How The People V. O.J Simpson talked about today’s biggest issues
The People V OJ Simpson

With tonight’s penultimate episode, our case is closed on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and our verdict is that it’s one of the stand-out shows, if not the best, of 2016 so far.

Mixing the soap opera glamour of the story that played out live on TV screens around the world, with unmissable moments of insight behind the media circus – the first series of American Crime Story on BBC Two has been something of a weekly drama highlight.

While all the fax machine action, over-sized suits and other Nineties throwbacks (Marcia Clark getting her hair cut to the sounds of Seal was a particular highlight) – The People v. O.J. is now something of a period piece.

But like the best period dramas – it manages to hold up a mirror to modern-day life and reflect the issues which still affect us today.

Let’s collectively put our leather-gloved hands together and applaud the ways in which this series has been as much about things going on today, as it is about back then.

Race as the touchpaper

Johnnie Cochran, The People Vs. OJ Simpson

From the very first episode of the ten-part series, the racial climate of Los Angeles weighs heavy on the story that follows. Viewers are made aware that the Rodney King is still a buzzword for police brutality and inequality whilst Bobby Shapiro later frets that this case could spark riots that had already seen huge destruction across the city in previous years.

Much as we’d like to think that times have changed – the relationship between the police and the African American community remains as fractured as before, with names like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the town of Ferguson becoming huge news stories.

Although O.J. may never have been the pillar of the black community that Johnnie Cochran portrayed him as – the attitude towards his case was hugely swayed by surrounding factors.

The gender imbalance

Poor Marcia Clark. As the camera pour over her every step in the courtroom (except the evidence she’s presenting), the circus around her as a female kicks into overdrive.

From her supposedly ‘frumpy’ courtroom attire, her haircut, her ability as a Mother, her private photos adorning glossy magazines – Marcia is seriously put through the ringer in a way exclusively to her as a women in a male-dominated world.

Are these issues a thing of the past? We very much doubt it, your honour.

The power of celebrity

As we watch ‘the Juice’ make a speedy getaway from the police, with a gun to his head and his team-mate at the wheel, we are also shown the everyday members of society who run to the roadside holding their banners of support.

Every step of the legal process around Simpson is bent around his celebrity status as one of the biggest football players of his generation. Two police officers head to Simpson’s house partly just to gawp, the rules of his arrest are relaxed, he plays poker with his friends, he makes a reference to watching Seinfeld.

The viewer is let in from the start on how the rules are warped by celebrity status.

How the media turns crime into a soap opera

The People V OJ Simpson

Again, it’s the mixture of celebrity gloss and the inner-workings which make for compelling TV.

Despite holding all the aces, as Marcia Clark saw it, prosecution lawyer believes that the trial needs the ‘big TV moment’ and makes the mistake of letting Simpson try on the ill-fitting gloves.

It’s silly, a grown man pretending his clothes don’t fit, but it becomes the striking visual image of the trial which everyone remembers.

The OJ trial was the first perfect cocktail of fame and tragedy which became an all-consuming story for the 24-hour news – which still relies on salacious details for viewers.

In the Nineties, TV was God. Now, the internet rumour mill rules supreme.

The revival of David Schwimmer and John Travolta

It feels perfectly fitting for a show that is linking the issues of the 1990’s to the present day, that two of the best performances come from actors whose last notable performances happened two decades ago.

David Schwimmer finally shakes off the ‘ghost of Ross’ in his portrayal of Rob Kardashian – a man conflicted between loyalty and the truth. Whilst John Travolta hits the heights of Pulp Fiction with a captivating take on ‘sleazy-lawyer-losing-control’ Bobby Shapiro.

All aboard the Nineties revival.


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