by Pam C. Nogales C.
“You wanna make this a black thing. But I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
First, a disclaimer: This show is not about O.J. Simpson. Unsurprising to anyone familiar with the case, since the trial was hardly about the defendant’s guilt or innocence. Rather, as The People v. O.J. Simpson artfully pieces together, in the 1990s, O.J.’s acquittal provided the semblance of racial justice by eliciting a feeling of victory through the spectacle of a televised trial. This dose of self-delusion was delivered in bleak times in America (especially brutal if you were poor and black). Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne—featured in the show as the wealthy, but culturally-conscious, New Yorker—wrote in 1997 that the O.J. trial had something for everyone: “love, lust, lies, hate, fame, wealth… the bloodiest of bloody knife-slashing homicides,” and “all the justice that money can buy.” Indeed, it was all the justice a black man in America could buy in 1994—if he could afford the price. However, The People v. O.J. Simpson suggests that there may have been a greater cost: this judicial victory was gained by peddling a false promise of redemption to working black Americans.
The People v. O.J. Simpson opens with images of the Los Angeles race riots of 1992. This six-day long episode of looting and deadly violence was sparked by the acquittal of three LAPD officers charged with the use of excessive force against Rodney King, a young black man from South Central L.A. The case gained international attention when the now infamous recording of King’s beating was televised before the tribunal of mass society. When, on April 29, a suburban, all-white jury acquitted the four officers of the charges, South Central L.A. immediately exploded into unrest. News outlets broadcasted near continuous coverage of the riots. And smaller but similar outbreaks took place in other cities throughout the U.S. After the riots, the LAPD was subject to civil inquiry, leading to the forced resignation of the then chief of police Daryl Gates. The police department sacrificed one of its own and the whole thing was put to rest. But then there was O.J.
“Juice” or as he was known to his mother, Orenthal James Simpson, grew up poor in the housing projects of Potrero Hill, San Francisco. Like many black kids in the projects, he’d joined a street gang and was briefly incarcerated. However, unlike the rest, he excelled at track and football in high school and got an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC). In 1968, O.J. won the most prestigious individual award in college football, the Heisman trophy—he had successfully escaped the projects. Over the next decades, O.J. charmed his way into mainstream (read, white) American culture. His appeal across racial lines made him one of the most beloved athletes of his generation, and an especially valuable celebrity endorsement. Without a doubt, if there was one black man that had made it in America, it was O.J. Simpson.
How then, in 1994, did O.J. become the posterchild for “racial justice” against the LAPD? How did his acquittal convincingly offer any sense of hope to black people across America? This feat in legerdemain was accomplished by the lead attorney on O.J.’s defense team: the always charming and entertaining Johnnie Cochran, portrayed in the show by Courtney Vance, at his best.
If there is a lead character in this show worthy of the name, it’s Johnnie Cochran. The show could easily have been called “The People v. Johnnie.” While Bobby Shapiro—the original lead attorney on the O.J. case—was the architect of the defense strategy (mainly, blame the LAPD for being blinded by racism) this plan was just an idea without Johnnie’s aggressive execution and personal appeal to a “downtown” jury (read, a largely black jury). While Shapiro thought he could get the prosecution to plead out O.J. to manslaughter, it was Johnnie who was gunning for a public trial.
Robert Shapiro: The race card is sticking, and Johnny equals LAPD injustice. And Gil [Garcetti, LA county’s District Attorney] doesn’t want to see the city burn down, again. (Episode 4)
Johnnie’s claim to black authenticity, however, could hardly be convincing without significant edits to the story of O.J., ‘the black man.’ Here Johnnie is at his best as the self-appointed sectary of the race, an example—and by extension, an inspiration. The show does well to highlight these 1990s black clichés and their grip on popular imagination with some humor. Simpson was an “imperfect vessel,” as Dale Cochran delicately put it, but Johnnie successfully remade Simpson in his image: a strong black man in a hostile world. In a brilliant strategic move by the defense team, Cochran led the remodeling of Simpson’s mansion in Brentwood before the jury walk-through. Down went the photographs of scantly-clad white women and paintings of white faces, up went the African artifacts, photographs of happy black children—apparently not O.J.’s—and the pièce de résistance: the hanging portrait of the son with the black family matriarch, momma in her Sunday best. Content with the changes, Johnnie quips, “I love me some blackness.” Most telling among these edits was the introduction of the 1963 Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges walking to class escorted by Federal Marshals, The Problem We All Live With—an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement. “It’s on loan,” says Johnnie, “from the Cochran collection.”
In the initial meetings between Simpson and Cochran, Johnnie has to convince his client that the best defense his money can buy is that of a wronged black man against the LAPD. But before his arrest in 1994, O.J. was living the highlife in Brentwood, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Los Angeles, hitting the links and sharing Sunday brunch with his rich buddies, while playing uncle to Bobby Kardashian’s band of brats (“K-A-R-D-A-S-H-I-A-N!”). All this, while still having had time to host tennis matches for the LAPD. People called him “the mayor of Brentwood.” No wonder Simpson found a race-based defense an odd fit. “You wanna make this a black thing,” he tells Johnnie, “but I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
Cochran, a star member of the black middle class, reminds O.J. that he is an inspiration for black people, a role model. To convince O.J., Johnnie describes a time in his life when he’d reached rock bottom. He tells Simpson how he was facing a failing career, disillusioned in the aftermath of a divorce, coping with his situation by drinking too much and staying in bed feeling sorry for himself. Just then, Jonnie tells O.J., he fixed his eyes one of Simpson’s football games on TV where O.J.’s tenacity on the field pushed him to jumpstart his life: “You were an inspiration,” on and off the field, adds Johnnie,
Johnnie: …when they cut again to the commercial, there you were again. Leaping through the airport for Hertz, breaking another barrier with charisma, humor, intelligence. A black man, as the public face for one of the world’s biggest corporations.
While Johnnie was down and out, O.J. ran to a touchdown. While Johnnie struggled to pull himself together, O.J. was the smiling black face of corporate America. “We lost that day,” O.J. reminds him. “I don’t remember that,” he tells him. That day on the field, “it was like you were running for me.” Visibly moved but maintaining his conviction, Johnnie clasps O.J.’s hands between his palms, looks deeply into his client’s eyes and delivers the last line of his pep talk, “This right here—this right here, O.J. Simpson, is the run of your life.”
It would be too easy to crucify Cochran as a charlatan. The entire defense might be dismissed as a sham if it weren’t for the undeniable fact that LAPD ranks were populated by authoritarian, racist cops who, in 1992, happened to show the world just how much they could flex their muscles with impunity. This was the kernel of truth in Johnnie’s appeal. According to him, the reason Mark Fuhrman made for the perfect specimen was because he proved what “black people already knew,” that the LAPD was made up of racist cops who took pleasure in beating—and killing—black people. But the show suggests that the wound might go deeper still. Among the props of O.J.’s house décor the Rockwell’s painting stands out as a faint reminder of a buried historical promise: The New Left of the 1960s aimed to better the lives of black Americans, providing them with employment and greater self-determination & protection from police brutality. These demands however, didn’t age well after the boom years were exhausted and black power politics were seamlessly absorbed into neoliberal support for black faces among the professional managerial class. For the rest of black working people, white flight from the cities left them in neglected urban spaces with rising black unemployment and a decline in life expectancy among African-Americans.(1)
By the 1990s, this accumulation of historical failure had paralyzed and disoriented the political left. Working black people across America bore the brunt of its ill effects, and the propaganda of advancement had become a cruel joke. In these desperate conditions, the O.J. case held for people the promise of relief in the abstract: ‘racial justice’ against the LAPD. Finally, the possibility of a win.
In order to squeeze out a glimmer of hope from of this bleak reality, the show offers its viewers the tender relationship between Marcia Clark, lead prosecutor, and Chris Darden, her co-counsel (played by a dreamy Sterling Brown). After Simpson’s acquittal, both lawyers faced intense public scrutiny and criticism for how they’d handled the trial.(2) But instead of playing up this angle, the show highlights how the two—one black the other white, one a man and the other a woman with a personal history of sexual abuse—crossed gender and racial barriers to fight for an indictment, together. And though they failed, in so doing, they learned the most important lesson of all: that they “didn’t listen to each other” (Clark to Darden, Episode 9). What this means, who knows. The two apparently went their separate ways after the trial. But in what seems like a glaring missed opportunity, the show fails to deliver on the Marcia-Chris sex scene—disappointing, given the amount of evidence that this happened in more than one occasion.
Chris Darden was haunted by the O.J. case; in a 2015 Huffington Post interview he confessed how he’d been “devastated and decimated by the trial.”(3) And no wonder, he had sustained an aggressive and effective psychological attack by the defense team. Letters labeling him an “Uncle Tom,” an unworthy member of the black community and a self-hating black man, all worked to the defense’s advantage. At one point in the show—that Darden confirmed as an accurate depiction of the exchange between the two lawyers—Cochran embraces him, leans into his ear, and sternly advices him to “let the white people do Fuhrman.” The implication being that Darden was the token black man, on the case simply because the District Attorney’s office needed to appear more legitimate to the black jurors (the show suggests this might have been true). Cochran and Darden worked together and shared hopes of reforming the system from within–Darden might even have considered Johnnie a mentor during these years. Episode after episode, it’s hard not to feel for Darden, who was clearly ill-equipped to deal with the sideshow the trial had become. His appeal to reason failed to compel the jurors while Johnnie’s charismatic appeal to emotion promised much more—even if it failed to deliver. This much at least, Darden understood. In the last episode he tells Johnnie,
Chris Darden: All the people saw is how well you can twist the system. This isn’t some civil rights milestone. Police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here—unless, of course, you’re a famous rich one in Brentwood.
Alas, Darden doesn’t get the last word. After their bitter interaction, Johnnie dashes to a celebration at his office and arrives to champagne and fanfare. A colleague keeping up with the news coverage gets his attention: “They’re talking about you, Johnnie.” A hopeful Cochran enters the room to see Bill Clinton on the television responding to the verdict. Johnnie’s eyes tear up. He turns to his young acolytes and tells them, “at least our story is out of the shadows.”
Bill Clinton: …I think the answer to that is to spend more time listening to each other. And try to put ourselves in each others’ shoes and understand why we see the world in different ways, and keep trying to overcome that. I would say, that even though it’s disturbing, we have succeeded so far in managing the world’s most multi-ethnic, diverse democracy better than a lot of countries smaller than we are with fewer differences in them.
Bill Clinton, who had shimmied his way into black America’s heart by playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, carried so much favor in the 90s that Toni Morrison christened him America’s “first black president.” But apart from the couple of black politicians appointed to his cabinet, for the great majority of black Americans the election of Clinton left them without recourse to federal aid, persecuted by the “war on drugs,” or locked away in federal prison. Clinton’s administration presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates in American history, inaugurating the “era of mass incarceration.” This was a deliberate political strategy devised to bring back disaffected white Southerners who’d embraced former president Ronald Reagan’s agenda on race, crime, welfare, and taxes. In this way, Clinton was exemplary of the “New Democrats,” a faction of the Democratic Party, who believed that the only way to win back those millions of white votes was to adopt the right-wing narrative that poor black people ought to be disciplined by the state instead of being “coddled” with welfare. Furthermore, it was Clinton who championed the idea of a federal “three strikes” law in his 1994 State of the Union address and, shortly after, signed a thirty-billion-dollar crime bill that created dozens of new federal capital crimes, mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders, and authorized more than sixteen billion dollars for state prison grants and the expansion of police forces.(4) Bill Clinton, as it turned out, was no friend to black people.
The People v. O.J. Simpson is silent on this historical record, but it’s hardly to blame. Its viewers would be less inclined to watch a historical drama if it meant subjecting themselves to lessons in political charlatanry and the failures of the political left. A little too real for Tuesday night television. Instead, we are given Marcia and Chris. They were good people, who tried, loved and failed, but were inspired to make changes in their personal lives. Why would we want anything more?
This leaves Johnnie. Was he just a charismatic peddler of lies? Didn’t we, too, want to believe him—even if we knew better? Cochran, after all, denounced a form of justice ruthlessly maintained at gunpoint by the executive arm of the state. He openly called it a (racist) lie. His empty promises of redemption were powerful precisely because the jurors wanted more than to be lied to—even if they too were ultimately conned by the defense’s fabrications. So when Johnnie comes on the screen, we hate him and we love him: we hate him because he is there to remind us just how much we are willing to deceive ourselves in the absence of anything resembling freedom. But we love him because he might be there as a placeholder, as a symptom of a society that may still want more than the lie, even if it doesn’t know what to do with this inexplicable longing.
1. Adolph Reed, Black Particularity Reconsidered (1979)
2. For more on this, see See District Attorney, Vincent Bugliosi’s Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder (1996).
3. According to Darden’s memoir, In Contempt:
[A]n L.A. newspaper reporter sidled up to me in the hallway. “Johnnie Cochran is saying the only reason you’re on this case is because you’re black.”
I recoiled. “What?”
He repeated it, and I shifted the files in my arms and took another step toward my office. “Johnnie wouldn’t say something like that.”
The reporter asked for a comment but I said no.
“Until I hear Johnnie say it, I’m not going to comment.” . . . Cochran was low, but not that low.
A little while later the reporter showed up with a tape player and held it out. “Here. You want to hear it? I got it right here.”…
The fallout was immediate. On talk radio and in newspapers, in barbershops and restaurants, I was branded an Uncle Tom, a sellout, a house Negro.
4. More on this, Michelle Alexander, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote” (2016)