Set in 1994, ‘American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson‘ is a retelling of the controversial trial that saw former NFL star OJ Simpson acquitted of the double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown-Smith and Ron Goldman. Week-by-week, we’ll be recapping the FX show as it’s shown on BBC 2 – getting under the skin of one of the most intriguing television shows of the year.
This post contains spoiler information for Episode Five: ‘The Race Card’.
‘The Race Card’ saw American Crime Story haul itself over the halfway mark last night, and it has finally become transparent that the show has become less interested in retelling the soap opera of OJ Simpson’s trial and instead is completely enamoured with the concept of power and the struggles it brings.
Simpson took a comfortable backseat role in this episode once again, so much so that it can only be interpreted that the show’s producers are trying not to lead us down the moral path of deciding whether OJ did commit the crimes, instead delving into the tense mind games that the rival attorneys played on each other.
‘The Race Card’ opens with a younger Johnnie Cochrane (Courtney B. Vance) being wrongfully pulled over by a crooked cop with heavy racist undertones. 13 years later, in 1995, the game has changed (ever so slightly) and it is two black attorneys jousting in court, attempting to win the hearts and minds of ‘the black community’. The inclusion of the episode’s opening scene is placed smartly to highlight the juxtaposition of black America in the ’80s and ’90s, but things turn nasty between prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) and Cochrane real quick.
“I get a really bad vibe from him”
Before the trial begins, Darden is tasked by Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) to prep a selection of the witnesses that will be cross-examined in the trial – one being Detective Mark Fuhrman. Quick reminder: Fuhrmann was the detective who found a glove at OJ’s Brentwood home (the other being at the crime scene) on that fateful night and later it emerged that Fuhrman had been guilty of racist sentiments towards black people. Naturally, this puts the prosecution in a precarious position as they must ward off any accusations of framing by a so-called ‘racist cop’.
Darden is hyper-aware of this and presents Fuhrman with an opportunity to confess to using racist language, which he refutes ever doing. With a sense of disbelief and serious personal anguish about having to work with a stubborn bigot, Darden relays this to lead prosecutor Marcia Clark. “I get a really bad vibe from him” Darden says, adding “There’s a way that certain white people talk to black people. It’s disingenuous.” And he should be worried, the scenes the two share are fraught with tension and stuffed with coded animosity. Clark shoots him down and tells him to get on wit it, but those aware with the case will know how central Fuhrman becomes to the collapse of the prosecution’s case, and this is another ominous hint foreshadowing the outcome of the trial.
But Darden perseveres and in the preliminary hearing and he provides a stirring speech insisting that the use of ‘the n word’ should be prohibited in court, on account of the utterance of this word in court will ‘blind’ the black dominated jury in rage. His case appears partly rational, but it transpires as a naïve move that seeks to removes race from the trial – and is pounced upon by Cochrane and promptly torn apart. Cochrane calls the motion “outlandish, unfortunate and unwarranted” and by doing so seeks to empower the jury, a stark contrast to Darden’s fudged mis-step. Without explicitly saying it, Cochrane implies that Darden is turning his back on the black community and a report the following day suggests that the general public believes exactly that. Cochrane wins this round.
This thrilling power struggle bleeds into the the trial’s opening statements from both sides. Darden and Clark begin highlighting OJ’s history with domestic violence in their opening statement, but Cochrane – being the show’s most powerful player – drops another huge bombshell by revealing that the defence has an unheard set of witnesses they intend to present. The prosecution interpret this as a ‘dirty trick’, as they were not made aware of said witnesses prior to the trial, a judiciary custom. Pandemonium ensues as Clark and co are ambushed by the revelations, which results in prosecutor William Hodgman collapsing in court. Except it didn’t quite happen that way, Hodgman in fact reported chest pains later in the day, in District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s office – but that’s not quite as thrilling is it?
This is the first time the show deviates heavily from the real life occurrences, primarily as a tool to ramp up the stakes. Perhaps it was the writers’ attempt at showing the toll the case is taking on a more human level – but a previous, powerful scene with Darden unloading issues to his parents is just as relatable to an audience, proving to be a rare mistake in a show that has been surprisingly accurate from start to finish.
“Our job is to tell that story better than the other side tells theirs”
Darden establishes himself as a worthy opponent throughout, but Cochrane stays slimy, elusive and always one step ahead. In particular, when jurors and both legal teams arrive to examine OJ’s house – Cochrane has redecorated the house to make OJ appear ‘more black’, with artwork from his own house now adorning the walls. OJ is upset that his image has been manipulated to fit the narrative that Cochrane wants to present to the jury, but as Cochrane ruthlessly established to Darden earlier in the show ‘I’m trying to win’, and he certainly appears to have won this round.
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So the trial begins in dramatic fashion (as it will end) and next week when the showdown continues, Darden and Cochrane will no doubt clash horns on plenty of occasions. Despite spikes of explosive drama, ‘The Race Card’ is less about the events that occur, but about carefully crafting Darden’s character arc from unlikely backbencher to feared enforcer, and at the same time ramming home the point that this show is bigger than OJ Simpson. This show has morphed into a searing critique of America and favours dissecting the controversial discourse of race that has plagued the nation for centuries, in the context of this trial. And American Crime Story is doing a mighty fine job tackling it.