Why a 20-year old AMERICAN CRIME STORY is so Now.
Two episodes into the first season of FX’s American Crime Story and The People v. O.J. Simpson has me by the eyeballs.
This dramatisation of one of the 1990s’ biggest true-crime tales has it all: a starry cast of almost-too-recognisable players delivering enthralling renditions of real-life people; energising camerawork initially borrowed from cinema but now a stalwart of the fine TV shows that have been pouring out of the US (in particular) in a crescendo of critical acclaim in recent years; that smug joy the viewer feels when a sound-cue or a throwaway comment in the script evokes knowledge we have developed in the intervening years since O.J. threw the American justice system into turmoil, allowing us to wink to ourselves: “A-ha, I see what they did there”.
As television, American Crime Story (my experience of it thus far directed by Ryan “Glee” Murphy) is exhilarating, unsubtle, luxurious entertainment. So far, it isn’t trying to be massively neutral in its storytelling – Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the legendary “Juice” as an overhyped, hyper-vulnerable mess, his strongest supporters the freaky-eyed John Travolta as self-serving Bobby Shapiro and Ross-voiced David Schwimmer as the more sympathetic and likeably naive Robert Kardashian. By comparison, O.J’s eventual lawyer (but not yet, viewers – his time will come) Johnnie Cochran comes across as a smart, measured, principled man, someone who would be played by Denzel or Morgan in a real movie adaptation and in whom we would trust. So far, probably because since 1995 we’ve all known O.J. was actually totally guilty, the programme is happy to play out its audience’s assumption – to hell with the “innocent until proven (in this case, innocent)” ideal – but this isn’t The Staircase or a well-meaning Herzog documentary outlining faults in the handling of the case (well, not yet, anyway). It’s pure, unmitigated, enjoyment.
(As a side note: if I felt O.J. had been in any way misrepresented or unjustly accused, I may be more up-in-arms about the filmmakers’ angle. I’m normally apoplectic with moral outrage on behalf of the criminally-accused. But this case is one which, ever since I was a law-studying undergrad who woke up early to watch the verdict one morning in late 1995, I knew was a different kind of injustice. O.J. is one of the few black men in history whose skin colour actually helped to keep him out of jail. More about that shortly.)
So, American Crime Story is very Now because it’s great TV. Terrific writers (notably Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski whose intelligent handling of the potentially sensationalist The People vs. Larry Flynt is probably the most relevant entry on their CV); energetic direction; long-held, swirling dolly shots evocative of Scorsese and, later, that enfant terrible of the 90s, Tarantino; a soundtrack which reminds you how awful/fantastic 90s music was. Impeccable impersonations (Sarah Paulson’s chain-smoking, curly-haired prosecutor, Marcia Clark, already my favourite). And, above all, a narrative that you already know by heart, but which still manages to keep you in suspense as the protagonist waves a gun at his temple and a white Ford Bronco steams down the freeway. We know what happens and yet in the moment we forget, just enough for it to feel fresh and dramatic.
But there are two other aspects which make American Crime Story a TV show very much of its time. And I mean this time, now, not the mid-1990s.
The first is trivial but fun, and speaks to our current obsession with celebrity, whereby we know the names Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Brangelina, even if someone like my dad may not know who they are or what they do. The key name here is Kardashian. Back in 1994, no one knew who the Kardashians were, no one was keeping up with them, and though the head Kardashians were already divorced, Mrs hadn’t yet married Bruce Jenner and had two more children before Bruce became Caitlin and the rest-we-know-is-history.
So the funny thing is, had American Crime Story been made contemporaneously, there might have been passing mention of Schwimmer’s Robert as O.J’s best friend but less emphasis would have been placed on O.J’s threatening to suicide in his daughter Kim’s bedroom. We certainly wouldn’t have been treated to a cutaway to four attractive, well-heeled kids watching their dad on TV in great excitement, as he corrected a reporter who asked “Who are you??” during a press conference. (LOL, the modern-day viewer goes. Fancy not knowing who the Kardashians are! And look who those kids turn out to be!)
The less fun but indubitably fascinating aspect of the “knowing viewer” is of course the relevance of race in all discussion of the O.J. case. American Crime Story lays its cards on the table by opening episode one with archive footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots which erupted in 1992 as a result of the four white LAPD officers being acquitted. Fast-forward to 1994 and you can’t help but be amused (and bemused) as white LAPD officers fawn over the rich, famous, football hero-cum-actor, botching his taped police interview by failing to follow-up on inconsistencies and probe for clarification of details, and making all kinds of allowances when arresting him for murder – partly to allow him to save face, although the Greek chorus of prosecutors, defenders and Joe Public watching the Bronco chase on TV all acknowledge the perils of bringing down a black man on national television.
But it’s another chorus of articulate, middle-class black folks who make the salient point that O.J. Simpson was hardly your archetypal unjustly-pulled over, stopped-and-frisked African American male. O.J. didn’t “give back” to his community (they say), and one opines of his wealth and success: “He turned white” – to which a neighbour retorts “Well, he’s got the cops chasing him – he’s black now!”
It will be interesting to see how the writing unfolds in terms of characters making this same observation as we draw closer to the televisual trial – a trial which history reminds us became a circus of dramatic performances, catch-phrases (“If [the glove] doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”) and ultimately an astonishing verdict which may have averted another city-wide racial crisis but also threw into relief how even the perceived inherent bias of the justice system can’t guarantee a predictable outcome.
And of course, the story is sadly still very Now because issues of injustice and police brutality and crime statistics and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes continue to dog the USA to this day. I will be watching closely to pick up on any anachronistic insights the writers make in their telling of this major contribution to US criminological history.
There’s one more thing. And this makes American Crime Story even more compelling to someone with a legal background who has long been fascinated by human frailty and the vagaries of despicable behaviour.
When I watched the under-performing Will Smith vehicle Concussion a month or so ago, I began to wonder about O.J. Simpson. Concussion tells the true story of a doctor (working as a coroner) who discovers a condition called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – don’t worry, I’ll explain) which correlates violent, impulsive, erratic behaviour with brain injury caused by severe blows to the head. The sort of blows football players receive as an occupational hazard. The sort which may or may not clinically concuss them or have them benched for the game but which, over time, has been proven to affect very significantly the player’s mental and emotional wellness. Unfortunately CTE has subsequently been diagnosed only in people who have died, often by their own hand, whereby their brains could be analysed to identify the physical ramifications. (As many as 33 former professional American Football players have been diagnosed, post-mortem, with CTE.) Naturally, the NFL wasn’t keen on this revelation and probably not keen on the movie either.
But the point is, symptoms of CTE can include social instability, erratic behaviour and there are links with domestic violence. Symptoms typically begin up to 10 years after a player has retired. Simpson retired in 1979, and he accepted a conviction for spousal abuse of Nicole Brown Simpson in 1989. So we know he was violent towards her and certainly, if he was her murderer, then the frenzied blows which make for sickening crime-scene photographs are an indication of considerable rage. Simpson’s subsequent freak-out in the lead-up to his official arrest and trial certainly manifests as erratic (according to the show, which is based on a reputable book written by a lawyer, author and New Yorker journalist).
So what I wonder is: might Simpson, too, have been on the slippery slope towards full-blown CTE in the years leading up to Brown’s death? While not remotely exonerating him, it’s worth interrogating whether, had the case happened 15-20 years later, violent behaviour correlated with a career in an excessively high-contact sport may have proffered a compelling mitigation to Simpson’s obvious guilt. Perhaps he could have held up his hands, glove-free, and admitted he had a problem which had led to an incalculable tragedy and eternal regret. Perhaps his superstardom could have helped prevent scores of young football players from following him onto the field and instead increased compassion, understanding and assistance for those affected. Imagine!
But instead, O.J. goes to the Trial of the Century. And those of us gorging on the quality TV it has engendered are probably guiltily glad that he did.