“Choose a side!”
In the first episode of American Crime Story, the People vs. OJ Simpson (ACS:OJ), the inflammatory defense attorney Johnnie Cochran demands that Chris Darden come to a decision. Will the assistant district attorney join Cochran’s fight against racial oppression in the justice system? Or will Darden, in his role as a prosecutor, continue to aid and abet what Cochran (and most black people in southern California) saw as a corrupt and murderous police force? Darden demurs and the men continue down their respective career paths—eventual opponents in the murder trial of famed NFL running back OJ Simpson.
Cochran and Darden’s opening exchange encapsulates a recurring theme throughout the show: seeking justice isn’t as simple as choosing a side. Not when they’re presented as complete binaries, at least. In this show’s first six hours, show creator Ryan Murphy has challenged the dominant narratives of the OJ Simpson trial, asking viewers to “choose a side”—and then exploring the facts from every angle.
ACS: OJ revisits all the major players you loved, hated, and gawked at. For those old enough to remember the OJ Simpson trial, Murphy and his cast capture the emotions viewers of a certain age felt when the trial captured America’s attention. You’re grieved when listening to Nicole’s daughter’s desperate plea to hear her mother’s voice, trapped on a tragic voicemail. You debated the boundaries of Marcia Clark and Darden’s friendship, marveled at Rob Kardashian’s uncanny faith (both in God and in OJ), and, yes, relived the nationally televised car chase in the white Bronco. Reviving those memories makes for a good, fun, serialized romp through 1994-95, but Murphy’s more interested in the spaces beneath the headlines.
Choose a side! Cochran and Murphy continually demand. But, again, choosing a side isn’t as easy as Johnnie would have you believe. Murphy won’t let you remember Marcia Clark as the shrill, comically-unfashionable attorney the media made her out to be. Look beyond the Jheri-curl and find a limelight-adverse mother of two who just so happened to land the case of her life. A case, which you may or may not recall, dragged her into unbelievable scrutiny about her appearance, her body, her sexual past, and her sexual present. Would the public have examined a white and male attorney in the same way? (No.)
Remember “Uncle Chris” Darden? Sterling K. Brown’s portrayal rejects the idea that he’s a mere shill for a mostly-white prosecution team; a token black face to prove that the cops aren’t out to get another black man that made it. He’s clear-eyed about racism in the criminal justice system that made OJ someone with the potential to be sympathized with. He sees it when Cochran exhorts him to pick his side, knowing full well the “bullshit” he deals with in the DA’s office is the same he had to overcome fighting for his right to be a law student. So yes, he’s aware when he is propped up as much for his blackness as he is for his legal savvy. In that light, his decision to identify Nazi-sympathizing officer Mark Fuhrman as a racist, a twist that could derail the prosecution’s case, is courageous.
Darden believes too strongly that “OJ did it” to make Simpson the proxy for all injustice against The Black Man. In fact, he sees how a man that may have grown up in the hood found wealth and fame brought him scores of white women and most of all, fraternization with the same police department that brutalized Rodney King just two years ago. (OJ once proclaimed “I’m not black, I’m OJ!”—suggesting his wealth had exempted him from the societal constraints of being black.) Darden is not the litigator—and definitely not the marketer—Johnnie Cochran is. But Darden cares enough to take a hit to his public persona for the sake of getting things right. At one point, Cochran tells his legal team to “fall on their sword” for their client, but Darden actually does it. He’s soft-spoken and mild-mannered, stemming not from cowardice but for a deep desire to let the truth as he sees it speak for itself.
Lest you think Murphy has selective empathy for the prosecution, observe him reject Johnnie Cochran as a race-baiting caricature, and instead draw attention to a man determined to see every black man get a fair shake in court. In ACS: OJ, Cochran’s motives are abundantly clear: he wants every bigoted police officer in LA held accountable by the will of the people they swear to protect and serve. In one chilling flashback, Cochran is pulled over and pinned to the hood of his car while his two, school-aged daughters are in the backseat. He starts off calm and collected, polite to a fault ( “May I ask why you pulled me over?” “If you let me go in the glovebox I’ll show you my registration” *smile*) assured of his legal rights and bound by his blackness to make sure that he no police is provoked into self-defense. But as the confrontation becomes more and more tense, his anger and fear, equal parts, are on full display. “Officer! Please!” Cochran belts at the officer while pinned to his Mercedes. The younger Cochran warns the officer to “find out who I am” before arresting a black man carving out enough legal power to retaliate in a trial amongst his peers. This scene’s efficacy stems from revealing how the case personally affects him while highlighting his genuine concern for the well-being of African Americans in the justice system. As TV Critic Alan Sepinwall notes, there are “principles behind [Cochran’s] chicanery.”
Six episodes in, ACS: OJ distances itself from cable TV courtroom drama because it insists on sharing a balanced, well-sourced depiction of the intersectional themes around Simpson’s trial. It also asks its audience to reject seeing the OJ case as the sum of its verdict. Instead, it reminds viewers that holistic justice means reckoning with the past and present discrimination against African Americans in law and order, the media’s sick and sexist obsession with a working professional’s appearance, and using race to reduce people’s motives or behaviors to stereotypes “Choose a side” is well, black and white, in the first episode. By midseason, it’s a question so challenging, that my best, most conscientious answer is “How?”
(This article was originally posted at FoulandFair.com)