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Production begins later this month on a ten-part FX Network series, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, with Cuba Gooding, Jr. playing The Juice. It’s from the producer of American Horror Story and based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, adapted for television by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People vs. Larry Flint; Ed Wood.) Given the pedigree of the series, don’t be surprised if there’s an element of dark humor in this retelling of the 20-year-old “trial of the century”/media circus.
That anniversary date is the answer to the obvious questions “why this?” and “why now?” The project was commissioned before Ferguson, in case you were wondering. So no, this isn’t about prolonging our latest “national conversation about race.” (Do you hate that phrase as much as I do?). But it well may anyway.
I only watched occasional moments of the initial live television trial in the summer and early fall of 1996. Those of you old enough to remember may have a favorite telling moment you wish to share. The rules of televised trials prohibited the one camera angle that would have made the outcome more understandable: images of the jurors reacting.
I will watch this version, if only for the superb cast. Alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Simpson are Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark; David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian; John Travolta as Robert Shapiro; and Courtney B. Vance (D.A. Carver in Law & Order: Criminal Intent) portraying Johnnie Cochran. “Eyes ablaze, full of blustering vitality” is how Toobin’s book characterizes Cochran. It will be fascinating to see what Vance, whose performances generally project a measured gravitas to match his exquisitely deep voice, does with Cochran. Don’t expect Jackie Chiles.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson is anticipated for early 2016. Great, just what the primary season needs: more uninvited race talk infused into the popular culture. My view is that being prepared for media phenomena — even recycled ones, like this — is half the battle. Republicans don’t really track the popular culture as closely as they should, do they?
No surprise, therefore, that Governor Mike Pence and the Indiana Legislature were apparently taken by surprise last week by the confluence of their RFRA law and the NCAA media circus’ arrival in their state. Republicans just don’t have media calendars in their heads. Did you notice that the prime time series The Good Wife managed to air an episode on RFRA laws this past Sunday, right between the Final Four and the championship game, on CBS? Shows like this are scripted and shot weeks in advance. The episode may have been one of those polemical teaching moments we abhor, but they sure got the calendar right.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson will end up constituting most of what many younger viewers know of the Simpson trial. I don’t know what will be included in the ten (42-minute) hours on FX. If the victims receive proper attention, it could give viewers a whole new take on the meaning of “social justice.” If it’s mostly about the lawyers, it could make some even more cynical about the profession — or maybe law school applications will rise. Today’s 12-24 demographic lives in an artificial media bubble, awash in celebrity culture and tabloid scandal. Perhaps they’ll watch because they see the name Kardashian, but come out learning a thing or two about the volatile mix of race, violence, media, and popular culture.
Twenty years later, what have we learned from the Simpson murder case?