The People v. O.J. Simpson: A Colorful Docudrama About Criminal Matters in Many Shades of Black and White

In a new series, the O.J. Simpson story is retold against the background of the fraught race relations that continue to plague America

In this image released by FX, Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays O.J. Simpson, left, in a scene from 'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,' a 10-part series debuting this month.
Ray Mickshaw / FX via AP

This is the last year (of the second term) in which a black president resides in the White House (with the Democratic contenders to replace him being a woman and a Jew). And yet, all other things in the U.S. are still very far from being equal. While we accepted and embraced the concept that Black is Beautiful, and even adapted the B color as a standard of being “in” (“Orange is the New Black”), there is an uproar about all Oscar nominees being mighty white, and still a dire need to remind all Americans (especially the gun-toting members of police forces) that “Black Lives Matter.”

All that is well worth remembering while gearing up to watch the 10 episodes of the first season of the “American Crime Story” anthology, which premiered in the U.S. on the FX channel on February 2. It is now showing on Yes VOD and, starting February 22, will run weekly and simultaneously on Yes Stars Drama (Mon at 22.00). The first season retells – 22 years after the real-life events took place – the true sordid story of “The People vs. O.J. Simpson.”

For those of you who don’t remember what it was all about, O.J. Simpson (aka the “Juice”) was a very successful football player (Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers), an NFL superstar who become a movie actor and a celebrity. In 1994 he was accused of brutally murdering his white ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. He was (in?)famously acquitted by a mostly black and female jury in the criminal trial, while a civil court in 1997 awarded a judgement against him ($33.5 million) for the wrongful deaths of Brown and Goldman.

The case itself – given Simpson’s celebrity status and the brouhaha around his apprehension by the police, with a car chase televised live – was and is seen, and very rightly so, against the background of the still very tangled relations between the races in the U.S., then as now. And indeed, the first 10 minutes of the first episode, “From the Ashes of Tragedy,” are almost evenly split between the Simpson saga and the story of the brutal beating of Rodney King, an African-American man, by four armed Los Angeles police officers in 1991. They were acquitted by a mostly white jury, and the Los Angeles riots followed, with 53 people killed. (King died years later of cardiac arrest.) In that context, the new FX “American Crime Story” anthology series, of which the Simpson affair forms the first season, is not to be confused with ABC’s “American Crime” anthology, now in its second season. The latter is a crime drama that centers on race, class, and gender politics as it follows a racially charged murder and the subsequent trial. The main thing both series have in common, though, is the fact that they cross-reference “American Crime” with matters black and white, while in theory, at least, matters of law and justice should be color-blind.

The “American Crime Story” version of the Simpson trial is a star-studded affair. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays the football Hall of Fame hero, whose stature crumbles from within and without. David Schwimmer plays his close friend Robert Kardashian (Simpson threatens to commit suicide in the room of Robert’s then very young daughter, Kim). Courtney B. Vance plays the colorful (pun intended) defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, who coined the phrase “If the glove doesn’t fit, you have to acquit” (the said glove features prominently in the first episode). Sarah Paulson is the attorney for the prosecution, Marcia Clark, who pursued her case mainly along gender lines, rather than race.

Except for Travolta

The series is considered a success in the U.S. in terms of ratings (5.1 million viewers for episode one, 3.8 for episode two) and quality (8.6 out of 10, or 97 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator; 90 out of 100 on Metacritic), The writing, research, presentation and acting have been widely and unanimously praised. The only actor singled out as a sour note on an otherwise almost perfect TV dish is John Travolta (who is also one of the series’ producers). He plays Robert Shapiro, Simpson’s chief (and most ostentatiously Jewish) defense attorney. Almost every aspect of his performance (accent, manner, grimaces, the overall artifice of his on-screen persona) was roundly bashed, until the chief TV critic of Variety, Maureen Ryan, rose to his defense: “Whatever your position on Travolta’s work, you certainly can’t accuse the actor of failing to make bold choices. My own opinion of Travolta’s Shapiro evolved as I watched the first six episodes of the FX series: I started in the realm of puzzled disbelief, arrived at amusement, and ultimately traveled to a place of sincere appreciation. You simply can’t take your eyes off Travolta, and that is a form of enchantment. In a high-profile project () it appears that Travolta made an understandable decision: Go big or go home. For this character, in this drama, it worked.”

The second episode of the series follows the car chase (Simpson in his white Bronco, police cars in hot pursuit, and with TV news helicopters relaying the events live). As some spoilsports pointed out with glee, it has a blooper: Viewers following the chase on TV in a supermarket are seen with containers of yogurt that were not yet on the market in 1994.

It is too early to tell if the series will also include the epilogue to Simpson’s story. He is now serving a 33-year prison sentence for many felonies, including an armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas, for which he was convicted in 2007. He has not seen the series, nor did Gooding meet with him when he was preparing for the role.

So we are in for 10 weeks of a retrospective docudrama in color about criminal matters in many shades of black and white. What better way to prepare for it than by humming the Cole Porter melody to his lyrics, penned for the musical revue “Hitchy-Koo of 1919”:

“Now, since my girlfriend Sal met Miss Elsie de Wolfe \ The leading decorator of the nation \ It had left that gal with her mind simply full of ideas \ On interior decoration: \ For instance, she assumes \ That the colors of our rooms \ are the most important factor in our lives, \ And if a lot of bedrooms \ Were pink instead of red rooms, \ There might be many more contented wives. \\ So she’s had to put all color from her sight, \ And everything she owns is black and white: \ She’s got a black and white coat, \ A black and white hat, \ A black and white doggie \ And a black and white cat, \ She’s gone so far that she started to look \ In the daily advertisements for a black and white cook, \ She’s got a black and white shack, \ And a new Cadillac, with a black and white design \ All she thinks black and white, \ She even drinks Black & White, \ That black and white baby of mine.”