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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Ryan Murphy, Anthony Hemingway, and John Singleton | The People vs. O. J. Simpson: An American Crime


the man who got away
by Douglas Messerli

Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Jeffrey Toobin, D. V. DeVincentis, Joe Robert Cole, Tom Rob Smith, Maya Forbes, and Wallace Wolodarsky (writers),  10 episodes, Ryan Murphy, Anthony Hemingway, and  John Singleton (directors) The People vs O. J. Simpson: An American Crime Story / 2016




the man who got away
by Douglas Messerli


Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Jeffrey Toobin, D. V. DeVincentis, Joe Robert Cole, Tom Rob Smith, Maya Forbes, and Wallace Wolodarsky (writers),  10 episodes, Ryan Murphy, Anthony Hemingway, and  John Singleton (directors) The People vs O. J. Simpson: An American Crime Story / 2016

The ten segments of The People v. O. J. Simpson—let’s forget the “American Crime Story” moniker, which clearly demeans this powerful multi-series, presenting it as a series along with the later dark dramas of Dominick Dunne’s determined and salaciously melodramatic crime sagas—is a remarkably, dramatic work that reveals so much about American culture in the late 1990s that it is truly painful to watch.       Let us begin with the fact—and despite the circus of the “American dream team’s” ridiculous theatrics, these are facts, given the DNA evidence and obvious O. J. Simpson self-evidentiary actions and statements—that O. J. Simpson actually murdered two people, his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and waiter Ron Goldman. Perhaps the truth hardly matters, given the bitter anger of the Los Angeles black community, after years of harassment from Los Angeles police and other authorities. Facts in this situation, much life today in Trump’s administration, give way to “alternative facts.” Reality does not exist. And I remember, so very clearly, that every white person I knew thought Simpson was absolutely guilty, and every black I knew (admittedly a smaller community of my friends) insisted upon his innocence.
       Despite any bridging of the divide we might have thought we had accomplished after the terrible events surrounding the Rodney King trial, in this instance it had completely eroded.  This was not a simple difference of opinion; this event became a cultural divide that, in a sense, made it clear about the differences in Los Angeles between being black, Mexican, and white. And I am afraid that, even today, these vast cultural wounds have never quite healed.
     There is no question that the Fox version of the story supports the white version of events, although the writers and directors have gone out their way to show and demonstrate why the black community was committed to their  “other” vision. For years, police had—and we might add continue to—harass and even kill blacks arrested for the slightest of altercations. The very fact that police detectives such as Mark Furhman (performed by Steven Pasquale), with his deep racial hatred, even existed in the police force was abominable, and remains so still today: we all know that such racial anger and hatred has never quite gone away, and we should be outraged by its existence.
      Yet this film also reveals another kind of terrible hypocrisy and dishonesty in the figures of Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), who, along with their colleagues, the almost always drunken F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), the doubt-ridden Robert Karadashian (David Schwimmer), and the slightly disinterested, but seemingly mean-hearted Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow), reveal the true cynicism of the American justice system in a way that anyone with a sense of honesty can only protest with tears and cries of injustice. The “Dream Team” were determined to take the justice system and the American public hostage so that they could never, ever know what truth might be. The pain of their actions is palpable, and Cochran’s self-aggrandizement is matched only by Shapiro’s disappointed loss of self-advertisement. At least Cochran has a seemingly moral outrage having to do with his many years of encounters with police as a black man. Shapiro had no excuse except his own ego. Yet Cochran—with even a bigger ego, and no sense of compromise, was willing even to possibly send the whole city of Los Angeles into another race riot if he didn’t get his way.  He almost succeeds.
      If Simpson walks away a free man, nobody else in this movie gets off so easily. All suffer terrible falls from power. Cochran, Shapiro, Scheck and even the overly acclaimed Allen Dershowitz are shown up as greedy lawyers who will do anything to release their clients—particularly when they have deep pockets to pay them. All are presented as truly despicable figures, Cochranrevealed as having the same wife-beating tendencies as Simpson. It is impossible, after seeing this film, to sympathize with any of them.  
      My companion Howard relates a story wherein, soon after the trial, Robert Shapiro entered the famous Beverly Hills restaurant, The Grill, and the entire place, filled with Hollywood executives, suddenly grew quiet; today I might, having watched this film, jeered him as a fool.
      Marcia Clark (played quite brilliantly by Sara Paulson), along with her decent and loving assistant attorney, Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), despite their valiant attempts, were clearly in over their heads, and were no match to the “Dream Team’s” theatrics. Yet these two, above all, can be seen as failed heroes in their attempts to represent “the people,” when all of us had lost our rational heads in the process of listening to this daily national soap-opera.
     The fact that Clark was, at the very same time, experiencing the most difficult aspects of a divorce from her husband—a man determined to take her children away from her—is an even more startling fact in this film of larger-than-life revelations; and that she might have developed a near-romantic relationship with Darden truly reveals her need and humanity. The beautiful scene in which she joins him on a trip to Darden’s old friend in Oakland shows us a Clark that might never have been imagined during her duty as a trial lawyer. She knows how to engage people and to truly tell them a narrative (one of the sub-themes of this movie) better than anyone.
     The kind and considerate Darden cannot bring himself to take advantage of his sexual possibilities with his boss. Maybe he should have. But, nonetheless, he forged with Clark a relationship that outshines any other in this film. We grow to admire them even as they grow to hate themselves.
      A close friend of mine, who shall go unnamed, told me a story that, when he worked as reporter, he’d seen Clark enter a specially hired bus (where she was going, he never revealed), whereupon she immediately begin to have sex with several of the busses’ occupants. How he might have known what was going on inside the bus as he stood outside seeing her off, was never explained. But what I know today is that the sexism which Clark had to suffer is so far beyond the pale that it’s hardly even expressible. The fact that, despite being raped early in life, she represented raped women, and built up a career in a male-dominated world (in one of the funniest scenes in the movie, Los Angeles head of attorney’s Gil Garcetti--father to the current Los Angeles City mayor--tries to hint that she should get a complete make-over), is astounding. Maria Clark, who soon after this trial (along with Darden) left her position, is quite clearly this movie’s hero. And is Darden, even despite his terrible decision, against Clark’s warnings, to have Simpson put on the gloves, which didn’t quite (purposely) fit.
       These two were destroyed by the Simpson trial, as surely were the careers of the self-serving Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, and F. Anthony Bailey, even if they continue to work as lawyers still today. The saddest of all fallen angels was Robert Karadashian, a close friend and ally of both Nicole and O. J. As the evidence mounts, only he, of the defendants, begins to actually wonder or, at least, imagine: was O. J. really guilty? As the series proceeds and the amount of testimony reveals Simpson’s guilt, he grows more and more uncomfortable with the facts. By the time Simpson (a not very comfortable-in-the role Cuba J. Gooding) is freed, he discovers he has also his close friendship with Karadashian and others, who guess the truth which even O. J. cannot admit to himself.
      This may be the most poignant relationship in the entire film. How does a close friend admit to himself what he doesn’t really want to know? His pain is palpable throughout the last several parts of the series. His combed-back hairdo seems to get higher and whiter as the “Dream Teams” accomplishes their goals. But he can only go forward, reassuring his ex-wife, now Kris Jenner, that when it is over, they might be free. But we know, only too well, the terrible effects of such cultural saturation.
     In 2003, Karadashian died of esophageal cancer. His excited kids, as presented in this film, later became the totally self-absorbed characters of the Keeping Up with the Kardashians reality television series, a terrible transformation of his own offspring that he might never have imagined, with ultimately, the family’s new father, former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner, transforming into the transgendered female, Caitlyn.
      It’s these strange twists and turns of this film which make it seem almost impossible to believe, even though we know this fictional rendition is actually history. How might we have imagined that the judge himself, Lance Ito, might almost have been brought down by Furhman’s reactions to Ito’s wife, describing her as a monster? How to imagine that Cochran was himself a wife-beating abuser.
      And then, how might we imagined that, after his freedom, Simpson himself, would enter a room to reclaim his trophies, gun in hand, resulting in a 33-year sentence of imprisonment? Well, we might have imagined that. After all, he had gotten away with murder.
      The author of the book on which this series is base, Jeffrey Toobin, proffers up his views on numerous other political lives many days on CNN, and just now appeared on my television set again. Perhaps we all caught up in a major pyscho-drama that may never end?
       Simpson, as this movie portrays, altered nearly every life in which he came in contact. I first thought of describing this film as a kind of “American Tragedy,” and of comparing it with Dreiser’s novel. But no, now I don’t see this as a true tragedy; rather, I see it as a strange monstrosity, a “toxic” world (as the movie itself describes it) from which there is no perceptible exit. Simpson, the grand American football hero, was a fiend that those playing fields all too often produce. We have far too much of the record of those “heroes’” abuse and their own mental deficiencies for their torturous beatings on that field—not so very different, frankly, from the military fields into which we send out young soliders. No, I no longer think of this as a tragedy, but of a vast American failure, a part of a much, much larger failure of American imagination.
       Two innocent people died. And their killer got away. And all of my black friends, with good reason, will always believe “he was innocent.” I’m afraid the entire American system suffered in that long-ago decision.
      I might just add, my dear friend and former editor, Diana Daves, appeared for several episodes as a juror, who was later dismissed because, without her knowing it, she shared an arthritis doctor with Simpson. I believe her replacement on the jury was the character described as “the demon,” who, despite her belief that Simpson was guilty, was convinced by the majority that she should change her verdict.

Los Angeles, February 14, 2017

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