finished her script around 1989, but never succeeded in finding producers for her script; she and her husband, Daniel McKinny, a television cinematographer who died in 2013, were lured in 1993 to Winston-Salem and the North Carolina School of the Arts, whose website refers to her as a “founding faculty member” in its School of Filmmaking.  The alma mater of Billy Magnussen, the actor who plays Kato Kaelin on the series, the college was rechristened the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 2008. A comment on Facebook this week reads, “[Episode 9] opens with my screenwriting teacher AND a shout out to my film school. This show is becoming progressively surreal.”

Actually, the series is progressively real, as the shows  themselves continue to emphasize, with twists “you couldn’t get away with,” chortles writer Dominick Dunne (Robert Morse) during Episode 9, “in an airport paperback.” “How can you teach screenwriting if you can’t sell a script?,” a line the screenwriters give to Rob Morrow, who delivers it in the quizzical, scrunched-face cross-examiner’s style of his character, Barry Scheck. “Happens all the time,” mutters a voice in the undercurrent as the scene fades out. Laura Hart-McKinny did  allow the series to portray her and use her name. Men Against Women became a novel in 2015, apparently self-published, and available on Amazon. According to its description, the novel makes no mention of Mark Fuhrman or the Simpson case, and is set in 1984. One has to admire this kind of ambition and determination, which the horrid murders of Ron and Nicole and the tawdry story of O.J. continue to enable, alas.

“Manna from Heaven” is the first segment since Episodes 1 and 2 whose teleplay is credited to Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski themselves (They also sign the final episode, “The Verdict.”) Although loaded with puckish quips like the two I quote above, written for Dunne and Scheck, the series, like the lawyers, is starting in the penultimate episode  to gather its closing arguments. Episode 9 summarizes the defense’s combination of racial truth with lawyerly bunkum if not downright deception. It sums up the prosecution’s ill luck, poor but understandable choices, and occasional miscalculations (such as Clark’s belief that black female jurors would identify with Nicole as a victim of domestic violence, not with O.J. as an attractive, successful black man). Marcia apologizes to Chris for not heeding his warnings about Mark Fuhrman and Chris does the same for the glove-fitting disaster; director Anthony Hemingway holds on their handshake in a way that smacks a little too much  of “racial understanding” conventions from race relations movies, from In the Heat  of the Night to, yes, Do the Right Thing. Robert Shapiro’s version of the defense managed to co-opt the Los Angeles Police Department’s legacy of racial toxicity as a strategy for winning the case, while in Johnnie Cochran’s rendition, the cause of civil rights and public awareness make the Simpson case into a useful tool, even if a guilty man goes free as a consequence. Either way, the LAPD’s history of racial outrage burns the case like Flint water. The episode’s Biblical title, from Toobin’s Chapter 22, by way of Johnnie Cochran, is stoked with fury, anger, vengeance, and Sunday morning rhetoric rolled out on Cochran’s silver tongue, a florid oratorical style retooled for electronic media, not, as F. Lee Bailey has to remind him, for a North Carolina in transition, whose tastes in the mid-1990s still ran closer to Jesse Helms, who had been reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1990, than to Jesse Jackson.

“This whole situation is toxic.”

“Women who work in male dominated professions are, I think, tougher than most,” says Judge Lance Ito from the bench, in speech taken almost verbatim from the trial transcripts. On the line, Hemingway cuts to Marcia in profile. “And when they [women] are successful,” the judge continues,  “they are almost always targets for this kind of treatment.” “It’s nice to know,” Daniel Smith-Rowsey writes on his blog, “MAP to the Future,” “. . . that Clark and Darden . . . are treated far more sympathetically by the show than in the book,” which, after all, was written in 1996, hot off the events. Lance Ito, whom Toobin scorns over and over for being too lenient (“Placid” is his preferred word) and enamored of celebrity and for letting the trial drag on for months, also comes off much better here. Toobin reports that Clark told him “in the hallway” around the time the Fuhrman tapes were discovered, that Ito was “the worst judge I’ve ever been in front of—and the worst possible judge for this case” (401).

To return to A & K’s conceptualization of the series as “one ten-hour movie,” the obscene excoriation on the Fuhrman tapes of Police Captain Margaret (“Peggy”) York, and her response to it, requires a viewer to think back to Episode 3. Will viewers recall a brief scene five and a half series-hours and five weeks earlier, when in Episode 9, as the lawyers on two sides tell Ito about Fuhrman’s hateful tirade? Peggy York herself is a bit part, appearing in one scene that runs less than two minutes. In retrospect, though, it’s a crucial scene.  ThereEpisode 9 - in 4 Peggy signs the form, we first meet Judge Ito in his chambers, as his wife (Carolyn Crotty) knocks on the door. Ito, wearing the sweat suit of a marathon runner, which he twice was not long before the Simpson case, tells his wife the exciting news, then asks her to “fill out the usual spousal conflict form.” The shot holds on the last name in a list of individuals with whom the police officer-wife might have had “interactions, incidental or spontaneous, which could cause conflict.” Episode 9 - Back to 4Peggy pauses for a moment; we cut back to her face. Then, as we return to a full shot, she says, “Nope, nothing rings a bell.” The judge and the police captain, with blonde hair severely tied back, slap five, mixing professional decorum with marital love. Toobin tells readers that because of Ito’s marriage to an LAPD captain, before he was assigned the Simpson case, the defense was accorded “the opportunity to have Ito removed from the case with no questions asked. But Cochran and Shapiro agreed that Ito would suit them fine” (184). Episode 9 - from 4 Lance and PeggyYork, moreover, “had been one of the early female recruits to the LAPD (and in true Los Angeles fashion, a model for the television series, Cagney and Lacey [1981-88])” (Toobin 400).

In yet another case of exemplary adaptation work, the screenwriters have Darden, who formerly investigated police officers, tell the Judge that “the interactions Fuhrman described, given their explosive vocabulary, would seem to make it hard for Peggy to forget ‘em.” Ito sits at his desk, in chambers, in the business suit he wears under his judicial robe, the two lead attorneys for the prosecution and the defense arrayed on either side, standing over him. In actuality, though, it was Cochran who told the judge that York’s claim of not remembering Fuhrman raised questions of “credibility,” although he said it “gently.” Toobin goes on to conclude, “some lawyers on both sides came to believe [that] York may have lied in her sworn statement that she didn’t remember Fuhrman” (400). In Episode 9, these words come out of Ito’s mouth; the actor Kenneth Choi lowers his voice when he completes the line: “So the implication is that Peggy lied so that I could be on this case.” Episode 9 - ItoTo judges, lying on affidavits means perjury, against which the last line of the form itself warned. Ito/Choi’s next line, “This whole situation is toxic,” adds up to one of those amazing essence lines with which A & K and their staff of writers have stocked each episode. Which “situation”? The Fuhrman tapes? The potential conflict that could lead to mistrial? The entire O.J. Simpson murder case itself? The line involves at least a glimmer of self-knowledge, for the series drastically downplays Ito’s infatuation with celebrity. Clark herself called Ito, in that same corridor chat with Toobin, “a total starfucker.”

Except for Robert Shapiro, Lance Ito, according to Toobin, might have been the participant who was the one most impressed with being part of this celebrity case. Toobin’s chapter 12, “A Visit from Larry King,” describes a day just before opening statements when the CNN host visited Ito in his chambers during a 15-minute break in court that stretched to forty minutes until the TV star reminded the judge that he might need to go back to the courtroom. During his audience with King, Ito, who had not yet ruled on whether or not to allow Simpson’s domestic violence history as testimony, did tell King, “it’s hearsay. I can’t let it in” (231). This was an “outrageously inappropriate disclosure . . . (which the talk-show host, fortunately for Ito, kept to himself at the time)” (229). Toobin’s own disclosure of it, more than a year after the fact, shows why books like his, floods of which came out in the two years after the verdict, are known as “tell-alls.”

Moreover, if you recall the moment in Episode 5 when Ito shows Dominic Dunne his signed photo of Arsenio Hall, he had actually shown that memento to Toobin, who is kept out of the series as a character, except of course for the scene in Episode 3 in which he shares with Shapiro his research into Fuhrman. But because the series’ Ito does not visibly suffer, in Toobin’s indictment of him, “from an undue eagerness to please, an unwillingness to offend—and a fatal lack of gravitas,” the Arsenio Hall moment is perplexing. The series highlights mostly the other side of the “paradoxical” judge, the “thoughtful jurist whose work reflects his earnest and rigorous approach” (229). To do otherwise in a visual medium would not only approach satire, but it might seem unfair to a man who, like Clark and Darden, is trying to do the right thing as best he can. On the law enforcement side, it’s Gil Garcetti who carries the taint of the politician, worrying about constituents and elections (although as an elected official, he can be said to be trying to do his job as well). On Episode 9, he tells his campaign manager, “If we get to the March primary [It’s August] and people are still talking about O.J. Simpson, there’s something seriously wrong with this world.” To which we might ask, March of what year?

Lance Ito is the only one of the only major figures in the case who has never written a book about it, because doing so would have required him to resign his seat. He retired just last year. When the episode’s Ito calls the “situation” “toxic,” he realizes that if his wife, despite having reprimanded Fuhrman for gross racism, it was because she did not want to cost the man she loves the biggest case of his life, and all because of a police underling she must have found repellent. However, Ito also may be coming to know that the lure of celebrity, even if the celebrity involved may well be a murderer, has led nearly everyone involved—which is to say, two decades later—American culture as a whole.

Number Nine

The ninth installments of other recent ten-episode television seasons, such as Season Two of Fargo and the final season (or half-season) of Mad Men, often have seemed like season- enders, with the tenth episodes then feeling like epilogues. The verdict (and “The Verdict”) of the O.J. Simpson case and the series devoted to it are hardly likely to seem anticlimactic, however. Alexander and Karaszewski’s three solid years of research, outlining, and directing of the writing of the series, as well as their faith in the Simpson case as a bellwether of postmodern American culture, all show through. The case and the obsessive coverage it received–and not just while the trial went on–confirmed that the United States in the mid-1990s had run out of anything serious to concern itself about; tabloid-driven news and the new 24/7 news cycle rushed in to fill the vacuum. A movie of another vacuous story of the mid-1990s, the attempt of Olympic skating hopeful Tanya Harding, to kneecap her chief rival on the U.S. team, Nancy Kerrigan, has just been announced. Margot Robbie, fresh from her portrayal of the psychotic superhero Harley Quinn in the forthcoming Suicide Squad, will play Harding, whose story broke earlier in 1994. When the Harding-Kerrigan story made the cover of Newsweek twice in the winter of ’94, I knew that the mainstream media had refined its taste for content-free trash. The O.J. case heralded–and that can’t be the right word–the polarization of American life, as the twin postwar realities of the Cold War and the manufacturing boom reached their absolute and final ends. The O.J. Simpson case was the very last major public event before the age of the internet and all the changes to our lives that it would bring. (My first browser–Netscape–and emailer–Unix– were installed on the new desktop computer I received at IUPUI the same Autumn that the jury in L.A. handed down its verdict.)

The post-verdict O.J. fatigue that I referred to at the start of my blog two months ago was largely a false myth, I now admit. O.J.-fatigue was belied by the dozens of books, talk show segments, and TV and straight-to-video documentaries that went back over the same ground again and again, and on the same terms, as if it were still 1995. The People v. O.J. Simpson, on the other hand, is historical drama, an attempt to contextualize and make sense of the case going forward; the entry of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” into cultural mythology. This is why its treatment of people who have gotten mostly blame for the past twenty years, especially Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, and Lance Ito, seems positively revisionist.

The “rightness” of the trio that took the most heat for the way the trial turned out makes the series different in tone from Alexander and Karaszewski’s “biopics of people who don’t deserve one.” Those are about cultural bottom-feeders and oddballs of various shades who were “wrong,” but who somehow became more important over time than people who get credit for making positive contributions to the world, the ones who “deserve” a biopic, those who were lionized. Which one can you name?: the director of Plan 9 from Outer Space, which was made in 1956, or the director of Around the World in 80 Days, the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1956?

The series has delineated, I would say, six main characters–Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Christopher Darden, Lance Ito, and Robert Kardashian, plus a few supporting characters, such as F. Lee Bailey, Gil Garcetti, and, alas, Mark Fuhrman, who were very important in the case. Aside from Fuhrman, a racist, sexist bigot whose evil may have no equal, except in the man whose name the series bears. O.J. Simpson set all these figures in motion. In response to him, they all played roles for which they were preordained, using their past experiences, their intelligence and expertise, and their consciences.

O.J., by contrast, is an enigma. We see him as remotely as the three cops in Episode 1 behold the statue of the Heisman-winner on the grounds of his estate–a nobleman of late-20th-century America. He is a “sports legend” who transcends race and class (but not gender) in the public mind. He is also, however, either the most likable killer who ever lived, or the most lethal and psychotic celebrity the culture has ever produced, a monster built by the Frankenstein of the sports, media, and entertainment industry lit-up laboratories spread out over college and NFL stadiums from coast to coast. The show tries to preserve him now as he was back then: a Rorschach Test. Is he a mistreated African American or a pampered celebrity who “found” the blackness that he had banished following his success? Is he a heroic football hero whose gridiron prowess and subsequent continued fame provide the masks for a total lack of character?

Alexander and Karaszewski, in their research, develop  Robert Kardashian as a man of faith and character, whose name remains famous long after his death for reasons he could not have imagined. Kardashian, who is mentioned in Toobin, mostly as the personal friend who read O.J.’s suicide note at Shapiro’s press conference the day of the Bronco chase, becomes the show’s moral guidepost. As he tells his ex-wife in Episode 8, “He was my friend for twenty years, and now I can hardly stand to look at him.” As Kardashian, the only member of the defense team who doesn’t want to win the case simply for winning’s sake, comes to an almost existential realization of who his friend is. Through his eyes, O.J. appears more and more dead.

Cuba Gooding Jr., as I’ve said before, has the difficult task of playing a man whose motivations we don’t know. A man defined by his actions and his physicality, as black men in our culture often are, O.J. cannot be read without, in an ironic application of Cochran’s frequent exhortation, “choosing a side.” In Episode 9, O.J.  carols over Johnnie’s final question to Fuhrman, who has been advised by his lawyer to invoke the Fifth Amendment in response to any question, even the question of whether he planted evidence at the crime scene. On Fuhrman’s final answer, O.J. slams his left fist into his Episode 9 - O.J. and the winning touchdownright palm, as if the winning touchdown is scored as time runs out. He carols  joyfully to Bobby, whose change of heart about his old friend O.J. has failed to notice. “Johnnie’s got charisma,” he declares. He would know about charisma. Will that capacity for charming the public, which has gotten him so far in the  world, pull him out of prison this time? Episode 9 - Bobby and O.J. 2His heedless jubilation is met by a final, towering realization by his friend. Hemingway cuts to an Orson Welles-style extreme low-angle shot, marking Kardashian’s soulful isolation, but also his moral superiority over his squalid friend. In realizing O.J.’s darkness, Bobby finds light. Episode 9 - Giant Robby

Other characters find closure, if not salvation, as well. Darden takes no pleasure in seeing all his worst predictions come true about the misplaced confidence in Fuhrman to the prosecution’s case. Christopher Darden has succeeded in the white world, keeping his integrity as a black man, while not adhering to any signifiers of black masculinity; he is neither a smooth-talking preacher type like Cochran nor an athlete like O.J. (I’m being half-facetious here, but he also doesn’t sing and dance, do comedy, or prepare food–other stereotypes of acceptable blackness that the white world had erected extending back to slavery days. See the documentary film, Ethnic Notions [Marlon Riggs, 1986] for a complete explication of these issues.) In the 1990s, other African American men were beginning to succeed in realms associated with whites. An African American independent film producer told me in the late 1980s that American culture wanted nothing to do with African American men unless they were athletes, musicians, or comedians. Then a generation of serious actors began to take over American movie screens: Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Lawrence Fishburne, Forest Whittaker, Cuba Gooding Jr. Chris Darden, as a deputy district attorney who prosecutes a famous black man because he thinks he committed brutal crimes, pays the price for seeking true equality; it seems that nobody is ready for that yet. Chris tries to tell Marcia when justice can be color blind and when it cannot be: as in times when a key witness is nearly a genocidal bigot. “You wanted a black face,” he tells Marcia. “But you never wanted a black voice.”

Marcia is finally, properly chastened, and gets her own closure of a sort in the divorce ruling that grants her primary custody in the film’s final scene.  “Then you have everything,” her secretary tells her. Does she?  She feels that she has just lost the biggest case of her life; the post-feminist culture tells her and other professional women that they can have it all. A certain media-driven sentimentality, especially on 1980s-1990s-era television tells women (but rarely men) that the love of their children is what really matters. And it clearly does matter to Marcia. She is seen through an open door. But the series invites us through that door, whose openness or closedness has throughout the series, indicated Marcia’s willingness to face the world, or not. When to let others in or not?

The open door leading to the verdict is practically an invitation to the last episode. Please close it. I don’t want to see what happens next. And I especially don’t want this series to end. O.J. Simpson, post-verdict, might actually be a good subject for a biopic of somebody who doesn’t deserve one, with John Singleton, or Paul Schrader directing. I don’t know if Alexander and Karaszewski would want to visit a sequel like this.

 

The Jury’s In: Robert Altman Movies and the Stunt Episode: “A Jury in Jail”: Episode 8

Episode 8-13

We like to say we were writing a 1970s Robert Altman movie. We had all these characters, all these people with fascinating stories. Everybody deserved to be the lead in their own story. Nobody is a supporting character. – Larry Karaszewski [1]

Movies directed by Robert Altman (1925-2006) work against the classical Hollywood narrative model whereby a small number of  foregrounded protagonists, two or at the most three, with any number of supporting characters, struggle toward the resolution of a plot. The prototypical Altman movie, Nashville (1975), anticipates the television “nighttime soap” of the 1980s and 1990s. Altman spent years making his living directing episodes of television series before he broke through as a theatrical film director at age 44 with M*A*S*H (1970), which itself became a long-running TV series. I wonder if the episodic nature of not just the multi-character film that people mean when they refer to “a Robert Altman movie” might lend itself to series television.

After all, the “nighttime soap,” which cut among the stories of numerous characters of more or less equal weightwas more like a long, continuous movie than the previous model, the drama series with a continuing setting and characters whose episodes told bite-sized stories resolvable in 45 minutes, plus commercials. This genre was honed in the 1980s and 1990s with NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues, ER, and L.A. Law, the latter a series of which the Simpson case might have seemed a real-life analogue; its series finale after eight seasons aired on May 19, 1994, a bit more than three weeks before the murders on Bundy Drive.

Nashville, by critical consensus Altman’s masterwork, juggles 24 characters, none of them nashville_165621afcast with movie star names. Music City is presented as an industry town, a place where those who have already made it, such as the (fictional) stars Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), Connie White (Karen Black), share a space–which happens to be in the 2:35.1 aspect ratio Panavision composition of which Altman was a master–with business types trying to make a buck, hopefuls, and ordinary people pulled into its orbit. The ease with which Altman mixes members of his stock company, such as Shelley Duvall and Michael Murphy, with TV sketch comics like Gibson and Lily Tomlin,  and even longtime film actors such as Keenan Wynn, foretells his later success in the indie cinema of the 1990s. The peripheral vision of the Altman frame might appear the antithesis of the 1.33 x 1 ratio CRT TV that notoriously dealt mostly in medium shot and close-up, with usually no more than three characters in view at one time and little capacity for showing depth of field.

Television and cinema have grown closer together in the age of the 16 x 9 HDTV (1.85 x 1, the same as the standard movie wide screen aspect ratio). The artistic daring of cable, Netflix, Amazon,  and all the other players jumping into 21st century television has occurred because of an atomization of the mass audience that used to be served by three, or at the most five, main broadcast networks. It has been enabled, since 1996, by a rating system that somewhat imitates the MPAA ratings for movies. The O.J. series has received the most “mature” rating, TV MA, with an LV tag warning of language and violence. The slight furor over the R-rated twelve-letter exclamation at the end of Episode 3 caught me by surprise. The line seemed so natural out of the mouth of Marcia, who is so exasperated by the Olympic Dream Team that the defense puts together that I never asked, the way a network exec does about the n-word in Episode 6, “Can you say n—– on TV?” (one of many in-jokes the show’s writers have allowed themselves). The proliferation of channels and shows has rendered FCC regulations, some of which date back to standards set up for radio in the 1930s, relatively helpless. FCC regulations governing cable, rather than broadcast, are vague; with cable shows that air later than 10 p.m., the vagueness only increases. The People v. O.J. Simpson may be getting a pass both because it’s a story from actuality, and because of the “prestige” of its makers.   Suffice it to say, this series is pressing the limits the way the Hollywood Renaissance films of the 1970s, enabled by the replacement of the Production Code with the Ratings System, exceeded the limits of what had been acceptable in Hollywood.

Episode 8, “A Jury in Jail,” seems the right place to bring up these issues as they concern the latest shotgun marriage of cinema and television. From the late 1940s on, cinema reacted to television, from the widening of screens and deepening of adult subject matter to give audiences what they couldn’t see at home. More recently, television has gone from a three-network broadcast entity to 400-some channels, each of which needs to find its own audience, rather than a mass audience which, in a reverse of the way the two media were in decades past, movies are now obligated to try to serve.mildred-pierce_1945

In the final fillip, long-form television, on basic and premium cable, let alone Netflix and Amazon, makes for a kind of cinematic novel, a form television has been working up to since the network mini-series of the 1970s and 1980s. 21st-century long-form television uses the syntax of cinema to tell rangy, complicated stories with richness and depth of novels. To see what I mean, try comparing the still indelible 1945 film noir/woman’s picture that Warner Bros. made of James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce (running time: 111 mins.) with HBO’s 2011 Mildred Pierce, by movie director Todd Haynes (running time: 336 mins.). Haynes’ considerable specialty is a postmodern feminist-queer cinema sensibility brought to high-style Studio Era glamour and melodrama. Haynes’s movies have often felt like Golden Age cris de coeur, but expressing pain and longing that the 1940s anmildred-pierce_2011d 1950s melodramas to which they often hearken back could not even have suggested.

Throughout The People v. O.J. Simpson, I keep being reminded of the character, Abby Gerhart, that Sarah Paulson plays in Haynes’ current film, Carol (2015), an indie which, although it was filmed on 16 mm in this age when most films are shot on HD digital video, felt as though I should be watching it in the kind of opulent downtown movie palace where movies made the year Carol is set, 1952, were made to be shown. The former lover and now best friend of the flamboyant Carol (Cate Blanchett), a Bette Davis/Joan Crawford/Irene Dunne pastiche, Abby is a wounded friend and confidant, a comrade in a secret war that surfaces only when it disrupts mainstream heteronormative life.  Paulson, I’m realizing, plays characters in the mold of the Studio Era female star, who fight, often losing and suffering luxuriantly. In Episode 8, I found myself rerunning several times the scene following the supposedly slam-dunk testimony of DNA expert Dennis Fung, who, after being worked over for hours on end by the defense’s DNA debunker, Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow), one of those individuals for whom words like “rumpled” were coined, shakes the hands of every member of the defense team (and did in life; as a rule, the strangest moments in the show are the ones that actually happened). Marcia closes herself in her office, presses her back against the wall, and physically attacks the thick stacks and folders of “bulletproof” testimony.Episode 8-6 In this episode not only does Marcia display an aggressive anger associated with men, but also tells Johnnie Cochran to “toughen up.” Episode 8-7After Paulson’s convincing star turn in O.J., perhaps she will graduate to the movie-diva roles in Haynes films heretofore occupied by Julianne Moore (Safe, 1995; Far from Heaven, 2002), Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), and Blanchett.

The cast of jurors (We’ll call them, as Cochran does, “Guilty Votes” and “Not-Guilty Votes”) of Episode 8 seemed to place to bring out Altman and other comparisons to cinema.  A & K said

We even had this idea, in baseball parlance, for a seventh-inning stretch, which is Episode 8. We said, what if we stop the whole show and we back up and we show what the jury went through–which we thought was really kind of nutty. We said it will be like a palate-cleanser for the audience. Someone in the room who had actually worked on a TV show said, “Oh, that’s called ‘a stunt episode.'” We could explore what was ultimately 12 people but started out as 24 people, [whom] nobody ever thinks about because they weren’t allowed to be on Court TV . . . These poor souls were sequestered; they were locked up in the Inter-Continental Hotel for a year. Anybody would go crazy after that. So obviously that affected what happened too. [2]

A “stunt” episode is often conceived to get ratings, and is thus promoted as something special, without giving away the stunt itself. This stunt (also known as a “ratings stunt”) sometimes goes against the grain of the series, and is taken as a sign that a show is in trouble or is running out of ideas, or both. Thus while “A Jury in Jail” does break the straight-ahead chronological mold of the series, it’s hardly a stunt in context of the term, which is nearly always pejorative.

True to the show’s Altmanesque origins, EP 8  is oddly fragmented, with a treatment of time that may owe more to Tarantino than Altman. The 3:50 pre-title teaser, which sounds long, but is below average for this show, opens with a near-uprising in a hotel restaurant, as a group of jurors voices a summary of the jury’s grievances in this case: They were told they would be there for two months; they had been there for almost eight. They couldn’t watch TV, drink, talk to each other about the case, or talk to other guests in the hotel. They were limited to one conjugal visit a week, and on and on. These jurors are played by unfamiliar actors who, a check on IMDb will reveal, have worked in small roles on many TV shows and movies, several of them for many years. These juror actors are in essence the rank and file of SAG-AFTRA. Unlike established stars and industry pros besides actors, almost none of them list their ages or dates of birth in their IMDb pages; this is information that could work against them. Most of them do include their resumés there, something John Travolta or Nathan Lane doesn’t need to do. These are actors always between jobs, going to auditions, waiting for the phone to ring. This episode in which they are the focus makes a spectator realize that we have been seeing these people, without seeing them, since Episode 4, when the trial actually began. These actors have been acting, without lines, since the show began. Watching the series again with an eye toward the jury would reveal something like Andy Warhol’s famous six-hour films Sleep and Empire (both 1964), in which the camera was trained for six hours on a man sleeping and the Empire State Building, respectively. The difference, of course, is that these actors are playing a jury, and like an answer to that famous riddle about a tree falling in the forest, even if we’re not paying attention to these performers most of the time, they are still acting, each playing a juror in the O.J. Simpson trial, and most are even differentiated.Episode 8-1

Contrary to A & K’s claims, however, the episode doesn’t just “back up.” Or rather, it both winds back to the beginning of the trial and moves forward from the glove sequence that ends Episode 7. Thus, we move forward through the DNA testimony and, most of all, through the dawning realization of Kardashian, the only member of either team with a selfless motivation for being on the case, that there seems to be no other answer except that O.J. did it. The other action of the episode is the chess match of Clark and Cochran, as they move the jurors themselves literally across a board, set up on an easel, like a storyboard.

Nobody's favorite board game: Musical jurors, in director Hemingway's overhead metaphor.
Nobody’s favorite board game: Musical jurors, in director Hemingway’s overhead metaphor.

The strategizing of the defense and the prosecution, together with the seemingly interminable length of the trial itself, and the toll it took on the jury, caused Lance Ito’s court to run through all but two of its twelve alternates, coming dangerously close, as the episode shows, to a mistrial. Thus the time frame of the episode is hard to keep track of, but not really so the viewer would notice. Toobin’s chapter on the jury is Chapter 19 (out of 23), “Stockholm Syndrome,” and comes before “Too Tight,” on the gloves, but is still positioned late enough in the book to cover the toll the eight-month trial took on the jury after most of the damage was done. But to stop and deal with only the jury would push the narrative momentum out of the series. “A Jury in Jail” turns to a different side of the defense-vs.-prosecution drama, but one that truly does span the course of the trial, although it seems to be unfolding mostly since the events of the last episode. Of course, each of the “themes” of the series has been imposed somewhat artificially, as the trial moves forward toward its conclusion. Especially because we’ve caught up to the beginning of Episode 8 chronologically at the 29-minute mark (out of 42 minutes), we realize that the maneuvering by Cochran and Clark has gone on during the whole trial.

One thing that has impressed me in studying the series is that the directors have brought a subtly but definitely distinct style to each episode. Anthony Hemingway, who has directed five of the nine episodes available for pre-screening thus far, has hit on a style that lands halfway between the flash and musicality of Ryan Murphy (EPs 1, 2, and 6) and the hard-hitting approach of John Singleton (EP 5), whose style can be heavy-handed when he has a less deft script with which to work. There is also great variety to Hemingway’s direction. For instance, we’ve seen before the space where Marcia goes to smoke, which, in California in 1995 already meant “outside the building.”Episode 8-4In Episode 8, after her estrangement from Chris Darden following the glove disaster, Marcia becomes increasingly isolated; her separate smoking space, spacious but confined, private but out in the open, emphasizes her aloneness. However, the “smoker’s lounge,” as she calls it in this episode, was established early on in the series as Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own,”  where a woman withdraws to think and create. However, given the stigma attached to smoking by the 1990s, especially in California, which led the nation in limiting smoking in public spaces, the “room of one’s own” is considerably more complicated. The “smoker’s lounge” affords shots-in-depth, establishing shots that are already part of the scene, and an array of lighting possibilities. Cochran is the only character on the show who has entered Marcia’s private/public space, which makes a peculiar though apt hideaway for their secret negotiations about the jury, which themselves take place in code. Johnnie   Episode 8-15ends their mutual battle to get jurors dismissed whom they imagine will vote against them, with a clandestine peace offering–black coffee with two Sweet ‘N Lows, in a suitably shadowed shot, with no more to be said.Episode 8-17

Thus Hemingway’s search for variety, along with the fact that this episode takes place mostly in the jury’s sequester hotel, the judge’s quarters and the various attorneys’ offices, with strategy sessions that are hidden from view, and the jurors used as pawns without, of course, their knowing it, leads him to some imaginative setEpisode 8-5ups. So many of the dealings in EP 8 appear to be under-the-table that this leads Hemingway to go literally under the glass table. Thus we get a fly-on-the-glass view first of Johnnie’s tantrums and then later, after he has calmed down, of the team’s hidden machinations. Episode 8-18When Bailey, treated as the older, wiser voice of experience here, tells Cochran that the race-to-mistrial-by-juror-dismissal has got to stop now, however, the scene plays in public, by the elevators.

And after O.J., more enigmatic than ever, insists on testifying in his behalf and then shows just how self-incriminating he would be in a mock-cross-examination with a mock-Marcia Clark (Keli Daniels), Episode 8-16Hemingway has composed Schwimmer off by himself in a corner of the jail consult room. He then cuts to a shot from outside the door, showing how inexorably he is coming to realize O.J.’s guilt by isolating him in his own private prison.

The jury of course is not in a literal jail, although the sequester came to feel like one to the jurors. Moreover, Toobin reports that the jurors often complained–to Judge Ito, and later, to the media, that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies charged with guarding them all received their training as guards at the County Jail. “According to a widespread belief in Los Angeles,” writes Jeffrey Toobin, “the sheriffs then spen[d] the rest of their careers treating civilians like inmates” (354). The episode takes the episode’s skewed perspective and explores the characters in their own figurative prisons. The end feels no nearer than it ever has.

[1] Debra Birnbaum. “’People vs. O.J. Simpson’ Producers on the Secrets of That Famous Trial: ‘It’s Stranger Than Fiction.’” Variety 29 January 2016. http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/people-v-o-j-simpson-trial-secrets-producers-1201691426/. Accessed 26 March 2016.

[2] “‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ Writers Are Research Freaks.” The Business, Kim Masters, moderator.  KCRW, Los Angeles, Calif. 8 February 2016. http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/the-business/the-people-v-oj-simpson-writers-are-research-freaks. Accessed 24 March 2016.

“Desperate Flailing”: Episode 7: “Conspiracy Theories”

Episode 7_14

Each episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson does indeed have its own theme, and yet the plot thread keeps winding through. This proves especially true in Episode 7, “Conspiracy Theories.” We begin to see the consequences of the trial as played out in the media. Alan Dershowicz, teaching a seminar at Harvard, lectures his elite students in how to control the “narrative.” “If there’s going to be a media circus,” he rails, “you better well be the ringmaster.” What this basically means is what Darden later calls “razzle-dazzle,” a song title from a 1975 Broadway show that would be probably too obvious for a music cue on this series. Dershowicz sails a fax across America, like a paper airplane, and then watches on television as Johnnie Cochran, cross-examining Detective Tom Lange, picks it up and uses it in court. The noose forms around the prosecution as the high-powered defense lawyers find it’s time to win or go home. Shapiro tries everything to salvage his reputation with the police and the D.A., learns that his client hasn’t forgotten that the race-based strategy of the defense was Shapiro’s idea, and then happens on to a winning gambit. Cochran’s  own past of domestic violence, which the teleplays have waited until this week to spring on the viewer, explodes on, of course, a tabloid TV show.

The heart of the episode is the hard evidence that the detectives find–the proof that Nicole Simpson bought the gloves that were found at the scenes. All the lawyers are differently boxed in: Cochran using showy techniques to get his client off while shining a spotlight on civil rights issues and rampant racism in America; Shapiro, the tactician opening a Pandora’s box but then becoming horrified when what comes crusading out threatens what Bailey calls Shapiro’s “cozy relationship with Garcetti and the LAPD”; Kardashian, the loyal, godly friend and the conscience of the series, deeply distressed as he slowly realizes that the O.J. to whom he’s been devoted all these years may in fact be a heartless killer. On the prosecution, Marcia never loses her confidence in the strength of the evidence. It is after she becomes convinced that the gloves are the proof, that the glove found on the scene could have belonged only to O.J. Simpson, that she is betrayed.

It has been Chris Darden all along who is the show’s linchpin. An African American from the working-class suburb of Richmond, outside Oakland, Darden, as he sees himself, is an honest broker. Calculation and tactics do not come easily to him. As the film portrays him, I get the impression that he is in the wrong profession. Journalism, filmmaking, academics–fields that call for observation, candor, interpretation, and explanation–are perhaps where he should have ended up. How interesting and strange that it’s Marcia Clark who, after the fame and fortune that this case brought to all the principals, whether they sought it or not, ended up a novelist, columnist, and “special correspondent.” Darden, after the inevitable and lucrative book deal, first taught law, then, in 1999, set up his own law firm, practicing litigation and criminal defense and specializing in domestic violence.

It has been Darden all along who has no illusions. Black people see the Simpson case differently from whites;  a majority of blacks sees the high-profile case against a beloved, uncontroversial black male celebrity, and a sports hero to boot, as a kind of referendum on the treatment of black people, men in particular, by the justice system. Darden doesn’t buy into these attitudes, but he certainly understands them; he also, more than Clark, sees the effect that the “conspiracy nonsense” has on the jury. Dershowicz prompts Cochran a diversionary line involving Colombian drug-dealers’ method for slitting throats, across America by fax as a demonstration for his seminar students at Harvard, whose lush campus in springtime director Anthony Hemingway shows us in a stately establishing shot by helicopter. It’s a worthless notion winged in seconds by carrier pigeon a la fin-de-siecle-vingtième from a storied institution that is supposedly an elite training ground for America’s leaders. It’s what a high-tech, upper-class mockery of justice looks like, however. “It’s stupid,” says Darden in a typically smart assessment, “but it lands.” Darden then sends the chief investigators, Lange (Chris Bauer) and Van Atter (Michael McGrady), out after real evidence that can lead to “big moments” that will counter those that the defense whips up.

Darden’s error comes from his desire to beat the defense at its own game, but that’s not exactly what he wants. Darden aims for real actions, not special effects. By bringing back the glove evidence, the detectives, pretty badly bruised professionally at this point, go some ways toward redeeming themselves and, so thinks Clark, winning the case. “This is our proof,” she says beaming. Later, she emphasizes, “We are going to go down and get our conviction–today.” The problem for Marcia and Chris is that the road to justice takes a strange detour, one that allows the episode to reach the apotheosis of the title’s conspiracy tales, but that also wraps the prosecution around a masculine psychosexual pathology, all in answer to the question: Why did Christopher Darden ask O.J. Simpson to try on the gloves in court?

From Adam’s Rib to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Episode 7_1

When we left our heroes last time, she had her head on his shoulder, and Ryan Murphy, if his taste in music cues ran more to Top 40, would have ended the show with “You and Me Against the World” by Helen Reddy. Even at the top of this week’s show, after Chris finishes his exhortation to the detectives to find more proof, and apologizes to Marcia for “hijacking the meeting,” she says, “I liked it,” and the scene ends on that. Ultimately, she will not like what Chris’s fixation on “big moments” leads to. But at this moment, she likes him. When Chris mentions that he’s driving up to Oakland on the weekend to celebrate a friend’s birthday and asks if she’d like to go, she replies thinks for a minute, and then says, “hell, yes. Yes.” Clearly, she is smitten. Just as clearly, he is not sure what to do about that, and we’re not sure that he even knows it.

They arrive at the bar in the Bay Area, where the friends are waiting. For those of us who are not Californians, this is about a 5½-hour drive. Significantly, it is she who points out to Chris where in the place the guys are, just as it is she who leads everything–except conventional male-female courtship practices. And these, in this possible workplace romance, are not–to cite the 1972 Four Tops song, “Ain’t No Woman,” quite “sewn together like a hand and . . . ” well, you know.

The conspiracies in Episode 7 fly. Marcia brings the grand police conspiracy to its cymbal-crashing crescendo in Oakland, where she meets up with some of those “real people” to whom Chris is always alluding. “You got schooled,” he tells them, after she illustrates the absurd idea that a “super-secret cabal of O.J.-hating racist cops” orchestrated a practically impossible scheme to frame O.J. and shield the unknown murderer of Nicole and Ron from suspicion.

A vial of blood to be planted at the crime scenes is passed hand-to-hand by shadowy "cop conspirators."
A vial of blood to be planted at the crime scenes is passed hand-to-hand by shadowy “cop conspirators.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This sequence flings Hemingway and the writers (D.V. DeVincentis gets credit for the episode) into a virtual parody of Oliver Stone‘s JFK (1991), with Marcia Clark making like “X” (Donald Sutherland)–the clandestine “Black Op” who meets Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and whirls him through a hurtling rundown of all the entities that may have wanted John Kennedy dead and the planets they could have aligned in order to make it happen. Digital undercranking in this montage gives the cop conspirators the herky-jerky movements of wind-up toys. However, “the guys” in Oakland look to me like standard-issue Hollywood “black dudes” (Darrell, played by Maurice Webster, and Byron, played by the late Sam Sarpong, are the only ones named). Without mates and without much apparent affinity to the buttoned-up Darden, they are there to provide foils for the extraordinary monologue-cum-montage, as well as a reason for Chris to take Marcia out of town. And like nearly everything else in the series, this event did occur–as Clark herself affirmed this week in an appearance on Ellen)–although possibly not quite as the episode enacts it.

What follows is the most confounding and intriguing passage of the series so far, extending all the way to the end of the glove-fitting day in court.  Byron and Darrell, catching on to the chemistry between Marcia and Chris, at least on her end, try to goad Chris into making a move. Chris might be the kind of guy who is slow to see when a woman is attracted to him and his buddies try to get him to see it. Episode 7_9Just in case we have not already caught  Marcia’s attraction to Chris, director Hemingway and Sarah Paulson provide visual clues. Chris, after being egged on by Byron and Darrell, looks over at Marcia who, shown in Classical Hollywood three-point lighting, gives him a subtle come-hither look, which is cut to a second time at a closer angle just for emphasis.

Cut to a hotel hallway, as Marcia and Chris stagger to her door, where she stops–at Room 311 (Showrunners Alexander & Karaszewski, don’t let it be forgot, penned a film titled for a hotel room, 1408 [2007]), and sEpisode 7_16ays “This is me.” In a nearly silent medium closeup/closeup shot/reverse shot scene that runs 1:27, a sizable chunk of a 43-minute television episode, all the air escapes out of a possible Clark-Darden relationship. “She’s my co-worker, nothing more,” Chris tells his pals, and he makes sure it stays that way. Sarah Paulson, whom the Gurus of Gold website already predicts at Episode 7_17Number 1 for an Emmy before the show is even over, deserves one for this scene alone. A fugue plays out on Marcia’s face, registering in turn desire, love, disbelief, disappointment, and finally, resignation. “Good night, Darden,” she says coldly, to the door frame. Episode 7_18

 

Chris, finally realizing what he has done–or more properly, hasn’t done–stares dumbstruck, and even takes a step toward the door, which shuts in his face.

Episode 7_10

 

A return to this sequence’s master shot, which shows the hallway in long shot, has Chris veering strangely out of frame to the bottom left, mimicking what seems to be a ship sinking or a plane shot out of the sky. Or perhaps it’s the descent of The Dreadful Flying Glove in Yellow Submarine (1968). Sorry. No more glove jokes; I promise. Two people were murdered.

Fade in on Marcia’s bare knee (!) banging a file drawer shut. Chris enters, calling her “Big Time,” as he did when he still toiled in S.I.D. Brought you a coffee, he says. Already had one, she answers. He goes to close the door. Don’t bother, leave it open, she says, her voice the height of officiousness. What must that long drive home down the Pacific coast have been like?! Undeterred, and swinging into a sitting position on the edge of Marcia’s desk, which puts him in an inferior position to her when Hemingway goes to a shot/reverse shot. Chris makes a pitch, and it’s not woo. “Why don’t you and I just go for it,” he says. “And what does that mean?” she says, not unamused. “Let’s have O.J. put on those gloves. I mean, we need a big one–big moment, right,” he says, even allowing himself a slight swagger.  Episode 7_11“We’ve talked about this before,” he says. “And I’ve decided it’s not a good idea,” she says, finishing his sentence, and not in a good way, “and not a good time if it were.” “But today’s the glove testimony,” he replies, then leaning into her, smiling confidently and confidentially. “It’s the only time,” when his “only time” had been a few nights before.

The audacity of this final act of Episode 7 is breathtaking. There are Harold Pinter plays with less sexual subtext or that sustain their amorous undercurrents over a shorter, less dramatic stretch of time. For twenty years, “enquiring minds” have longed to know whether Clark and Darden had sex. Ellen DeGeneres asked Clark this question on her show last Wednesday no less insistently than Oprah Winfrey pressed Darden about it in 1997. They’ve always issued “non-denial denials” more or less. Toobin even avoids including an index item, “Clark, Marcia: Relationship with Darden,” even though there are such items for Clark and Hodgman, Cochran, Shapiro, Bailey, and Ito. He clearly didn’t want throngs of disappointed readers. Darden, since August 1997, has been married to a different Marcia (pronounced “Mar-cee-uh,” a bio on Darden on the William Morris Endeavor site tactfully points out), which also probably doesn’t help the rumors go away.

As occurs so frequently in the series, explanation from Toobin’s book is converted into dialogue. “Mostly, they feared that Simpson himself would control the experiment” (365). Marcia is given the lines: “You turn over control of a demonstration to an opponent, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Certainly not to the defendant himself. ‘kay?” I can’t remember when I’ve heard an actor pronounce “okay” “‘kay” in a movie, at least not with stakes this high. It’s a brilliant choice, since it’s probably how Marcia talks to her little boys when they don’t do what they’re told. This is how thoroughly Chris is unmanned. Suddenly, all of his smarts, all of his insights and instincts, all of his drive for justice–they all seem out the door, the same one Marcia wouldn’t let him shut (and also the door up north that closed in his face).

Cunningly, the episode links together those persistent rumors, and the questions of why Darden had O.J. put on the gloves when Clark repeatedly ruled out the idea. Here is where actuality, where we often just cannot know why things happen, does run up against the demands of drama, and perhaps in television a bit more than in film. In a way, the series does Darden a favor by giving him a motivation he never appeared to have in the trial.  And Marcia’s reaction to his behavior goes deeper than just losing the trial–although that would seem to be reason enough? “Darden, Christopher: ineptitude of” is an item in Toobin’s index, with seven entries. The series is far kinder to him, and–I don’t think this is a spoiler–with Clark later shown to have miscalculated even more disastrously on Mark Fuhrman, with an eventual explosion that the series has been telegraphing almost from the beginning, and over Darden’s protests, the co-counsels’ failures even themselves out.

The conspiracy theories that the prosecution’s “proof” is finally going to lay to rest, are dismissed by Marcia at the top of the episode as “desperate flailing,” which could have been this episode’s title, and it comes to apply to the prosecution’s performance, and to Chris’s actions in the courtroom. Even the glove itself appears to flail desperately on Simpson’s hand. Furthermore, the sexual subtexts are his-and-hers; Chris acts on his feelings too late. Marcia evinces rejection, which could have been deflating when she was still slogging through an ugly divorce case that in actuality caused her “effectively [to] disappear . . .  from the case . . . for nearly three months” (Toobin 333) [1]. After the debacle is complete and Chris goes to Marcia, making excuses, she wheels on him suddenly, making a hard, accusatory pivot, away from the camera position. Episode 7_15Many directors would have cut to a reverse angle but we’re left to imagine the look she gives Chris, almost keeping it private between them. Also, in the same shot, Hemingway keeps Fred and Kim Goldman in deep focus behind the two prosecutors.  Simpson may well have been stiffening his hand; he was an actor, after all. Also, the glove was an unusually tight-fitting model, “almost like a racing glove,” according to Toobin (365). And the evidence gloves could have shrunken, especially with Simpson having to wear latex gloves underneath the biohazard original gloves. Of course, all of this proves the point that a lawyer tries never to ask a question to which she doesn’t know the answer [I learned this from The Verdict (1982), written by David Mamet], or to provoke a demonstration of which, as Cochran says on the episode, she does not know the outcome.

The episode shows Shapiro also acting out of weakness, with the glove caper a last-minute gambit to salvage his position on the defense. If the series dabbles little in Darden’s supposed incompetence, it does show that he has most certainly waddled into the deep end of the pool. He is no match for the three wily defense lawyers, even the usually languorous Shapiro; when Cochran announces “We have no objection, your honor,” after fulminating that he would object, we can all but hear the cage of the trap they’ve set clang shut. He “gets schooled,” not the first nor the last instance of a line or action in this series coming back to sting the character who first said or did it. When Hemingway holds on a shot of a smiling cobra, er, Cochran, who then slaps hands with Shapiro, with Marcia still in the background, it’s all one can do to suppress the voice of Jim McKay, host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports in O.J. Simpson’s football era, chanting of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Episode 7 ends on a whimper, with Chris phoning Fred Goldman, and telling his voice mail to “call me anytime.” “Me call you?,” says the victim’s father to Sister Helen Prejean, the “Death Penalty Nun,” in Dead Man Walking, the biopic released in December 1995, two  months after the Simpson verdict, “Just listen to how arrogant that is.” Toobin uses that “a-word” a good deal to characterize the prosecution. That the series avoids it, along with i-words, such as incompetent and ineptitude, shows how The People v. O.J. Simpson tends to soothe Clark and Darden with balms of time and regret.

 

[1] There were many more prosecutors than are shown here; also Bill Hodgman, who exited the series back in Episode 5, continued to labor behind the scenes, though not in court.

 

Miss Trial, or Why Marcia Brady Might Have Won the Case: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”: Episode 6

from Larry Karaszewski's Facebook photos
from Larry Karaszewski’s Facebook photos

If Marcia Clark had never heard of O.J. Simpson before she began prosecuting him for double murder, she may have never watched The Brady Bunch either, although she was only 16 when it went on the air. Girls who grow up to be deputy district attorneys probably don’t watch gloppy family sitcoms. Therefore, to title Episode 6 “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” after tween Jan Brady’s complaint about her older sister to whom she feels unfairly compared, is to drag the tough and forthright prosecutor down to the lowest levels of pop culture trivia, if not family disputes, which also feature on this episode. Marcia Clark, alas, does become a regular on a TV show, one that even pre-empts soap operas on the Big Three broadcast networks.   Marcia Brady may be Miss Perfect, but it’s Marcia Clark’s visual imperfections, as defined by the trivia-obsessed media, which attract pop culture’s attention once Proctor & Gamble starts paying double to air its commercials for Bounty, Head & Shoulders, and Tide. There ought to be a law.

“Lady Art”: From Margaret Keane to Marcia Clark

Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski had not written a female protagonist before Big Eyes (2014). I have been wanting an opportunity to discuss Big Eyes for a while, and this is now the place to do that. The Margaret Keane story might be seen as a warm-up for their heroine in The People v. O.J. Simpson. I say that with trepidation, knowing the long, tangled road Alexander and Karaszewski traveled to get the movie made.

Scott and Larry are a Keane. But it isn't signed. Perhaps is a S. Cenic.
Scott and Larry are a Keane. Maybe Margaret painted this. But it isn’t signed. Perhaps it is an S. Cenic. (Actually, it’s by Drew Friedman.) From Larry Karaszewski’s Facebook photos.

A theme of Alexander & Karaszewski’s theatrical films, Ed Wood through Big Eyes, is that kitsch, like Margaret Keane’s paintings of children with eyes as round and flat as the pie-pan flying saucers in Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, is not a joke to the person who creates them out of feeling and love. Margaret is closed up in an attic, turning out prodigious supplies of paintings of big-eyed children, while her husband goes out and sells them, practically inventing the mass marketing of popular art. When critics blast the paintings, causing a “Cinerama-shaped” magnum opus commissioned for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair to be taken down almost as soon as it is unveiled, Margaret cannot even defend her work from the scalding criticism it receives.

The Big Eyes project trickled along like a slow, meandering creek. It was first announced in 2007 and 2008 with one cast and with the writers directing, and again in 2012 with a different cast, A & K directing, and Tim Burton on board to produce. The film that was finally released at the end of 2014 boasted yet a third cast, Burton now directing, and a budget of $10 million, half the budget announced back in 2007 [1, 2, 3]. The tortuous trajectory of Big Eyes looks like a microcosm of what has happened to the vibrant American independent film culture that existed from the late-1980s to the mid-2000s. When Alexander and Karaszewski tell an interviewer that “the mid-budget feature has collapsed,” their experience with Big Eyes is surely what they have in mind.

Amy Adams Big Eyes

Margaret, played by Amy Adams, comes across as naive but earnest, with deeply honeyed Tennessean dialect. She radiates the strength and sincerity that one would expect of a dedicated painter in the brand of classical biopic that plays continuous performances in the mental screening room out of which Alexander and Karaszewski create their scripts. Keane’s art, says Scott Alexander in a promotional video, is “not a joke.”

Marcia Clark is absolutely no joke, and yet she is turned into one.  Margaret Keane’s art is taken from her by her husband, who uses the media to claim that he was the painter. In a similar way, the truth is stolen from Marcia Clark, a commanding, forceful woman who wants only justice. She is made into a victim of everybody from the triumvirate of supermarket tabloids that treat her new haircut as if it were the worst atrocity since Pearl Harbor to a checkout kid who feels that because he has seen Marcia on TV he is entitled to comment on her purchase of Tampax. “Uh oh,” he chants. “Looks like the defense is is for a hell of a week.” Donald Trump couldn’t have said it better. But at least Megyn Kelly signed on for the high-profile media treatment. There is something obscene about the makeover that Clark is forced to undergo. The sequence at the hair salon is shot and cut like the beauty regimen montage in Sunset Boulevard, except that when the hairdresser tells her he’s going to do for her what he did for Farrah, she appears to buy into the whole thing. With Ryan Murphy directing, I half-expect the music cue to be “I Feel Pretty.” Happily, he holds off.  

The female biopic, a variation on the woman’s film, is produced out of a culture ingrained with feelings of ambivalence at best toward women in public roles. Curiously, Marcia Clark’s failed prosecution of the O.J. Simpson cases came at the end of a long line of high-profile losing cases from the L.A. District Attorney’s office that were tried by female prosecutors. Gil Garcetti is written a nice briar patch of contradictory dialogue for this episode. After telling Marcia not to watch television because “if you listen to all that noise, you’ll just end up bringing it into the courtroom,” Gil then turns around and apologizes for “all that stuff in the media about your appearance.” He and his wife are “appalled when it comes on TV.” So after telling the lead prosecutor on his star case not to watch TV, he then admits that he watches it. Then after saying he’s horrified by all the attention to her looks, he offers to “put you together with some terrific media consultants.”  As “all that noise” spins the Simpson case out of control, Bruce Greenwood’s Garcetti turns into the type of embarrassed, muttering mess that a well-meaning man–especially an authority figure–can be reduced to when forced to confront sexism in his midst.

The very nature of the episode itself reduces Marcia Clark to a level she wouldn’t have imagined before. Clark, after all, was a civil servant. Her highest profile case before Simpson was her conviction in 1991 of Robert John Bardo for the murder of television actress Rebecca Schaeffer. A meticulous, prepared, no-nonsense prosecutor, Clark was a tough link in the criminal justice chain. Clark was a “trial addict,” as Toobin puts it. After her promotion out of the courtroom and into administration as a supervisor of other trial lawyers, she was so bored and unhappy that she asked to go back to her old job in the special-trials unit, a shift that had occurred in the month before the murders. In Alexander and Karaszewski’s world women have come a long way from the days when Margaret Keane meekly defends her paintings as “lady art.”

This episode’s script, by D.V. DeVincentis, whom the duo describes as “our right hand man,” feels more like Alexander and Karaszewski’s version of the contemporary world than any episode so far (except for the Bronco Chase EP 2, which they did sign). In fact, when I saw an extended FX promo for the series during the end of Fargo in December, it included the clip from this episode’s final scene in which Marcia laments “I’m not a public personality.” It hit me instantly as vintage Alexander-Karaszewski and I decided then to do this blog. Alexander told Chris Willman, “I think all the writers were trying to hit the weird and bizarre tone that Larry and I like . . . So they would do a few drafts, and then Larry and I would do a few drafts on their drafts, and then we’d pass it back. It was important that the 10 hours sort of have the same voice.”

The episode extracts one line from Toobin, “Professionally powerful, Marcia was personally fragile,” and runs with it [4]. If Garcetti is reduced to blithering harumphs, Marcia–the fearless Marcia Clark–is reduced to tears–and not in a way of which this revisionist female biopic approves. She almost wouldn’t be human if the criticism of her looks didn’t have some effect on her; after hearing TV tongue-waggers deride her appearance as “frump incarnate” and “a cry for help,” she checks herself in the mirror. Who wouldn’t? Marcia 2Actually, what we see here is the way the culture, in modern times through the media, constructs the female image, and the ways that women feel forced to conform themselves to it.

Perhaps this is a difference in media between television and cinema. When Marcia is made the object of the gaze, her humiliation is made obvious to the viewer. EP 6 opens with Marcia across the street in family court in a custody hearing with her ex-husband, where she actually forgets that she’s not that Marcia Clark in this court, and objects to the opposing attorney’s arguments. In this episode, Ryan Murphy often moves the camera with Marcia and in her point of view, as she must juggle home life and work life; she must look good, and also convey power and authority. No pressure. Murphy repeats the subjective entrance into the courtroom with all eyes, particularly those at the defense table, on her. The first time her ex-husband Gordon’s legal challenges make her late. The second time that we are made to see the scrutiny Clark feels, she has done nothing more exceptional than get a haircut. Marcia Clark, who had won 19 of her previous 20 cases, comes finally to be defined by her hair. Marcia 5When the Judge says, “Good morning, Miss Clark–I think,” Marcia, who seems to allow herself a moment of narcissism, falls in the reflecting pool and drowns.

“I Don’t Think Ladies Should Be Lawyers.”

O.J.’s defense team is able to turn a cultural awareness of race based on real and deep discrimination to its advantage. In terms of gender, however, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking she is watching events from the 1950s, not the 1990s. Attitudes toward non-white people appear to play on an endless loop in America, but at least they appear. Attitudes toward women are much less visible–except to those affected by it. Were there really only two women in total on the two legal sides of this case? No wonder Clark became such a target. Were women in California courts in 1995 really addressed as “Miss”? (They were.) “Missed Manners in Courtroom Decorum” is an extensive and fascinating article about courtroom etiquette by Catherine Thérèse Clarke, published in Maryland Law Review four years before the Simpson case. It reads: “A judge’s comments about a woman’s appearance, even if complimentary, undermine a woman’s credibility and deny her equal treatment if no similar comment is made to male attorneys” [5]. Clarke maintains, “Women today continue to be under-represented in American courtrooms. They have not disturbed the male-dominated power structure, and they face  many  forms of resistance to their participation in trial work as well as in other areas of the law practice. Women lawyers generally sense that they must fight harder to gain respect” [6]. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, wrote Nancy Blodgett, the sheer number of women succeeding in the law schools and becoming lawyers had “forced cracks in what had been a men’s club” [7].(qtd. in Clarke 974). Blodgett’s 1985 article in the American Bar Association Journal, it must be noted, is titled “I Don’t Think Ladies Should Be Lawyers,” no doubt a line from one of the members of that “men’s club.” Note for instance the number of times that Cochran refers to “ladies,” usage that was beyond politically incorrect in academic circles long before 1994-95.

Besides Marcia, there is only one other woman at the lawyers’ tables and that is Shawn Chapman (Angel Parker), the young assistant attorney from Cochran’s firm. Chapman is now Shawn Chapman Holley, a highly successful litigator and defense attorney whose clients, according to her current firm’s website, include Lindsay Lohan and–Wait for it–Kim Kardashian. The character has, as of EP 6, been remarkably silent, except to laugh at Johnnie’s jokes and ask him an occasional question, usually about strategy. When the insane tabloid culture lowers Marcia to its logical nadir–a nude photo of her surfaces and finds its way into the National Enquirer–Marcia finally disintegrates. The series reveals the the madness drew everyone with any connection to the Simpson case into its vortex. One feels P.T. Barnum looking on approvingly; in the post-modern age, there’s one born every nanosecond. Garcetti breaks the news (or the story, in cable news-speak) to Marcia. He assumes the picture’s a fake. Clark has to tell him, “No, it’s real.” Clark’s first husband, Gaby Horowitz, of which nothing had been said previously in the series, gave it to the famed scandal sheet. “I had a husband before Gordon,” Marcia says. “Ohh,” responds Garcetti, in a Greenwood line reading that conveys the surprised, shocked realization that he has just made Marcia spill on his desk an entire messy past that he has no right ever to hear about. As Marcia says to the TV screen when Gordon takes his child-care grievances to the eager news cameras, “Jesus, Gordon. This is our private life.” Yeah, about that. After she returns to court, she dissolves into tears–a recreation of an actual incident. At this moment, director Murphy shoots a camera angle down the length of the lawyers’ tables. Lee and Johnnie are gone from their usual positions and in their place next to O.J. is Chapman, a minority twice over, the only other woman on either team, and an African American. She looks over toward her opponent, who doesn’t notice  her, with great sisterly sorrow and compassion. For emphasis, Murphy cuts to the shot a second time. OJ MarciaI have not read the script, but I would be very surprised if such a shot is stipulated. I do believe that the show is Alexander and Karaszewski’s vision overall, but a moment like this, like many touches in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” is a triumph of mise-en-scene, a mournful lament, director-enabled.

The music cues in the Ryan Murphy-directed episodes have been more original and unexpected than in other those by other directors (although the Wagner in last week’s episode, which John Singleton directed, is pretty great too). The Ryan Murphy-directed episodes have used the most unexpected and haunting music cues, from Schubert by way of Kubrick in Episode 2 to “Sour Times,” by Portishead here.  “Sour Times” pitifully accompanies the shot of Marcia confronted by the three tabloid covers, heard first over tinny convenience store speakers. Without letup, in a dolly shot, we follow from behind, clenched fists first, the prosecutorial car wreck waiting to happen, Mark Fuhrman . The plucked electric guitar strings in the song continue at full volume as Fuhrman sweeps into the courtroom. The strings on the Portishead song are themselves a sampling from a 1969 instrumental composition by Lalo Schifrin, who composed the Mission Impossible theme, as well as scores for movies from the era including Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, and a host of Clint Eastwood vehicles. So if the music here strikes you as having a distinctly late-’60s vibe, your instincts are correct.  (I first guessed the instrumental to be  from an obscure Ennio Morricone track, until I, who had never heard of Portishead, Googled mid-1990s songs by female vocalists, with the line, “Nobody loves me” and found it.)

If “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” were a feature film, it would be one of the best and most revisionist female biopics of recent times. I don’t really mean to single out one episode of what is obviously an outstanding series, but Episode 6 is as cinematic as any film and demonstrates a daring and a depth that is rarely seen on any screen large or small. Sarah Paulson conveys the dynamic ordinariness, the nearly superhuman heroism that it takes for Marcia Clark to get through a day in this extraordinary time in her life. Thus it is fitting that she end up in a teary heap on the floor. Again, who wouldn’t?Marcia 7 Chris Darden, frankly, gives her more support in her crises (or crisises, as Johnnie Cochran pronounces the word in this episode) than she had given him in his profound conflicts in Episode 5. Indeed one thing I noticed is that while in EP 5, centering on Darden, Chris often keeps his dilemmas to himself, or is left by Marcia to deal with them, this week Darden is quick to understand and support his friend. I don’t think “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” slides into the stereotype of “the black friend” anymore than last week’s show partakes of the “cold career woman” type; indeed Paulson’s scenes with her young sons feel genuine in their tenderness. I do think it’s ingenious how the series is skirting the rumors, which flew at the time, that Clark and Darden were “an item.” I’m sure I’m not the only spectator who wishes that Marcia and Chris could morph into Adam and Amanda, the husband-and-wife lawyers in the Tracy-Hepburn comedy, Adam’s Rib (1949). But Adam and Amanda are on opposite sides of their case. When Chris and Marcia take “a study break” and dance to “Who’s That Lady?” by the Isley Brothers, Murphy fades out on the line “Don’t touch.” So the boundary seems clear. Darden and Clark are really all each other has during this case. Marcia 6In the last shot, Chris joins Marcia, whom he finds sitting on the floor in her darkened office, sobbing, and makes her laugh. We do get a sense of these two embattled justice seekers against the world. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in theatrical films these days, it seems that even in a serious Oscar-winner like Spotlight, justice has to win. Is it only television today that can depict a reality in which justice sometimes gets thrown out of court?

 

[1] Michael Fleming, “Alexander, Karaszewski Think ‘Big’,” Variety 15 October 2007. http://variety.com/2007/film/markets-festivals/alexander-karaszewski-think-big-1117974079/.

[2] Michael Fleming, “Church to Play Keane in ‘Big Eyes’,” Variety 2 April 2008. http://variety.com/2008/film/markets-festivals/church-to-play-keane-in-big-eyes-1117983373/.

[3] Jeff Sneider, “Witherspoon, Reynolds Land ‘Big Eyes,” Variety 22 January 2012. http://variety.com/2012/film/news/witherspoon-reynolds-land-big-eyes-1118048991/.

[4] Jeffrey Toobin, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. New York: Random House, 1996, 306.

[5] Catherine Thérèse Clarke, “Missed Manners in Courtroom Decorum” Maryland Law Review 50.4 (1991), 1011.

[6] Clarke, 973.

[7] Quoted in Clarke, 974.

 

The Content of Their Character: “The Race Card,” Episode 5

Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), with the Simpson case's new co-prosecutor, Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown).
Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), with the Simpson case’s new co-prosecutor, Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown).

Christopher Darden enters the narrative in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, on page 242, on the day of opening arguments, a day not depicted in the television series until Episode 5. Darden’s appearance before the court on that day “demonstrated how much the prosecution effort had evolved over the months leading up to the trial,” Toobin writes. “The racial tensions in the case made the logic of adding Darden . . . compelling. The case needed a black prosecutor” (243).

Darden first appears in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story 20 minutes into Episode 1. We meet him in his office in the Special Investigations Division (S.I.D.), where he recommends whether or not to pursue prosecutions of municipal employees, police in particular, who are accused of abuses and crimes. “I hate this place,” he tells Johnnie Cochran in EP 1. It is a soul-crushing bureaucracy that often can’t pursue accusations of police brutality, due to insufficient evidence, most often in cases brought by blacks. Sometimes, Cochran tells him, “money,” the kind juries award in civil lawsuits, “is the only way to get justice.”  That line is “ironic,” writes James Poniewozik , “because we know [O.J.] Simpson will later lose a wrongful-death case against him” [1]. The actual Darden told Oprah Winfrey in 1997 that the civil trial decision gave him no satisfaction because “he [Simpson] should be in prison.”

The series paints Darden as an adroit investigator. Given the job of exploring a possible indictment of Al Cowlings for his role in the Bronco chase (in Episode 3), Darden is meticulous in his investigation. He finds evidence that O.J. had planned an escape across the Mexican border, but stipulates that Cowlings, in the driver’s seat while Simpson pressed a gun to his own head, may have had no choice but to do as the erratic Simpson directed. Marcia Clark, overwhelmed by the gargantuan Simpson case itself, drops the Cowlings investigation, once again seemingly mooring Darden in his apparently thankless job. However, Darden told Oprah, “there are probably 40 guys doing life in California prisons who don’t think I’m incompetent” [2]. This indicates that the job in S.I.D. (“in the basement,” as the show’s Clark says) was not the pit of ineffectuality that the series suggests.

Darden, now 59, teaches law and administers his own law firm; when Sterling K. Brown, who plays him, contacted him as the series went into production, the actor’s calls and texts were not returned. Seeing the disillusioned Darden in TV appearances the first few years after the verdict (when he is promoting his book, In Contempt; as creators Alexander and Karaszewski point out, every one of the principals in the O.J. case wrote at least one book about it ), it is easy to understand why he wouldn’t want to revisit the experience two decades later, much less participate in its recreation. On the other hand, the series places Darden at the heart of the story.

If there is a character who demonstrates the creators’ concept of the series as a “10-hour movie,” it is Darden. At first a figure on the sidelines (football reference not intended), he is drawn into the center only by stages. Chris develops as a voice of the black “community,” a word he uses often. Especially in the early episodes, the writers put description and explanations from Toobin’s book into Darden’s mouth. The author’s account of how little Simpson contributed in any way to the African American community is echoed in Episode 2 by Chris, standing in his parents’ backyard the evening of the Bronco chase, arguing with the “Go, Juice, go”-chanting neighbors that “O.J. never gave back. You see any parks around here named for him, any children’s centers?” In the earlier episodes, also, Chris serves as Marcia’s reality check with the black community. “A lot of black people think that O.J. didn’t do it,” he says in the third episode, to her disbelief. The focus-grouped jury research that the high-priced Don Vinson donates to Garcetti’s office is rejected out of hand by Marcia. But we’ve already heard it from Darden practically verbatim: “Good-looking, talented black kid from the street makes it all the way to the top, then gets pushed off his pedestal and thrown into jail like black men do.” Where public opinion on the case is concerned, Darden even has his ear to the ground in the African-American community at this early point more than his mentor Cochran does.

Indeed Chris’s character, more than that of any other on the series, feels threaded through the entire show. Unlike even some of the major characters, such as Clark, who takes a back seat in Episode 2, or Shapiro, who is just barely in Episode 5, Darden has figured importantly in every segment so far, and will again in EP 6. Chris, created by Brown as a soft-voiced, sensitive young prosecutor who is pulled into the case by a complicated mix of professional pride, opportunity, expediency, and concern to see justice done; the moment in Episode 4 when Gil Garcetti tortuously suggests to Clark and Bill Hodgman that the prosecution “balance out our ticket, stir in a little added flavor” shows the D.A.’s fixation on “optics,” but Clark, whose friendship with Darden we see develop along with his insight into the case, believes that Chris can add more to the team than just racial balance. He can be seen as just doing his job, but people connected with “The Trial of the Century” didn’t merely do their jobs. The Simpson ordeal transformed the life of nearly everyone touched by it, as this series amply shows. And once black people start telling pollsters and journalists that Chris Darden is an Uncle Tom, helping The Man railroad a black celebrity whom Darden is convinced is a vicious killer, Brown gives the smart and savvy Darden a stare, part deer-in-the-headlights, part haunted man living an unimaginable nightmare. He is shaping up to be the series’s indispensable figure, the one character who embodies the sense of justice betrayed that seems one of the legacies of the Simpson trial. But it’s part of the larger tragedy of race in America, the hideous underside of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Murderers who happen to be black, it turns out, might not be judged by “the content of their character,” so twisted is the system of justice toward blacks.

In the same week that Chris Rock, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and Oscar show producers Reginald Hudlin (who is black) and David Hill rescued the #Oscars So White Academy Awards from themselves, the week’s People v. O.J. Simpson segment is credited to African Americans, writer Joe Robert Cole and director John Singleton, the first African American nominated for the Oscar for Best Director (for Boyz N the Hood, 1991, which introduced Cuba Gooding Jr.). Anthony Hemingway, the director of Episodes 3, 4, 7, 8, and 9, is also African-American. On this week’s episode, Cole and Singleton break down the story lines in this case well beyond the expected pieties between liberal whites and blacks. The script this week gives Darden dialogue in which he explains how Affirmative Action worked against bright  students like him who could have gotten into law school without it. “But every time I entered a classroom,” he tells Marcia, “I could feel people staring at me, like I took some more worthy person’s spot.” From white misconceptions about Affirmative Action to Cochran’s grandstanding for the black community that Darden was put on the case only because he is black, Darden is left to twist in the wind, while African-American respondents tell pollsters that the black assistant district attorney prosecuting a black celebrity is an Uncle Tom. The whites don’t get it. Garcetti won’t let Darden give interviews to the black press; “D.A.s don’t go on talk shows,” he says. Clark tells Darden she remembers the effect of Affirmative Action on law schools; “no, you don’t,” he snaps. “You’re white.” A look of private amusement flashes over Marcia’s face.

The Episode also turns on Mark Fuhrman, the detective who found the bloody glove on Rockingham, and whose history of racist attitudes and remarks inspired Shapiro’s “race card” defense to begin with. Marcia assigns Darden to prepare Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale) for his testimony and to put him on the stand; “he’ll present better with you,” she says, even though Chris has found him to be condescending in his interviews with the cop. The sequence in which this first plays out is cryptic. Singleton shoots much of the scene from behind the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that characterize the D.A.’s office set, where much of the series takes place, with black vertical blinds. The office would call up a mental image of to prison bars if we didn’t know, from the county jail scenes, that prison bars are mostly horizontal and painted a chipping institutional greenish yellow). Darden is at the far right end of the 16 x 9 frame, looking right; Fuhrman sits on the far end of the shot, looking left. Thus, the time-honored theatrical convention whereby leftward movement across the stage leftward signifies evil–sinister, Latin for “left.” This is the strongest cue to the viewer that Fuhrman is “not right,” as Chris says. When the policeman asks Darden if Bill Hodgman’s office is still on that floor, the line might express Fuhrman’s disappointment that he won’t be questioned by a white guy. “Bill won’t be joining us,” Darden says. “That’s not a problem,” the cop replies, although no one asked  him if it would be. The composition is off-putting, as if our distance from the two men expressed the cop’s discomfort with Darden. The effect of the scene is to put us in the position of Marcia, who is asked to believe a hostility that she can’t see. “He’s one of those people,” Chris tells her, “who thinks you can’t see how he really feels because he acts polite.”

Darden’s chief antagonist, of course, is Cochran, whose motives are made even more outrageously clear than they have been in earlier episodes. The jury, lawyers, defendant, and judge visit the crime scenes.  Judge Ito’s court has apparently allowed the defense team to tamper at will with the houses on Bundy and Rockingham, clearing Nicole’s personal effects out of her house altogether, and bringing African art and pictures of African-American families to replace the pictures of O.J. with white golfing buddies, showgirls, and girlfriends. Darden in court implores the Judge to disallow use of the n-word in testimony because hearing it forces an African American to pick sides, precisely what Cochran urged Darden to do in EP 1, before either man got involved in the Simpson case. Cochran feigns his best righteous indignation, then turns in an aside to Darden, “Nigger, please.” The episode’s teaser, a flashback to 1982, shows Cochran driving his two young daughters to dinner through Rodeo Drive in his Mercedes, when a motorcycle cop pulls him over for Driving While Black, cuffing him while he checks his licence, and finally telling him, “Have a nice night, Mister Assistant District Attorney” without a hint of sheepishness, as if Cochran had humiliated him. Once again, the double consciousness this series conveys–a new version of W.E.B. Du Bois’s “two-ness”–is uncanny. We understand the deep causes of Cochran’s desire to make the city, and the LAPD in particular, pay for discrimination, and to win cases against them, with emphasis on win. Chris Darden lectures the court about the “n-word” the same way Daddy Johnnie in the past warned his girls never to use “that terrible word.” But somewhere between 1982 and 1994 Cochran has crossed over from legal crusader to shyster. No wonder the O.J. case inspired the revival of Chicago. Johnnie Cochran starts resembling Billy Flynn, imbuing Simpson’s house with “Blackness” the same way Flynn tricks the murderess Roxie Hart up like a victimized convent girl.

Johnnie’s final gambit–or one of them–does not happen yet, but already the ending alludes to it. Did Mark Fuhrman really collect World War II memorabilia? More to the point, did he lovingly dust his curio cabinets containing Nazi medals, with Lemon Pledge–while the overture to Die Miestersinger von Nürnberg, Richard Wagner’s most anti-Semitic opera, bombastically blared? The is one of the series’s most artful and devastating grace notes so far. One need not even remember that Cochran compared Mark Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler in his final summation, which I didn’t when I saw this episode for the first time, to gasp at the audacity of this final image–and to wish even for the sake of Fuhrman, the only participant come out of the Simpson trial in 1995 facing prison time, for perjury–that he had enjoyed a less infelicitous hobby.

Besides verbally eviscerating Darden, as this episode would have it, Johnnie Cochran’s in- court machinations cause Bill Hodgman to have a heart attack in open court. Cochran names off twelve witnesses that were not included in the discovery and revealed to the prosecution because of a foul-up by Shapiro’s staff.  Hodgman did go the emergency room later the day of the discovery failure, complaining of chest pains. His condition, related to extreme stress, did not turn out to be serious, but he withdrew from the Simpson case as a result. But punching up the drama, if it’s done carefully, does not alter the truths of the actuality. A more complicated change from actuality has Clark speak the opening arguments–“You’ve seen O.J. Simpson the athlete, the actor. You think you know him.” In fact, those lines were delivered by Christopher Darden; the series gives the opening statement to Marcia, because she is the lead prosecutor, and seems the logical one to do it. What is logical in real life may appear downright illogical in drama. The series plainly wanted to emphasize the confrontation over the “n-word.”

"Hey, you, get off of my cloud." Darden and O.J. (Cuba Gooding, Jr.)
“Hey, you, get off of my cloud.” Darden and O.J. (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Notice Darden defensively leaning away from the lord of the manor, who is not wearing his jailhouse blues for once.

Two additional points: In In Contempt Darden tells of O.J. yelling at him to “get off my bench,” during the crime scene visit to Rockingham; in fact, the film tones down the scene, apparently deciding that Cochran’s theatrical showdown between him and Darden over the n-word, and the real misunderstanding in public opinion between Darden and African-American people, provided enough quandaries for the young prosecutor to deal with. In the same scene, Cochran whispers to Darden not to call Fuhrman himself. “Let the white people do it.” Again, a moment from actuality plays with ambiguity. Why does Cochran say this? At the start of the episode, the defense team believes the People won’t even call Fuhrman, because “we’ll tear him apart,” says F. Lee Bailey. Once it becomes clear that they will call him, since he’s the officer who discovered the glove, does Cochran agree with Clark that Fuhrman will “present better” if Darden questions him on the stand. Thus in urging Darden not to do it, is Cochran being strategic? Or is he trying to keep Darden from association with the firestorm that the defense knows (and Clark naively doesn’t) it plans to stir up when the racist cop does take the stand The black people on both sides (and some of the white defense attorneys, like Bailey and Dershowicz, know Fuhrman is trouble. Darden gets “a real bad vibe” the first time he talks to him. The white people–Clark, Garcetti–don’t get it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

 

[1] James Poniewozik, Wesley Morris, “Why ‘Diverse TV’ Matters. It’s Better TV. Discuss.” The New York Times 10 February 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/arts/television/smaller-screens-truer-colors.html  Accessed 3 March 2016.

[2] Christopher Darden, on Oprah 26 February 1997. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpzo3Rd9lcY. Accessed 3 March 2016.

Johnny, We Hardly Know Ye: Travolta and Episode 4, “100% Not Guilty”

Robert Shapiro (John Travolta). Even when trying to look pensive, Travolta's Shapiro looks like he's posing.
Even when appearing pensive, Travolta’s Shapiro looks like he’s posing.

“Screenplays are structure, and that’s all they are,” said the screenwriting guru William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, etc.). While I would take issue with the second part of that statement, using just The People v. O.J. Simpson as fodder, the series is shaping up to be a magnificent example of the first part. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s stated question–Is the show “one ten-hour movie or 10 one-hour movies?”–begins to find its answer in this week’s episode. It’s both.

“Each episode has a theme,” say the duo. The theme of Episode 4 is “The Self-Destruction of Robert Shapiro.” Once the status-conscious lawyer acts like a movie producer, putting together a collection of stars in order to defend a star, he reverts to his usual self, a man more devoted to name-dropping his Hollywood contacts and haunting trendy Beverly Hills restaurants than to slugging it out for his client in a lengthy trial. Near the start of the episode, Shapiro, in the person of John Travolta, an imposing star who has never quite been taken seriously, introduces Johnnie Cochran and his assistants, Shawn Chapman (Angel Parker) and Carl Douglas (Dale Godboldo), and then asks his team, F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowicz, and all, the question, “Okay. Who thinks O.J. did it?” Jaws drop in the reaction shots.

After this mind-boggler, Bailey gets them started on business, “big picture strategy.”  Before Vanity Fair’s Fact Check site on the series gets started on this scene, I’ll say that Toobin’s book opens with this scene, and real life has some significant differences with the way the moment is portrayed here. At the gathering before which Shapiro said it, none of the eventual defense team was present except for Kardashian, and Cochran and Dershowicz were not yet hired. It was a Saturday, eight days after the Bronco chase, and Shapiro had invited many of his friends in the West Hollywood legal establishment to ask for advice, but also to schmooze, to make his well-connected buddies feel that they were in on what was already shaping up to be the Trial of the Century. Shapiro never knew when he might need some of them in the future.

In moving Shapiro’s outrageous line to a later and far more consequential meeting, with the racial element he had insisted upon injecting into the case present in the person of Johnnie Cochran, the series takes Shapiro’s provocation and puts it where it does him the most harm. It might have been ill-advised for the actual Shapiro of June 1994 to show people who knew him that O.J. didn’t have him fooled, but here it makes him look ham-handed and inept. As with other Alexander-Karaszewski protagonists, his actions defy logic. He calls to mind Ed Wood proclaiming that terrible takes on a film shoot are “perfect,” or Larry Flynt fancying himself a First Amendment crusader, or Andy Kaufman first making it big, then insulting night club crowds in the person of Tony Clifton, the world’s most repulsive entertainer, and then finally turning to challenging women to wrestling matches on talk shows. Such a conception might explain the casting of John Travolta, the star who rose, then fell, then rose again, then made Battlefield Earth. At the same time, Travolta’s off-screen persona has come to mean more than that of any actor Alexander & Karaszewski worked with in any of their films. As an experienced pilot, Travolta put his 707 to humanitarian use in 2005, acting as a one-man FEMA, flying some of the first supplies to Louisiana, five tons worth, less than a week after Hurricane Katrina (which will be the subject of the next FX American Crime Story, to be produced once again by Brad Simpson, Nina Jacobson, and Ryan Murphy, but without Alexander & Karaszewski. Will Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston appear as themselves?)

Episode 4 is shaped around Shapiro’s loss of control over the case as the defense flows to Cochran. The Aristotelian “action” of the episode is that Shapiro becomes a punching bag for the duration of the show, progressively alienating his co-counsels, and showing, as F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) remarks to Cochran, that he “does not have the proper appetite for the case we find ourselves on.” As the case draws closer to trial, Shapiro becomes more and more of a basket case. The script lets him hang out his idea for settling the case not once but twice. The episode is an object lesson in how to reorganize events, anecdotes, and recollections of the participants, as well as those from a credited source, in this case, Toobin’s book. At the beginning of A & K’s Man on the Moon, an Andy Kaufman from beyond the grave apologizes to the audience. He says that in the movie about his life, “all the important things . . . are changed around and mixed up for, um, dramatic purposes.”  A tough taskmaster, those “dramatic purposes.” The lunch meeting that Shapiro and Bailey have 14 minutes into the episode is a key example. In Toobin, Shapiro breaks the news to Bailey during a phone call from Hawaii, “You know you’re a volunteer, right?”

No, he doesn't break into a number from "The Producers." Broadway star Nathan Lane, as F. Lee Bailey, is as naturalistic as the rest of the actors, Travolta excepted.
No, he doesn’t break into a number from “The Producers.” Broadway star Nathan Lane, as F. Lee Bailey, is as naturalistic as the rest of the actors, Travolta excepted.

Here he tells Bailey that he plans to settle with the District Attorney, because “the case is not winnable.”  Bailey asks, “To whom do I invoice my hours?” Bob answers, “Lee, you’re pro bono,” using a term I recall hearing for the first time on an L.A. Law episode in the 1980s. Late in jury selection, when Shapiro proposes that O.J. plead to the lesser charge of manslaughter, the scene plays out with dialogue almost directly from Toobin. The difference is that Cochran and Douglas are there in the scene, as they were not in actuality, in addition to Bailey and Kardashian, who were present. In the episode, Shapiro’s proposal is the last straw for Cochran, who takes action after the next cut, telling his aide to move all the case files from Shapiro’s office to his own while Shapiro and his wife take their New Year’s trip to Hawaii.

O.J.’s defense team runs the gamut. Bailey and Dershowicz are defense lawyers who defend; they show little regard to the defendant’s actual innocence or guilt. Cochran sees a celebrity case like Simpson’s as an opportunity to punish the LAPD for its treatment of African Americans. Shapiro is, like so much in the series, complicated. He is a high-profile “settler,” who was recommended to Simpson by a wealthy television executive, Roger King, owner of King World, syndicator of Oprah, Wheel of Fortune, and other shows. An occasional golf partner of O.J.’s, King thought Simpson needed a different lawyer after O.J.’s regular attorney, Howard Weissman, allowed him to be questioned by the police. King told O.J., “I’ll get you Robert Shapiro,” whom he didn’t know personally but had heard often represented celebrities. Shapiro had never taken a case through a long trial, but couldn’t resist a client as well-known as O.J., whom he dubs “easily the most famous American ever put up for murder.” We know a few things about Shapiro: He thinks O.J. did it (despite his token nods to the contrary). He thinks that Johnnie Cochran should be hired because he will turn the case against Simpson into a race conspiracy. He soon comes to fear, moreover, that if Cochran rides the racial issue all the way through a long trial, his arguments will guarantee riots when the “not winnable” case yields a “guilty” verdict. Undoubtedly, also, Shapiro knows that he is signed on as the lead attorney, thus justifying his $1.25 million fee, which he’ll have trouble demanding unless he is lead attorney (Cochran billed Simpson separately for $500,000).

This episode, like much of the series, manages to be about several issues. Besides insinuating that O.J.’s lead attorney always thought he was guilty (thus flying against the episode’s title), the show pits Shapiro against Cochran, with F. Lee Bailey in the middle, and O.J. playing adjudicator (among a team, not of football players, but of jurists). O.J.’s plea of “100% Not Guilty” was seen at the time as either the reassertion of his persona as a confident, charismatic public figure, or a grotesque lie, depending . . .

Everyone gets an even-handed treatment in this series ultimately. Episode 4 assays a thoroughgoing satire of Nicole Brown Simpson’s good friend, Faye Resnick (Connie Britton) and her trashy tell-all book, which is rushed into print before jury selection is done—the publisher, after hearing Faye define “a Brentwood hello,” which is delivered to a certain region of the male anatomy, exclaims, “we are gonna sell a lot of books—in a very non-exploitive way, of course.” Resnick appears on Larry King Live, which was O.J. Central while the case was going on [1]. After a mostly comic sequence showing the effects of the book on the lawyers’ reactions to the book, which are variously dismayed, disgusted, and dismissive, the show cuts from King’s studio as Resnick says “If my book can inspire one wife or one girlfriend, to escape an abusive relationship, then any embarrassment I’ve endured is a small price to pay.” The viewer is Marcia Clark, on her bed, lying on her stomach, smoking thoughtfully. The Resnick sequence ends here, as the prosecutor of numerous cases involving domestic violence cannot say much to this. Marcia, by the way, may do more smoking, usually at silent, contemplative moments, than any TV character since Don Draper. Smoking had surely lost all respectability by the mid-1990s, and yet no one seems put off by Marcia’s chain-smoking. She’s the Bob Fosse of female prosecutors.

Travolta and Me
When did John Travolta become a character actor? Watching John Travolta create the affected mannerisms of the Shapiro of the series’ conception, I feel as if I’d found the answer to those articles over the years that wonder what James Dean would have been like had he lived out a average lifespan. John Travolta in the late-1970s became the latest, and perhaps most successful, of the teen idols that Hollywood film and television had been packaging since the postwar discovery of The Teenager in popular culture. Travolta resembled Dean in that he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor at age 23, in the year of his sudden breakthrough, granting him the rare cachet for a teen idol of Actor, immediately setting him above heartthrob young actors from Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue in Dean’s era to Robert Pattinson and Blake Michael in our own [2].

In early 1995—during the Simpson trial, in fact—I saw at the Film Society of Lincoln Center a French film entitled Travolta and Me (Patricia Mazuy, 1993) that was an episode of a six-part television mini-series called Tous les garçons et filles de leur age (All the Boys and Girls Their Age).  Set in the late-1970s, Travolta and Me, which apparently cannot be seen now, except for a stray, unsubtitled 27-minute fragment on YouTube, tells the story of a 15-year-old girl and her obsession with the John Travolta of Saturday Night Fever. The film, as I recall it, is about the collision of media-driven dreams, epitomized by the tacky glamour of disco to which Tony Manero (Travolta) in Saturday Night Fever is drawn, with the limitations of ordinary, provincial life.

With a young female protagonist, Muzuy uses Travolta the way SNF shows the posters of Stallone and Pacino in Tony’s room, and perhaps more to the point, the way Michel, the protagonist of Godard’s À bout de souffle regards Bogart. When Mazuy made the film, the Travolta of SNF and Grease seemed stuck forever in the amber of his persona as a 23-year-old playing a high-schooler.

Mazuy couldn’t have known that by the end of 1994 Travolta would be reborn as a middle-aged star playing a dim-witted, coked-up gangster in Pulp Fiction, a film whose audacious blend of pop culture mastery, cinematic legerdemain, postmodern narrative, and sly Generation X nostalgia, made it the most transcendent New Hollywood film since Taxi Driver. Sharon Waxman in Rebels in the Backlot and Alisa Perren in Indie Inc. have recited the story of Quentin Tarantino’s struggle to convince Harvey Weinstein to allow him to cast the 40-year-old Travolta, who was in 1994 the virtual definition of a has-been, as the star of his gangster movie epic. Tarantino’s arduous casting-that-almost-wasn’t (Weinstein wanted Daniel Day-Lewis, although it’s far from certain that the persnickety English-Irish actor would have accepted the role) is echoed now in what Scott Alexander has called producer Ryan Murphy’s “[fixation] with nailing down Travolta and his grand return to television.” In this case it was Travolta himself who needed persuading; by his own account he turned down the series three times before finally accepting it.

As Shapiro, Travolta adopts a body language that is courtly and obsequious, bowing and pressing his fingertips together as he welcomes Cochran, Chapman, and Douglas. On the line, “Me neither,” he touches a chair, clasps his fingers to his palms, then releases them. His face and eyes form a mask, revealing little. Cochran believes that black women, who don’t like their men marrying white women, will want to be steered clear of for the jury. Of course, it was a jury made up largely of black women that acquitted O.J. in the end. Cochran turns out to be as wrong on that issue as Marcia Clark, who believes that African-American females are her allies. While I don’t know that even an attorney as tin-eared as Shapiro would have referred to African Americans as “these people,” sounding like Ross Perot at the NAACP Convention in 1992, Travolta delivers such lines with a stone-faced smugness. Post-verdict interviews with the actual Shapiro, which can be seen on YouTube, suggest a tony, elitist attorney with a deep baritone and a touch of superficiality. Travolta plays him as a pompous ninny out of his depth.

Throughout his career, John Travolta’s charm has been his naiveté, a sense that he hasn’t grown up. Here, even when he insults the likes of Bailey, it’s hard to dislike him, or to look away from him either. That’s also how he’s written. I wonder if Alexander, Karaszewski, Murphy, and company felt that only a likable star could keep Shapiro interesting and watchable over ten episodes, especially since he becomes sidelined at the end of the fourth. In this series nearly all the other actors perform with a naturalistic ease, even Vance, whose dynamic Cochran, as I’ve said before, comes over as both sincere and calculating. Even Nathan Lane, the King of Broadway over the last quarter-century, but whose career has been remarkably journeyman-like on television and film, conveys comfortable authority (Bailey’s drinking problem becomes evident in later episodes). Travolta’s lugubrious voice, pretentious mannerisms, and ponderous manner, are broken occasionally by a Vinnie Barbarino grin that has never gone away. And just when one wants to write off Shapiro, he does something astutely calculated, such as point Cochran to O.J.’s discouraged mood during the preliminary hearing, which motivates him to go visit his famous defendant for a pep talk. Travolta’s Robert Shapiro may ultimately be hard to read, but he is equally hard to ignore.

 

[1] The 82-year-old Larry King, who retired from CNN in 2010, appears as himself several times in the series, just as David Letterman played himself in his NBC Late Night era in Man on the Moon.

[2] The Best Actor field of 1977, the year of Saturday Night Fever, was decidedly odd. Travolta was up against veteran actors Richard Burton (Equus) and Marcello Mastroianni (A Special Day), as well as Woody Allen (Annie Hall), in his only nomination for acting. Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl) won. James Dean was nominated twice, in 1955, for East of Eden, and in 1956, for Giant. Both nominations were posthumous.

 

 

“One Big 10-Hour Movie, or 10 one-hour movies”?: On Episode 3, “The Dream Team”

O.J. (Cuba Gooding, Jr.)
O.J. (Cuba Gooding, Jr.)

In a great interview with Kim Masters on the KCRW radio show, “The Business,” Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski say that they outlined the series as “one big 10-hour movie,” or “ten one-hour movies,” and that every episode has a theme.

Episode 3, “The Dream Team,” settles down to the strategies on both sides. Although Alexander and Karaszewski have promised that the Kardashian kids will appear in only a few minutes of the series, EP 3 opens on the Sunday after O.J.’s arrest, Father’s Day, when Robert Kardashian goes out to lunch with his four kids. Kardashian, O.J.’s best friend, tells his children, “In this family being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting; it’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.” Clearly, this sermon, delivered in heartfelt tones by David Schwimmer, falls on deaf ears. It’s an ironic way to start Episode 3, since the O.J. murders were an epic overture at the start of reality TV (and shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians) and the 24-hour news cycle. While this series has its focus on the inside of public events, a trait of the biopic genre at large, the slippage between public and private becomes very slippery in the third episode.

Episode 3’s chronology becomes cloudy as the “theme” takes over. Not only do the structure of the story and many of the details come from Toobin’s book, but in order to develop  dramatic relationships between characters, the screenwriters invent scenes, and dispense with some details about the personages. Invention is necessary to the creation of drama from actuality. We had actuality in the Simpson case and it lasted sixteen months. For a series that runs ten hours, invention is necessary, so long as the drama shows truth–as opposed to something called “THE Truth,” which we never did exactly find about the Simpson case.

For instance, although Toobin remarks repeatedly on the fact that Robert Shapiro disliked visiting clients in prison, the series’s Shapiro has apparently gotten over his aversion, since EP 3 alone has two scenes showing Shapiro with Simpson in the cellblock visitor’s room. Many of the developments of the case took place, not too surprisingly, at press conferences and on television. After Johnnie Cochran entered the defense team, which occurs on page 182 of Toobin’s 442 page book, he said of Simpson’s claim of innocence, “In my heart, I believe that, absolutely.” And he said that—to Katie Couric on the Today show[1]. In Episode 3, for which D.V. DiVincentis gets sole “Written by” credit, Cochran tells Shapiro in a dramatic scene shot in low-angle in front of mini-blinds, “Before I come aboard, I need to look in O.J.’s eyes. I need to believe him.” In another example, Gil Garcetti decides to hold the trial in “the dreary and decaying Criminal Courts Building in the civic heart of downtown Los Angeles”.[2] It was not really a choice because of earthquake damage to the courthouse in Santa Monica as well as political considerations. For Garcetti, a Democrat, African-Americans were a key part of his coalition. As he says in the episode, “I can’t risk getting an all-white jury. I don’t want to hear the words ‘Rodney King’ or ‘Simi Valley’ ever again.” But all this is explained in a brief scene with Marcia. “The optics are a million times better” downtown, he says. “Optics?” asks Marcia, in a typically sly and nuanced Sarah Paulson line reading, “What’s an optic?” While plenty of plot points unfold for the viewer on television sets and in headlines, these are usually unwelcome developments that the characters see as we do. Marcia and the D.A.’s staff hear Nicole’s 911 call, which the City Attorney’s office, in a typical move by a bureaucracy overwhelmed by the media frenzy, gave to the media.[3]

The show ends with Marcia sitting down at her backyard picnic table in the early morning, with a cup of coffee and the Los Angeles Times, and learns that Cochran has been added to the team and now the defense will be persuasively about race. Director Anthony Hemingway cuts to a high crane shot in which a now tiny Marcia Clark shouts an obscenity to the heavens. The episode also invents a way for Shapiro to fire his opening shot on the “race defense,” which he did from a New Yorker article written by none other than Jeffrey Toobin, whose coverage of the trial for the magazine eventually turned into his book. Toobin describes his own initial assignment as an article on the “cash for trash” phenomenon—the rush of people like Jill Shively, a witness the night of the murder, to sell their stories to the tabloids or to TV shows like Hard Copy and Inside Edition, and grab “their fifteen minutes,” and some quick money, long before they could be called as witnesses. We see this enacted as drama, to Marcia’s disdain.

Toobin ended up researching the records of detective Mark Fuhrman, whose documented racism led Shapiro and his Dream Team to dream up, some might say, the conspiracy defense wherein Simpson was framed by the LAPD, whose relations with African-Americans had deteriorated so badly that Blacks in L.A. would believe the cops had framed a beloved African-American celebrity, and pulled him down off his pedestal.

This is literally where Johnnie Cochran comes in; if he hadn’t existed as the legal eagle of the Black community of L.A. in the 1980s and 1990s, Shapiro might have had to invent him. Cochran threads the needle between defense lawyers whose job is to win, to get their clients off at any cost, and civil-rights activists. If there were a river nearby, I’d almost expect Johnnie to pull O.J. down by the hair and baptize him. A discussion of diversity in television today between Wesley Morris and James Poniewozik in last Sunday’s New York Times called Courtney B. Vance’s work as Johnnie perhaps “the performance of the year.” [4]. The scene that follows, in which Cochran meets Simpson for the first time, does have a “Come to Jesus” tone, as Johnnie moves his chair close to O.J. and touches him in a way that matches the football player’s physicality.

Cochran knows to speak the language of physicality with this athlete, letting him know how he can be saved.  In an example from my childhood, my father, who worked a factory job six days a week, sequestered himself in the family room on Sunday afternoons between September and December, watching football from the end of Sunday dinner until supper time in the evening. Dad couldn’t be disturbed. When one of us would dare to enter this make-shift NFL cathedral, we would see things like players patting each other’s rear ends after a big play–homosocial, if not homoerotic. (Interesting that Word Press red-lines the first word here but not the second).

In a series full of complex characters with contradictory motives, Vance is a journeyman TV actor whose IMDb filmography is full of episodes of Law and Order and other TV shows, but he played Bobby Seale in Panther, directed by Mario Van Peebles in the O.J. era (1995) and has been married for 18 years to an even more underused Black powerhouse, Angela Bassett, who has also been rescued from obscurity of late by Ryan Murphy, for whom she co-stars with Sarah Paulson and lots of other great older actresses on American Horror Story. I’d like to hear the conversations at the Vance-Bassett family dinner table!  He also was the minister in The Preacher’s Wife (1996), playing third wheel to Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington. Vance’s Cochran exudes sincerity; played off against John Travolta’s Shapiro, who of all the lawyers, is the one truly in over his head (an unwarranted criticism often heard of Marcia Clark), and yet Shapiro has his role to play. Shapiro, like a producer, assembles an “all-star cast”–to use a metaphor from showbiz rather than sports (“the dream team”). In my memory, which may or may not resemble the collective memory of the Simpson trial, Johnnie Cochran stands out; I had forgotten that the famous lawyers F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) and Alan Dershowicz (Evan Handler) were also on the team, let alone obscure but key players such as DNA expert Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow), and Santa Clara University law professor Gerald F. Uelmen, who is not portrayed at all: either the writers dropped him from the series, figuring there are already enough defense attorneys for the viewer to keep straight, or he didn’t agree to be portrayed, which is a bane of biopics. Even the otherwise meticulous Toobin misspells Uelmen’s name as “Uelman” throughout his book.

Is Johnnie Cochran Elmer Gantry or Jesse Jackson? He certainly shares Jackson’s propensity for alliteration and rhyme–“If it doesn’t fit,  you must acquit,” the one axiom from this trial that found a permanent place in pop culture. Is he a charlatan lawyer, but one disguised as a SCLC civil rights marcher confronting the LAPD, which is his own version of George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door? Of course, these are not questions to be taken lightly. At the dawn of the new era when a bystander with a camcorder in the 1990s or a smartphone now can blow the whistle on police brutality, the Rodney King tape opened a Pandora’s Box from which outrages never have stopped emerging–Michael Brown in Ferguson, Walter Scott in Charleston, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and on and on.

But O.J. Simpson had about as much in common with Rodney King as, say, Kanye West (hey, there’s a Kardashian connection) has with Trayvon Martin. The ending of the episode is masterfully directed, a series of scenes that begin with conventional establishing shots and end with the unexpected. First, Cochran appears at the jail; guards let him in through clanking, steel doors. Then, from O.J.’s point of view, Johnnie stands framed in the doorway, like Ethan Edwards in the final shot of The Searchers. O.J. weeps and swears he didn’t do it, but his words aren’t exactly exculpatory. “I loved her”–his EX-wife, remember. “She’s the mother of my children”–a statement of fact. Does he meet Johnnie’s criterion for believing O.J.? Does O.J. look him in the eye? Gooding’s small, hooded eyes mostly look down; for the rest of the scene his eyes are almost too narrow to be seen. It’s a confession that isn’t.

O.J. (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and Johnnie (Courtney B. Vance) Have a heart-to-heart

In a fabulous combination of writing and acting designed to reveal without revealing, Vance’s Johnnie says, wide-eyed, “I believe you,” then, play-punching his arm, says “but you gotta stay strong”(going guttural on the last word).  He continues, “I want to see the strength that I know is in you. [Beat] And if that’s not enough [Beat], you can have some of mine,” and smiles disarmingly on the last line. Again, is Cochran a bringer of confidence, or a confidence man? This reminds me of the definition of “con man” in David Mamet’s great film, House of Games [1987]: “Is it called a confidence game because you give me your confidence? No, it’s because I give you mine.” It’s an intimate display of trust that is very persuasive. Is Johnnie even conning himself, persuading himself that getting O.J. off will “accomplish a lot of important things,” as he tells Shapiro?  But in African-American literature and film there are many phony preachers; see for instance Oscar Micheaux’s films Within Our Gates (1919) and Body and Soul (1924). Is Cochran yet one more of these?

Cut to another quite conventional establishing shot, of children sleeping in their beds, while their mother, Marcia, looks in on them and tinkly electronic piano music plays on the soundtrack. Marcia then sees the morning paper, and learns that the defense has hired Cochran, the last piece of the “race thing” that O.J. earlier realized Shapiro & co. are putting together. A craning camera renders Marcia and her patio furniture the size of Lego models. End of episode.

Enter Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown). But that’s for next time . . .

 

[1] Jeffrey Toobin. The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. New York: Random House, 1996, 182-183.

[2] Toobin, 119.

[3] In case you were wondering about the difference, the City Attorney handles misdemeanors, such as sexual violence complaints. The District Attorney prosecutes felonies. “What is the difference between the Los Angeles District Attorney and the Los Angeles City Attorney?” Blog, The Law Offices of Jerod Gunsberg. September 30, 2013. http://www.gunsberglaw.com/difference-between-los-angeles-district-attorney-and-city-attorney/ .

{4} Wesley Morris and James Poniewozik. “Smaller Screens, Truer Colors,” The New York Times February 14, 2016, AR 16.

 

Episode 2: The Bronco Chase: “a modern tragedy and drama of Shakespearean proportions . . .”?

Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer, l.), Robert Shapiro (John Travolta)
Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer, l.), Robert Shapiro (John Travolta)

Episode 2 is exactly that—an episode. Out of a story that covers a sixteen month period, this segment, “The Run of His Life,” takes place over roughly one-third of a day, from about 12 noon on June 17, 1994, to 9:00 that night. The morning that defense attorney Robert Shapiro had arranged for O.J. Simpson turn himself in at a police station rather than be arrested at his house where cameras would capture the “perp walk,” turned into the day O.J. fled in a white Ford Bronco across the L.A. freeways, with news and police helicopters and patrol cars in lukewarm pursuit. The LAPD  approached the bizarre event  with a concern that they were not known to bring to other fugitives from justice, especially not Black ones. “Simpson’s televised journey into the unknown,” wrote Jeffrey Toobin, “transformed a tabloid murder into an international phenomenon.” Tabloid-like it remained, however. When NBC cut away from Game 5 of the NBA Finals that Friday evening to show helicopter shots of a white SUV being followed at slow speed by a fleet of squad cars, I thought that TV journalism had hit an embarrassing new low. I was not like the interracial crowd of cheering basketball fans (whether they’re Knicks or Rockets supporters, we cannot tell) that the episode shows at a sports bar. Their cheers turn to groans when the network cuts away, and then to silent fascination, as they become wrapped up in the strange drama on L.A. expressways.

This, the series implies, was the response of the nation, if not the world. In a documentary made for the twentieth anniversary in 2014, Bob Costas, who covered the

Finals game that night, compared the Bronco chase to other twentieth-century “Where were you?” events, such as “Where were you when men walked on the moon? Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” But this was not the first moon landing or the murder of a president. Here was a retired sports star caught up in a lurid scandal. If one takes the position that O.J. was a figure “loved” by the public, perhaps the idea that the events of June 12-17, 1994 represent a tragic fall from grace might seem valid. But Episode 2 takes a chillier, more distanced attitude, a “Can you believe this?” tone that sharpens as it goes. The episode sometimes threatens to lap over into farce, with Scott Alexander & Larry  Karaszewski having said that they looked for reference to The Sugarland Express (1974), Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, a quirky road comedy-drama which stages its police car pursuit as a comic automotive ballet. O.J. doesn’t appear until the 11:51 mark of a 41-minute show, and when he does, with gun-to-head, his friend and former teammate A.C. Cowlings at the wheel, the Bronco screeches away as suddenly as it had skidded in. The police, like the lawyers, are worried—perhaps rightly so—about how any actions they take will look. Should they shoot, one officer asks another. “I’m not shooting at O.J. Simpson,” comes the reply, “unless somebody authorizes it.” Later, at the Brentwood estate, the SWAT leader warns his underlings, who are literally waiting in the trees, “No hotheads! We’re on TV.”

In the 1990s, the trailing of Simpson by the news media seemed a perfect metaphor for the fixation of journalism after the end of the Cold War on trivial celebrity stories that American citizens in no way needed to know in order to participate in our democracy. I know that I’m giving the impression that a page or two from Aaron Sorkin’s disgusted-with-TV-journalism HBO show Newsroom has floated into a series whose showrunners are Alexander & Karaszewski, maestros of freaky biopics. Whether people needed to know it or not, Simpson had triggered a media spectacular far bigger than himself.

The biopic’s intricate focus on the inside as well as the outside of a public life takes on a bizarre, tragicomic irony in the Bronco chase. “I don’t know if you’ve heard what’s happening,” O.J. says on the phone, as he falls to pieces in the backseat of the Bronco. “Yeah, Juice,” mutters his friend Robert Kardashian, “It’s on every channel.” This is my favorite line of the series so far, and it’s delivered by David Schwimmer with smothered irony. Simpson, engulfed (and un-golfed—at this time Hertz had been paying O.J., its longtime pitchman, to play golf with wealthy clients) in his own private hell, clearly does not get it.  Kardashian’s disintegrating friend on the other end of the phone wrestles with his own devils.

Meanwhile, the two men responsible for weighing in Simpson on different ends of the scales of justice, Robert Shapiro, who had just met O.J. three days before, and Gil Garcetti, the ambitious D.A., writhe in professional agony as they scramble to limit the damage to their reputations. “This is the worst day of my life,” declares Garcetti to his colleagues, “worse than the day I was diagnosed with cancer.” Director Ryan Murphy comes in for a close-up on the D.A.’s rueful line, “I thought I was gonna run for mayor,” as he cuts to our first aerial view of the Bronco on the freeway. Angelenos get the irony here, as their current mayor is Gil Garcetti’s son, Eric. Meanwhile, the dapper, authoritative Johnnie Cochran, who seems cast in these early episodes as a minority Greek chorus, intones in judgment to his junior partners, “Robert Shapiro is focused on his number-one priority, Robert Shapiro.” Here is one of many instances where the writers put narration, information, and critical description from Toobin’s book, into the mouths of characters.

Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance)
Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance)

Actually, this is where The People vs. O.J. Simpson is not just an object lesson in the biopic-turned-long-form-television series. It is also a superlative example of literary adaptation.  Here we also get a short encapsulation of a number of films that Alexander & Karaszewski have been referring to in interviews about the series, such as the “Robert Altman movie,” with multiple characters, all of equal importance (although O.J. Simpson is necessarily the center). Nashville (1975) is the prototype, with Kansas City (1996) as the O.J. allegory by Altman, who made a major comeback in the indie explosion of the 1990s. Additionally, the writers refer to Sidney Lumet and Frank Pierson’s Dog Day Afternoon (also 1975), a story from actuality about a bank robbery that turns into a media carnival. The Big Carnival was the alternate title Paramount slapped onto Billy Wilder’s acid black comedy/noir Ace in the Hole (1951). In that dark masterwork, a newspaperman thirsty for a scoop discovers a man trapped in a cave, and arranges to keep him there so that the story can build, while the site becomes a tourist attraction.

Enigma Variations

André Bazin was fascinated by what he called film’s capacity for recording the “ambiguity of reality.” Although drama allows filmmakers, in creating films from actuality, to interpret what sometimes seems like understatement in emotionally fraught actual events, at other times film artists choose to just show actuality as it was and allow the spectator to interpret. For a well-known instance of this, Alexander & Karaszewski, in realizing that they hadn’t found a center in their research on the comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman for Man on the Moon (1999), came to the absurdist but sensible conclusion that “There is no real Andy.” “The Run of His Life” reproduces passages of dialogue mostly lifted from police radio recordings of the conversation between Simpson in the back of the Bronco and Detective Tom Lange, who implored him to “Just throw the gun out the window, Juice.” Lange’s advice to O.J. suggests that the still-star-struck attitude that many of the L.A. cops took around Simpson was alive and well even at his arrest for double-homicide (and O.J. did call the station to apologize, as if he still couldn’t believe that anything had happened to his warm relationship with the cops). Also, the idea of a police officer telling someone, under surveillance by untold numbers of police, to make a gesture with a loaded gun that could be misinterpreted, is eyebrow-raising, to say the least. The real O.J. speaks in what I would call a despondent, monotonous lilt, suggesting resignation and hopelessness. If you compare the actual O.J.’s words with the police tape of O.J.’s voice, Gooding’s O.J. struggles with himself more openly, taking an actor’s beat between each sentence, “I’ve got to be with Nicole”; “I just can’t do it on the freeway”; “I can’t do it in a field”; “I tried to do it at her grave”; “I’ll just have to do it at home.” The last line before he hangs up, “I deserve to get hurt,” again sounds like what a guilty man might say. Even seeing the private man that his closest friends might have seen, the episode leaves it to us -did he do it or not?

Episode 2, to which the writers give the “before the colon” title of Toobin’s book, “The Run of His Life,” could be studied as a stand-alone feature. The figures fleshed out the most from the book are two to whom the writers could have had no access. One is Chris Darden, whose father warns him at the end of Episode 2 to “stay the hell away from this [the O.J. case].” Darden did not make himself available for research. The other is Robert Kardashian, who passed away in 2003. Kardashian is “the heart of the defense team,” says Karaszewski, “in that he’s the only one who’s there for non-selfish reasons.” Episode 2 begins with a Bible verse spoken by Kardashian: “A friend loveth at all times,” reads Proverbs 17:17, “and a brother is born in adversity.” In a way, that culture that “loved” O.J. is represented by “Bobby,” who gathers him up at the end when he crumples into his friend’s arms, and sees that he goes this time with the police.

In the male biopic from the mid-1950s on—that is, in the investigatory (e.g., Citizen Kane, The Social Network), post-modernist (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon), warts-and-all (The Joker Is Wild through Raging Bull) variations, as well as the post-2000 Neo-Classical biopic (e.g., Ray, The Aviator, American Sniper), which incorporates elements of the others—there is frequently an enigma at the center. The straightforward celebratory “Great Man” biopic, such as Gandhi or The Life of Louis Pasteur, assumes we can easily know and understand the subject. Enigma—the question that isn’t answered—is dead center in People v. O.J. Ambiguity, however, whereby the object looks different and yields different meanings depending upon who is looking at it, may outweigh enigma in this series. Therefore, the question of why is O.J. so desperate is answered differently if we think he is mourning the murder of his ex-wife or if we think he knows how completely he has destroyed his life. Kardashian’s prayer at the opening, “Father, forgive him, for he is in pain, and he knows not what he is doing,” issues from a man who thinks the best of his friend. But doesn’t he know?

At the end of Episode 1, when O.J. eyes widen and, panicked, he cries, “I can’t go to jail,” we are watching a public man living a private nightmare. The world happens to be watching, and the world—or worlds (Black and White, especially)—bring their own interpretations. “We are experiencing,” proclaimed Tom Brokaw from his NBC anchor desk a continent away, “a modern tragedy and drama of Shakespearean proportions being played out live on television.” Really? I’d always felt that the media bombast the night of the Bronco chase was hyperbole, and I still do. The effect of this long-form narrative “being played out on television” in a far more thoughtful way now, may be to convince me after all these years that the newshounds like Brokaw weren’t exaggerating—or at least not as much as I’d thought. The plunge of a larger-than-life hero into a trajectory with a potentially horrible end was the story that some felt they were witnessing that night. If Simpson did mean to kill himself with the gun he carried with him that entire day, carrying out his threat over the course of a protracted flight from justice seems an unlikely way to do it.

In future weeks, I’ll refer more to the complicated process by which this series was written, with Alexander and Karaszewski eventually organizing and supervising a conventional television “writers’ room.” You’ll note after this week that other writers in addition to the lead pair are credited with some episodes. The first two scripts, however, are by Alexander and Karaszewski, and they set the tone for the series, filtering horror and tragedy through the absurdity and the foibles of human behavior. It’s all brought together in Episode 2 with the week’s choice of closing music, a surprising choice. I don’t know whose idea it was to end with a simplified piano solo of the second movement, Andante con moto, of the Piano Trio, Opus 100 by Franz Schubert, music known to movie lovers for Stanley Kubrick’s use of it.

The last scene of “The Ride of His Life” echoes the final scene of Barry Lyndon. The severe, stately beauty of this music brings the contrasting moods of this episode together in melancholy finality. The new Golden Age of Television salutes the second Golden Age of Hollywood, as the period of American film from roughly 1967-1980 is frequently called.  The Bronco chase, with its stirrings of 2000s reality TV, comes to an end.

A Biopic of Murder and Mayhem: “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” Episode 1

Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.)
Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.)

“Out of the Ashes of Tragedy” turns out to be a fitting title for the first episode, because out of the ashes of two brutal murders we see the traits and foibles of all the characters who will play leading parts in the O.J. saga—and a saga it is. We see the media machine as it churns along in 1994. This was just one of the last major news stories to play out entirely on Old Media; the internet began to go mainstream just as the Simpson case was wrapping up in the Fall of 1995. We are shown the legal system in the nation’s third largest city, the shards of broken relationship between the police in Los Angeles and in black communities.

“Out of the Ashes of Tragedy” refers, not just narrowly to the bodies to which a bloodied Akita takes a man who was just out walking his dog on Bundy Avenue late on Sunday night, June 12, but most of all it signifies the Rodney King beating by LAPD over three years earlier. The People vs. O.J. Simpson is not the first film to open with the brutalizing of King. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, released on November 18, 1992, just a little over six months after the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers caught red-handed, by an amateur-bearing-camcorder, beating an unarmed black man, Rodney King, on the tape seen round the world. Lee, in a bold piece of commercial agit-prop, dramatically cut from the King tape to an American flag through which an “X” burns, while we hear an incendiary Malcolm speech. Overall the imagery matches the smoke that the director reported seeing from the air as he flew into L.A. to screen a cut of his epic biopic to Warner Bros. executives in Burbank in the midst of the literal firestorm outside. That jury, wrote Spike Lee, decided that the police “had not been beating a man, a human being . . . The jury’s verdict of not guilty meant that they actually believed the police were beating an animal.”[1]

Alexander and Karaszewski, by contrast, open with news film of the riots; this may be a historical record, but it feels shocking and immediate. Screen-filling blazes, fiery explosions, and one contemporary commentator’s voice is heard saying “. . . it is devastating to the image of our city and especially to the police department. It’s going to take years to recover . . . ” Cut to a title card, “Two years later.” Dennis Schatzman (Leonard Roberts) of the L.A. Sentinel, speaking on a Black talk radio show, says in heartfelt tones, “the black/white double standard endures, Brother.” Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) is shown being driven to his next appointment, listening to Schatzman, as we come to associate this talk radio opinionator with the champion of justice for Blacks unfairly charged—and worse—by the police. We see Cochran in heroic low-angle, as he and we hear Schatzman say, “The LAPD’s war against African-Americans has got to be stopped.”

“That’s what Johnnie Cochran did,” Larry Karaszewski told Variety. “He changed the case from being about O.J. Simpson to putting the LAPD on trial.”[2] The episode, directed by Ryan Murphy, shows at first the meaning of “O.J. Simpson.” The night the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman are found outside O.J.’s ex-wife’s house on Bundy, three police detectives arrive at Simpson’s place on Rockingham in Brentwood to inform him of her death, so he won’t learn the news through the media, as John Belushi’s family had in 1982. We soon learn that the local police was in the habit of extending courtesies to O.J. Simpson. After no one answers the door, one of the men, Mark Fuhrman, whose history of racism will be painted in bright colors during Simpson’s trial, scales the fence and lets the other two in through the gate. The trio find themselves on the grounds of a palatial manse. A high-angle shot shows them looking up at a ten-foot statue of Juice, heroic running back for the USC Trojans and the Buffalo Bills. We go from this O.J. Simpson—rich and famous sports legend, actor, and commercial pitchman–to a husband with a history of eight domestic violence complaints against him. Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), the hard-charging prosecutor in the office of District Attorney Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood), has never heard of him. But she’s about the only one. As she angrily discovers the record of police calls to the Simpson home, and declares of Nicole, “The system failed her,” an assistant replies, “It’s the LAPD and a famous guy,” with police officers having enjoyed swimming in the Simpson pool and basking in the Great Man’s presence. Here the script nails down the contradiction in the case. The defense will establish that Blacks are not equal under the law as meted out by Daryl Gates’s Los Angeles Police Department. But celebrities like O.J. Simpson are held to a different standard yet. As Garcetti explains to Clark after they listen to the cops’ creampuff interrogation of O.J., “They’re not used to grilling a star.”

A lot of introductory work gets done in this opening episode. The factors that will turn the case into a loser for the prosecution (Is this a spoiler?) begin to line up—the clumsy, unnecessary handcuffing of Simpson, which a TV news cameraman surreptitiously captures; the aimless, meandering police interrogation of Simpson in which he is allowed to make a fistful of contradictory statements with no follow-up questions. As a rare television series in which the viewer knows most of the twists and outcomes ahead of time, this one manages to set the table for everything that will happen later, while making it clear already why the series will need every minute of its ten hours to deal with them all effectively.

The first episode ends with O.J.’s white Bronco weaving down the freeway and not quite disappearing in the distance, when we fade out. Before that, all the major characters have not only been introduced, but so have their main conflicts. Cochran, stopping by the D.A.’s office on another matter, goads Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), the young African-American prosecutor, into quitting the District Attorney for something that will “make a difference.” Darden, fading into the background of a long shot of the office, is heard saying that if he leaves the office a bit early on a Friday afternoon, “No one will miss me.” Clark is introduced getting her two small boys off to school, when the phone rings with news of the murders in Brentwood. She is hardly the motherly type—or perhaps that isn’t a “type.” We soon find out that she had filed for divorce the previous week. She appears much more in her element at work, as Simpson looks to her more and more guilty. With each new tidbit of information, each new piece of grim evidence, a corner of her mouth goes up, the prosecutor suppressing a smile; the news is not good—but the case is. Johnnie Cochran has dedicated his law practice to a crusade for Blacks who suffer at the hands of the LAPD, and yet judging by the racks of suits and drawers of rings in his walk-in closet, he has been well-enriched for it.

And then there is the man at the center of it all—Orenthal James Simpson: O.J., the Juice. Gooding, in the richest part of his career, himself looks overjoyed to put all the poor choices that followed his Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for playing the football player Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire (1996)—all the Boat Trips, the Norbits, the Daddy Day Camps—and the Razzle nominations that trailed them—behind him. Gooding has by far the most difficult role, since the series apparently plans to leave Simpson’s guilt or innocence unsettled. This would seem to make the character practically unplayable. Is O.J. a killer or a surviving victim? Is O.J. displaying guilt, or grief; concern for his small children, or for himself? The screenwriters have also chosen to play O.J. as the public sees him, the role the handsome gridiron star was himself accustomed to playing. Gooding’s choice so far has been to go big—O.J. screams at his inner circle, jumps up and down in his seat, and freaks out after failing a polygraph test. But we can probably expect to see many O.J.s in the course of this long trial—and series.

Gooding’s live-wire emotionality is balanced by the quiet persuasiveness of David Schwimmer, who plays Simpson friend and member of the defense team, Robert Kardashian, and John Travolta, in the role of Simpson’s lead attorney, Robert Shapiro. Travolta is, of course, the biggest name in the cast; Shapiro, who was known in local legal circles as a celebrity attorney who would rather settle a case than try it in court, may come off worse in Toobin’s book than any of the principals, except for whoever killed the victims. Shapiro is both supremely self-confident in his ability and an insecure name-dropper; his wife seems immensely proud that her husband has gotten them tickets to the premiere of I Love Trouble (a justly forgotten turkey starring Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte, and the kind of oddball reference we can count on the show’s writers to sprinkle liberally throughout). Travolta performs in a whisper; his lawyerly, master-of-ceremonies demeanor contrasts with Schwimmer’s genuine quiet concern. Kardashian, who read a suicide note at a press conference called during O.J.’s flight in the Bronco, as we’ll see in Episode 2, is shown here talking Simpson out of a suicide attempt.

“Is it too late” to tell this story, Karaszewski says he and his partner wondered as they started writing this script three years ago. “Is it too soon?” Indeed the fact that a story this juicy and chock-full of human foibles–as well as one that reveals the public’s mania for celebrity, abetted by an eager media–has not been told by Hollywood before now attests to several factors. One is the depth and extent of O.J.-fatigue that set in almost immediately after the long sixteen months during which this story saturated the media. A young person picking up Toobin’s book might wonder why it contains no illustrations —certainly unusual for any book portraying real people and events. But the fact was that in 1996 absolutely no one needed to be shown what any of these participants or events looked like. One more look at O.J. trying on that glove in court (a shot of which invariably comes up in a Google search of “O.J. Simpson”) would probably have proved that one didn’t need to read the book. Toobin’s outspoken assumption is that Simpson was guilty; even the lawyers on the defense team, except possibly for Cochran and Kardashian, thought that he did it. Whether the series brings this out remains to be seen. Here we see O.J. telling Shapiro that he didn’t do it.

Another reason is the racial divisiveness of the verdict, which made the mention of O.J. for most whites a conversation stopper except to reinforce cynicism toward the legal system; exhibit A: Chicago, the Bob Fosse-Kander & Ebb musical that was considered by many to be overly dark during its initial run in the mid-1970s, was accorded a Broadway revival in 1996 and became an unexpected blockbuster, leading to a film version that became the first movie musical in 34 years to win an Oscar for Best Picture. The Broadway production is still running. On the other hand, most African-Americans, in poll after poll, were shown to believe that Simpson was wrongly accused, if not actually framed. This is of course the conclusion at which the majority-Black jury arrived. (Is this a spoiler?)

Finally, the public moved on, meaning that the media plowed ahead to the next big story. Again, Chicago makes a perfect metaphor. The first (of three filchicago_1927ms) based on Maurine Watkins’s 1926 play about Roxie Hart, who murders her husband and is gotten off by her razzle-dazzle lawyer, Billy Flynn—the 1927 silent version (produced by Cecil B. DeMille and probably directed by him as well)–shows Roxie after her verdict, as the news hounds rush to cover the next lurid murder. The newspaper announcing her acquittal blows past her on the streets of the Windy City. She fades into the background, already forgotten before the ink is dry. Something similar happened to O.J., who, Toobin tells us, was shunned by his white golfing buddies and corporate sponsors and had no chance of returning to his previous life “being O.J. Simpson.”

Thus after twenty years, America may now be finally ready for a fresh look at the O.J. case, and Alexander, Karaszewski, Ryan Murphy, and their superlative cast approach it with a seriousness that was difficult for many to muster twenty years ago.

[1] Spike Lee. By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of “Malcolm X.” New York: Hyperion, 1992, 160.

[2] Debra Birnbaum. “’People vs. O.J. Simpson’ Producers on the Secrets of That Famous Trial: ‘It’s Stranger Than Fiction.’” Variety 29 January 2016. http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/people-v-o-j-simpson-trial-secrets-producers-1201691426/