Thursday, February 4, 2016

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story 1x01 "From the Ashes of Tragedy" (And So It Begins) [Contributor: Rae Nudson]

"From the Ashes of Tragedy"
Original Airdate: February 2, 2016

A man walking his dog in a wealthy neighborhood in L.A. sees blood on the street. He follows the path and finds two people, a man and a woman, covered in blood. As the police swarm in, the camera slowly pans over clues I recognize: the glove, the bloody footprints, and, later, a white Bronco. The characters — who are playing real people discovering a real murder — don’t know what will happen in this murder case, but I do.

Or, at least, I think I do. I was eight years old when O.J. was acquitted, much too young to understand it. Not that any adults following the case at the time completely understood it either. (I’m not doing spoiler alerts, guys, there’s no spoilers in real life, and this case is over 20 years old. Plus the show assumes we know the ending, and it will help discussions if we just lay it all out there.)

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story does a great job setting the mood of the country before the trial by opening the show with scenes of the Rodney King riots. Nothing happens in isolation, and much of history is a reaction to what came before, like the swinging of a pendulum.


Rodney King was a black man beaten by the police in 1992, two years before Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found dead by a neighbor walking his dog. His beating was videotaped by a bystander, and four LAPD officers were charged with use of excessive force. They were all acquitted. After the acquittal, riots began in L.A. and lasted for six days, only ending after the National Guard was called in. Scenes of these riots are what began this episode.

If this sounds familiar to the Ferguson riots in 2014, that’s because it is. We are still swinging on that pendulum.

It is only within this context that the O.J. Simpson trial became what it did: huge and heated. I don’t know what it was like for our international readers, but for the U.S., it was inescapable.

Of course, part of why it got so huge was O.J.’s celebrity. He was beloved by L.A. — and the LAPD — and, like someone in this episode says, people just couldn’t imagine O.J. killing anyone. And who would want to? Most people don’t want to be actively complicit in admiring a murderer and allowing them to commit a crime. This can lead to denial, which just leads to keeping beloved people beloved.

American Crime Story nestles into these contradictions by setting up the characters well right from the get-go, exploring who they are, how they became involved with this case, and how they feel about it. Even though the camera slowly panned over the sordid details — zooming in on spots of blood and making sure to include younger versions of Kim Kardashian and her sisters — the show seems like what it will really be diving into is people’s headspace surrounding this crime, and how the mood of the country influenced the case and vice versa.


Marcia Clark is my favorite. She seems good at her job, often like she’s the smartest person in the room — and often she is the only woman in the room. In fact, if everyone had listened to her, O.J. would have been in custody and the chase in the white Bronco never would have happened. Marcia is the one who points out how the police failed Nicole by not arresting O.J. any of the eight previous times she called the police on him. She also explains how the police failed again when they interviewed O.J. now, after the murder. As the scene cuts between the police interview and Marcia listening to the recording in her office, she interrupts each time the police fail to question O.J. to nail down his timeline of when Nicole was killed. Each hole in the interview will make it easier for O.J. to contradict later and fill in any way he likes.

Her frustration is clear in her voice and her expressions, and Sarah Paulson plays her as if she cares a lot about the victims and getting them justice. After she listens to the fiasco of the interview, she claims confidently that even though O.J. got away with beating Nicole, he will not get away with killing her. It’s moments like these that make it clear the show knows the audience knows what will happen. Marcia will not get justice in this case, and O.J. will get away with what she believes he did. The camera pauses on her for a beat after she says this, and in that moment, the audience can really feel for Marcia and the future we know is coming.

Robert Kardashian seems like a well-meaning friend who got taken in by O.J.’s charms. (Who can blame him, though, when a lot of other people did, too?) They seem to have a real friendship, and Robert wants to be there for O.J. (who he affectionately calls Juice) just as O.J. was there for him during his break-up with Kris Jenner (yes, that Kris Jenner). Robert signs on to help O.J. with the case, and it will be interesting to see him struggle with the facts and his view of his friend. He was already conflicted after O.J. failed the lie detector test, and I imagine it will only get worse.

Johnnie Cochran isn’t yet involved directly in the Simpson case, but he will be soon enough. His introduction paints him as a person defending black men from systemic injustices. He seems brave and warm, and he knows right away that it looks like O.J. has a losing case.

And of course, the key player in all of this is O.J., a man who has a statue of himself in his yard. O.J. is at the center of this story, but I find myself less interested in him than in everyone around him. Part of this is because the show isn’t showing O.J. committing a crime, or admitting to it. The show is more about the reaction to O.J. than the accused murderer himself.


This series is the perfect way to examine the case and its effect on American culture. It’s not a documentary, it’s a scripted series based on a book that, according to an interview with Marcia Clark, got a lot of things wrong in the first place. It’s a dramatization of real events that were dramatized for the trial itself, which was dramatized in the media. And just as in the case, the facts don’t matter — how people feel about the facts does.

I am by no mean an expert on the O.J. Simpson trial, so I do not know every inconsistency, but one I thought was most interesting is the line when the police notify O.J. of Nicole’s death. In the show, the police officer tells O.J. that Nicole was killed, and when he hangs up, he notes to his partner that O.J. did not ask how Nicole died. In real life, the police officer told O.J. that Nicole was dead, and O.J. said “Who killed her?”

I don’t know why they went a different way in the show, but I suspect it’s because what O.J. said in real life is so unbelievable that if it were scripted it wouldn’t seem realistic. In this case, the line between real and fiction is crossed over and over again.

Notes from the case file:
  • The phone call to Nicole from her children that the answering machine picks up is brutal. She was killed with her children in the house, y’all. 
  • I read a great interview with Marcia Clark on her feelings watching the show, which made me like her even more.
  • The hair and make-up team is on point. Everyone looks fantastically ridiculous, just like the real people did in the '90s. Did you see those eyebrows on Travolta? Did you see the eyebrows on the real Robert Shapiro? 
Tune in text week for the famous car chase. Until then, you can find me on Twitter. What did you think?


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