Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story 1x05 Review: “The Race Card” (Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game) [Contributor: Rae Nudson]

“The Race Card”
Original Airdate: March 1, 2016

The opening and closing scenes of this episode are two different powerful images of racism. The opening flashes back to when Johnnie Cochran was an assistant district attorney and was pulled over for the third time in one week. Before the cop knows who he is, he asks Johnnie to get out of the car and handcuffs him in front of white passersby and his two young daughters in the backseat. The cop says he was pulled over for not using a turn signal to switch lanes, but Johnnie knows better. The end of the episode shows problematic witness (which is, uh, quite the understatement) Mark Furhman cleaning the case holding his World War II memorabilia (“WWII memorabilia” is often code for “Nazi stuff,” right?). As he shines the case enclosing a medal with a swastika on it, Mark looks on in reverence, his hands slowly caressing the glass. These are the perfect bookends to an episode that looks at the state using its power to persecute.

At least, that’s the narrative that Johnnie Cochran is going with: that the police and the state are racist institutions and they zeroed in on O.J. as the murderer because he is black. Johnnie knows that it’s not evidence that will win this case – if that were true they wouldn’t have a chance. Instead, a strong narrative will win. And it looks like Johnnie is a master storyteller.

You can see Johnnie’s skills when he schools Chris Darden in a debate over using the N-word in court in a pivotal scene. Darden was up first to address Judge Ito. He claimed that if they put Mark Furhman on the stand, the defense would unnecessarily bring up Furhman’s past use of the N-word to make it look like he is a racist cop. (Spoiler: he is actually a racist cop.) Darden said that because the N-word automatically brings up so many emotions, it can effectively blind people to what else is being said. As he was speaking, I found myself following along. Sure, I thought, that makes sense.

And then Johnnie started speaking. With the cadence of a preacher, Johnnie delivered a sermon. Black people live with offensive words and treatment every day, he said, and to pretend they couldn’t see the truth because someone said a word they hear all too often was outrageous. “Who are any of us to testify as an expert on what words black people can or cannot handle?” he said. “Your honor, across America, believe you me, African Americans are offended at this very moment. And so, for a friend I deeply respect, I would say this is outlandish, unfortunate, and unwarranted.”

This scene is incredible, and both Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown, who play Johnnie and Chris, respectively, mesmerize as they make their cases. Vance is truly exceptional as Johnnie Cochran and plays him with such depth. Brown’s Chris Darden is more understated but equally powerful. You can clearly see the conflict within him as he tries to navigate going up against his former mentor in court and being the only black man on a team he believes is fighting for the truth.

Both men have points in their N-word debate, but Johnnie is better at making his. And because of this, Johnnie has the support of his church and his community while Chris Darden is ostracized. Their divide highlights what we already know: Nothing about this system is fair. At the same time that Johnnie Cochran defended looking into Mark Furhman’s past, his team tried to get O.J.’s past excluded from the trial. Yes, O.J. has a long history of domestic abuse toward the murder victim, but they claimed that this was a murder trial, not a domestic abuse trial. (Are your eyes starting to bug out of your head, yet? Because mine are.)

Johnnie also had the sense to “redecorate” O.J.’s house before the jury toured the crime scenes. Johnnie brought in his own artwork to replace all the naked pictures of O.J.’s girlfriend with pictures of O.J.’s mother and pictures of someone else’s more respectable-looking family. He also had Nicole’s house cleared out of all her furniture and things to erase any trace of her as a person and mother. Nicole and O.J.’s houses are changed so much, there doesn’t seem to be a point to the jury touring the crime scene at all. Why bother seeing it if it didn’t look anything like it did when the crime occurred? (Because Johnnie is setting up a good story, that’s why.)

The system is definitely broken, but Johnnie has learned to work the system so that he gets what he wants. And Johnnie doesn’t want to be respectful; he wants to win – and he specifically wants to win for black men. Who could blame him, really, for not playing fair? In another powerful scene, Johnnie purposefully mentions witnesses in his opening statement that he knows his team has forgotten to turn over to the prosecution. Rightfully so, the prosecution interrupts his opening statements to let the judge know of this misstep. Prosecutor Bill Hodgman gets so worked up that he has a heart attack right there in the courtroom. (This was definitely embellished for the show, but Bill did have chest pains and stepped down later on for health reasons.)

Chris Darden steps up to replace Bill, but he is not as confident in navigating courtroom politics as Johnnie is. When Chris says over and over again that Mark Furhman is not a good witness for this case, his concerns are brushed aside repeatedly. In the coming weeks, I am sure that Marcia will wish she listened to Chris.

Notes from the case file:
  • How big of a baby is Robert Shapiro? I love that Johnnie’s way of dealing with him is to ignore him and keep working. 
  • Cutting between the defense’s and the prosecution’s meetings was nifty. 
  • It kills me that they ignored Chris Darden’s protests about Mark Furhman. Maybe a black man is actually more qualified to say that someone is racist and that a racist cop would be a problem in the prosecution of a black man? Just an idea. I think Marcia was stuck and was either ordered to include Mark in the defense, or she felt like she had to because he discovered the glove. Either way, it turns out to be a really bad move. Hindsight is everything, I guess.
  • “If you act polite, then you are polite.” That is true! But who among us hasn’t felt like someone saying all the right things was actually full of it?
  • Look, I’m not proud of it, but I would 100% be a person at a fancy dinner party asking for sordid details of a murder trial. 
  • Judge Ito makes everyone uncomfortable with his fondness for publicity. 


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