Tuesday 17 January 2017

OJ and the rift that still divides America

A TV retelling of the trial of OJ Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife throws light on the US today, says Jane Mulkerrins

Published 18/02/2016 | 02:30

Screen stars: John Travolta as Hollywood lawyer Robert Shapiro; David Schwimmer as Simpson's friend Robert Kardashian; and Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson.
Screen stars: John Travolta as Hollywood lawyer Robert Shapiro; David Schwimmer as Simpson's friend Robert Kardashian; and Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson.
Sensational: OJ Simpson holds up his hands to the jury wearing the infamous gloves found during his 1995 murder trial.
In this June 17, 1994 file photo, a white Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings carrying O.J. Simpson, is trailed by Los Angeles police cars as it travels on a Southern California freeway in Los Angeles.

Playing the accused OJ Simpson in American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson turned out to be an emotional roller coaster for Cuba Gooding Jr.

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The actor still best known for his "Show me the money!" speech in Jerry Maguire, says that filming the 10-part series, which dramatises the trial of the American football hero for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994, moved him to "hatred, anger, frustration and grief. I was just so upset," he says. "When I finished this role, I was a wreck."

Simpson and Brown had two children, but had been divorced since 1992. She and Goldman, a waiter who once appeared on a TV dating show called Studs, had been close for about a month-and-a-half. Both victims were stabbed to death in an exceptionally violent attack outside Brown's home.

Simpson was famously acquitted after an eight-month trial, one of the first high-profile court cases to be broadcast live on US television, which has been recreated in a gripping, all-star production with John Travolta playing Simpson's defence attorney, Robert Shapiro, and former Friends star David Schwimmer with the role of Simpson's close friend Robert Kardashian.

Gooding recalls breaking down after the filming of the funeral of Brown (at which the victim's mother claimed to have heard Simpson leaning over her daughter, saying, "I'm so sorry, Nicki. I'm so sorry").

"The day we shot the funeral scene and OJ kissed Nicole's corpse, we broke for lunch and I wept in my trailer. I was looking at myself in there going, 'What are you doing, why are you so emotional?' And I think it's because of my guilt.

"Guilt because [in 1995] when that verdict came up 'not guilty', I jumped up, I was yelling and screaming cause I was like, f--- the man who tried to do another black man wrong, and I never grieved for those two families and their loss, and it all hit me on that day in that scene, where the Goldmans and the Browns, their children are gone from them.

"And whether you believe he did it or not, that was something that I personally didn't care about [at the time of the verdict]," he says.

He was far from the only one with a heated response to the case, however; 100 million people tuned in to see the verdict, which deeply split public opinion, across a racial faultline.

After the criminal trial, a civil case brought against Simpson in 1997 by the parents of Goldman and Brown was decided in their favour and punitive damages were awarded, effectively finding Simpson responsible for the murders.

Two decades on, with Simpson, now 68, serving a 33-year sentence in a Nevada prison for kidnapping and armed robbery, the contentious events of the trial have been revisited for television by the creator of Glee, Ryan Murphy, based on the book The Run of His Life, by journalist Jeffrey Toobin.

Although the drama reconstructs now notorious scenes, such as when police and news helicopters chased OJ down the Los Angeles freeway in his white Ford Bronco after murder charges had been filed against him, American Crime Story's twist on the well-known narrative is telling the OJ story from the lawyers' perspective, exploring the extensive behind-the-scenes wrangling, and the factors that gave the jury reasonable doubt.

In Simpson's corner from the start had been Robert Shapiro, the Hollywood lawyer with a rampant ego and an eye on his own celebrity.

"There's about 27 words in the English language that would describe Shapiro," says John Travolta, "and some of them are complimentary and some of them are not, but he was certainly shrewd and crafty and like any great lawyer, he understood how to hire experts, put them together."

The casting of the 61-year-old star of Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction in his first television role since the late 70s is a coup for the miniseries, but Travolta admits he had reservations.

"I didn't want to be involved in anything sensationalising or tabloid-ish," he says. "But I saw the social significance of the story, and its relevance to so much that is happening today."

Travolta's transformation into the wily Shapiro is a mesmerising, scene-stealing turn. "Thankfully, he had a very distinct style of speaking, using physical gestures and cadence," the actor says.

"Everybody knows a lawyer, a producer, studio head, a writer, a journalist, that has those hoity ideas and attributes, but you've never really seen them on screen in this particular way."

Executive producer Brad Simpson describes the case as "the perfect intersection of competing narratives of domestic violence and race and class and celebrity".

Portrayal of the latter, however, has caused some early backlash from the Kardashian family: reality stars Kim, Kourtney and Khloe are said to be unhappy with the show's attempt to connect the dots between their first taste of fame, via the Simpson case, and their current positions in the cultural milieu. (Kim is the wife of hip-hop star Kanye West.)

In an early episode, the junior Kardashians are shown excitedly gathering around the television on which their father, Robert, a former lawyer, is reading what appeared to be a suicide note from Simpson (written before the chase in the white Bronco). Kardashian's public profile subsequently soared.

Most intriguing to David Schwimmer was Kardashian's decision not only to support Simpson, but to join his defence team.

"How does a man choose to stand by a good friend when so many people believe him guilty of these terrible crimes?" asks Schwimmer, 49.

In search of greater understanding, the actor spoke to Kardashian's ex-wife, Kris Jenner - played in the show by Selma Blair - for several hours on the subject.

"And when I learnt that he was very religious, a man of great faith, that was one of the keys to understanding how he could make this decision. Even when there might have been huge uncertainty in his own heart, he had decided his place was not to judge."

The racial element of the narrative is inescapable. The show has made use of material never before released at length, such as the Fuhrman tapes, the 13 hours of interviews given by Los Angeles police officer Mark Fuhrman, who claimed to have found the blood-soaked glove at Simpson's house that would become a major feature of the trial.

They were recorded between 1985 and 1994, and in them he boasts of extensive police brutality against the black community.

Fuhrman perjured himself when he claimed not to have used the word "nigger" in 10 years, with the tapes evidence that he had, and invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked if he had falsified reports or planted or manufactured evidence in the case.

The picture of OJ trying on a similar glove in court to show it did not fit was seen around the world, and Shapiro's co-counsel Johnnie Cochrane made use of it in his closing speech: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

In a climate of continuing tension between the African-American community and the police, Brad Simpson believes the OJ story has as much relevance as ever in examining the role of race in the US justice system.

"This rift was exposed in America, a rift that I feel like we're more aware of today, but was a real shock at the time."

Gooding agrees. "I think we, as a people, are frustrated, we're scared, we're told not to be fearful today, and yet something's gotta give." © The Daily Telegraph

'American Crime Story' is on Tuesday nights on BBC Two

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