Sunday 20 October 2019

The People V OJ Simpson: American Crime Story preview: ‘Case recreated in all its garish detail in gripping drama’

The People V OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
The People V OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

Pat Stacey

I imagine most people over the age of 30 can recall where they were the moment in 1995 when a jury acquitted OJ Simpson of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, who was so viciously attacked with a knife she was virtually decapitated, and her friend Ronald Goldman, who was also stabbed multiple times.

The hugely controversial verdict, delivered by a jury of nine blacks, two whites and one Hispanic in the face of overwhelmingly incriminating evidence presented by the prosecution, was the final outrageous act in a nine-month trial that had become a gaudy daily spectacle in which real people – dogged prosecutors, showboating celebrity defence attorneys and, of course, Simpson, the American football hero-turned-movie actor whose popularity, initially at least, smashed down racial barriers – were reduced to characters in a soap opera.

But it wasn’t quite the end of the story. Two years later, Goldman’s family and Brown’s estate brought civil actions against Simpson for wrongful death, and won €33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages (only a fraction of which has been paid).

In a bizarre epilogue, Simpson was convicted of robbery in 2007 and sentenced to 33 years in prison. He’s eligible for parole next year.

The often surreal saga is rivetingly revisited in the 10-part miniseries The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, which starts on BBC2 tonight. Surprisingly, it’s produced and partially directed by US television’s king of camp Ryan Murphy, whose CV includes Glee, Scream Queens and American Horror Story.

Perhaps wisely, Murphy – whose over-the-top creations will never be confused with the plays of Harold Pinter – passes writing duties on to Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood), who adapt Jeffrey Toobin’s factual book The Run of His Life. Like the book, the miniseries takes the view that Simpson is as guilty as hell.

The obvious hurdle facing a drama like this is how to turn the highest-profile celebrity murder trial in history, every tiny detail of which was hungrily consumed by hundreds of millions of television viewers around the globe, into fresh, compelling drama.

Murphy’s first step was to recruit a platinum-plated cast. Sarah Paulson is terrific as prosecutor Marcia Clark, whose terrible hairstyle and aggressive courtroom manner would eventually see her flayed by the media and hostile public opinion in black communities.

David Schwimmer is excellent as OJ’s close friend Robert Kardashian (father of Kim, Kourtney, etc), who reactivated his lawyer’s licence so he could join the defence team. Kardashian was widely depicted during the trial as a bag-carrying, sycophantic sap. Schwimmer puts sympathetic flesh on him.

The most-rounded performance in the opening two episodes (which is as much as I’ve seen) comes from Courtney B Vance as flamboyant defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran. We see Cochran manipulatively playing the race card, yes, but we’re also left in no doubt that behind the flash performer is a man genuinely seething at the injustices meted out to ordinary black Americans.

Tellingly, the first episode opens not with the discovery of the bodies, but with footage of the 1992 Rodney King beating and the riots that ensued when the LAPD officers responsible were acquitted.

John Travolta, heavily made-up and sporting seriously scary eyebrows, has tremendous fun hamming it up as defence attorney Robert Shapiro, who acts like he’s from an alien planet – maybe the same alien planet in Travolta’s Scientology-inspired turkey Battlefield Earth. He’s great fun to watch.

Ironically, the only real weak link is the man playing Simpson: Cuba Gooding Jr, owner of what is arguably the worst post-Oscar acting career in history.

Apart from not looking or sounding remotely like OJ, Gooding’s whiny performance fails to capture the Simpson charisma that so seduced the American public.

In the end, it doesn’t matter, because this is about more than just the trial. It’s a piercing look at the toxic power of wealth and celebrity to pollute the race debate and warp the American justice system. And it’s utterly gripping.

The People V OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, BBC2, 9pm tonight (Monday Feb 15)


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