Sunday 4 December 2016

The OJ trial: TV drama puts accused back in the dock

A look at a new US series that lays on melodrama with a trowel... a 'Reeling in the Years' on steroids

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Facing the polygraph: Cuba Gooding Jr (left) as OJ in The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.
Facing the polygraph: Cuba Gooding Jr (left) as OJ in The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.
Mug shot: OJ Simpson in 1994

An iconic sportsman is arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife and her rumoured lover. But the only witness is the dog and the trial descends into farce as a seemingly open-and-shut case is politicised and eventually undermined by the accused's Machiavellian defence team.

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Even by the excitable standards of modern television, the new series from Glee creator Ryan Murphy seems to lay on the melodrama with a trowel. Throw in sex, drugs and a cameo by a 14-year-old Kim ­Kardashian and American Crime Story, which debuted to massive ratings on the FX network in the US this week, appears to proclaim its ludicrousness from the rooftops.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that it's all true. Subtitled 'The People v OJ Simpson', American Crime Story chronicles, in literally forensic detail, the former American football star's 1994 arrest and subsequent trial for the murder of ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Unfolding like a season of Reeling in the Years on steroids, it's all here: OJ's flight from justice in a pal's white Ford Bronco, the descent of his murder hearing into reality TV circus and his ultimate walk to freedom despite evidence experts today agree pointed overwhelmingly to a guilty verdict.

"The trial of Simpson… combined everything that obsesses the American people: race, sex, violence, sports, Hollywood - and the only eyewitness was a dog," writes The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, upon whose definitive account of the OJ case, The Run of His Life, American Crime Story is based. "But there are other reasons the case captured so much public attention in the mid-nineties and why it could not be as big a phenomenon today."

He believes the arrest of Simpson - here portrayed as charismatic loose cannon by Cuba Gooding Jr - occurred at a point of stellar alignment in the media. To all intents and purposes, the internet did not yet exist. Instead, it was the golden era of cable news - many in Ireland were making their first acquaintance with Sky News - and, with no Twitter or Facebook to distract, Simpson-mania ruled uncontested. There was simply no escaping OJ, even if you could care less about Simpson's guilt or innocence or the fact that the televised trial of this famous black man was unfolding in the context of escalating tensions between African-Americans and the Los Angeles police.

What we now know, however, is that the Simpson affair also pointed to a future in which we would come to look upon celebrities not as icons to be placed on a pedestal but as fodder for gossip and schadenfreude. As OJ's violent relationship with Brown was dissected endlessly in court, the whole world leaned close, lest it miss a juicy nugget. Adding to the fascination was a rogue's gallery of support players: surfer dude prosecution witness pal Kato Kaelin, OJ's loyal friend Robert Kardashian (patriarch of the reality TV clan) and the defence duo of Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro (John Travolta in the new show). 

The story, of course, came with the ultimate dramatic twist as in the face of an apparently watertight prosecution by Marcia Clark - who would go on to have a TV career of her own - the mixed-race jury declared Simpson not guilty. This was in part due to Cochran's mastery of courtroom theatrics, as immortalised by his Oscar-worthy delivery of the mantra "if the glove don't fit, you must acquit" (in reference to a key item of prosecution evidence which Cochran insisted could not have belonged to OJ).

However, there was also a political context. Mid-Nineties Los Angeles was the kind of place where a powerful African-American could walk free from a murder trial simply because of the message it would send to the city's elites. 

Such tensions give Murphy's series a modern resonance, with relationships between minorities and the police across American arguably at a lower point than during the OJ case (which occurred in the aftermath of the notorious Rodney King beating).

"As black people, we have a very different relationship to the law and the justice system," Malcolm Jamal-Warner, who plays OJ's best friend Al Cowlings, said this week. "I know a lot of people in the black community celebrated OJ getting off, because most often the justice system very rarely feels like it works for us. The Simpson verdict was, in a way, a culmination of years of police mistreatment in the black community and was seen as a balance."

But while OJ gained his freedom there was no happy ending. The families of the murder victims would successfully mount a $33.5m wrongful death lawsuit against him (the burden of proof being lower in a civil court). Broke and desperate, in 2007 he participated in an armed robbery in Las Vegas for which he his serving a 33-year prison term. Simpson is currently incarcerated at Lovelock Correctional Centre, without hope of parole until 2017 at the earliest.

Among modern audiences, the obsession with OJ comes with another, more zeitgeist-y component. As the impact of the Neflix documentary Making a Murderer and the hit podcast Serial testify, we are living through a golden age for true crime. Thus, the 21s anniversary of Simpson's acquittal could not have come along a more potent moment. Promising to fuel public interest further is a second account of the trial in a documentary by sports network ESPN. OJ: Made in America debuted at the recent Sundance Film Festival to overwhelming swoonful reviews, with critics praising it not only as a moving portrait of Simpson but as powerful exploration of the dark side of the American dream.

"The enthusiasm for long-form has been spurred on by the interest in Nordic Noir, and similar challenging crime shows from outside of Scandinavia such as True Detective," is how James Hoare, editor of glossy magazine Real Crime, assesses our renewed OJ obsession. "Unlike, say, Midsomer Murders or Jonathan Creek which took place in a firm 'elsewhere' inside your TV set, there's a reality - or hyper-reality - to the new breed of programming. 

"The unflinching content of shows like The Killing or Luther, which frequently deal with intense subjects like sexual violence, abuse of power or parental grief, have - I think - exposed audiences to a level of bloody-knuckled reality and emotional intensity that has 'prepared' them for true crime.

"Equally important, these shows frequently dedicate a whole brace of episodes to one case, untangling the various plot threads and the complex, overlapping motives of characters."

"This fascination with true crime has been steadily growing for years. I'm sure it's partly just escapism - a retreat from the everyday quotidian," adds Patrick Moore, curator of the 'All Things Crime' blog.

"It's curious but I've noticed that most true crime fans are only interested in murder and sex crimes. Very little interest in political crime or fraud even though that area is, of course, a huge problem."

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