The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016) Review
The People v. O.J. Simpson is a riveting and fascinating dramatization which showcases some truly powerful performances.
Plot: O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is arrested for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Colman, sparking what some consider the “Trial of the Century.”
Review: Though I was a teenager and well aware of the whole O.J. Simpson trial when it was playing out, I wasn’t interested in the least. As far as I was concerned, the evidence pointed out he was guilty, and a trial was needless. When the ‘not guilty’ verdict was handed down, I figured either the jury was stupid, the prosecution was incompetent, or both.
Seeing this dramatization of the whole O.J. affair, I realize now that I missed something that uniquely demonstrated the human experience. The facts of the case were irrelevant, which was the prosecution’s inevitable downfall. Instead, this was about race, celebrity and theatrics. Whether O.J. did it or not did not matter. The LAPD, celebrity culture, the justice system, and society itself were on trial, and on each count, those different aspects were guilty as sin.
I applaud the show for not surmising that O.J. did it. To do so would have missed the entire point of the exercise. The trial was an excuse for platforming of societal issues in a country that hadn’t recovered from the recent Rodney King debacle. You could say that they haven’t recovered to this date. The nuance, gamesmanship, and ridiculous audacity of some of the participants make this an entertaining series. The trial is secondary.
For the performances, almost all of the cast are great. On the prosecution side, Sarah Paulson is her usual terrific self as Marcia Clark. Her frustration with the case getting away from her and her unwanted celebrity status feels very real and gives her character depth beyond the stereotypical crusader. Sterling K. Brown, as Christopher Darden, is my favourite character in the whole show. Brown’s bewilderment and increasing sense of alienation and astonishment at the circus the trial becomes the beating heart of the audience watching the show.
On the defence side, no one is better than Courtney B. Vance, who seems to have been inhabited by Johnnie Cochran’s ghost in the show. To his credit, Vance takes what, again, could have been a one-sided portrayal of a remorseless huckster and gives him nuance. You almost could understand where Cochran’s character comes from and why he did what he did. Almost. Nathan Lane also does a fine job as the subtle veteran attorney F. Lee. Bailey, providing some quiet bemusement during the entire ordeal. Finally, David Schwimmer is excellent as Robert Kardashian, playing him as an unwavering loyalist who gradually begins questioning everything he thought he knew about his best friend.
For characters who didn’t quite hit the mark, Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. and John Travolta as Robert Shapiro stand out. Cuba Gooding Jr. just isn’t O.J. – his voice is too whiny, and he plays him as confused and impish instead of the quiet, reserved presence I remember from his trial. Gooding Jr. is almost playing a darker version of his Jerry Maguire character, although he does have moments of fine acting threaded between his over-acting. Travolta is okay as Shapiro but doesn’t have great presence. Even more distracting, though, is the actor’s face, which looks like it has suffered from bad plastic surgery and looks like a caricature of his famous mug. I kept looking at him throughout the series, trying to decide if it was just lousy makeup or if the man had just gotten some unfortunate Botox.
The series does a tremendous job of making sure every character and every facet of the trial gets their due. I don’t feel like any character was short-changed from screen time, and the show does take the time to give supporting characters like Judge Ito and the jury members their due. The show also does an excellent job of showcasing the media and entertainment whirlwind the trial caused, demonstrating again that nothing is stranger than real life.
I highly recommend watching this series. There are some great performances, thoughtful character moments and enough sensationalism to keep anyone interested. You don’t have to have been alive during the O.J. trial to appreciate the insanity of it all. Even if you were, I think you should give this series a look as you’ll probably find some things below the surface that the media showed you that are more interesting than whatever the trial showed you on tv.