We’re now a month away from the series premiere of American Crime Story, the latest ensemble anthology drama from the team (and network) behind the beloved American Horror Story. This first season will dramatize the O. J. Simpson trial, with Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson and AHS regular Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark.
The Simpson trial may seem like an odd launching point for the new series. Certainly, it has endured as a cultural reference in the 20 years since the verdict, but it’s also incredibly dated as an artefact of the ’90s. With so many more timely cases to explore, why choose this one first?
Perhaps, however, the Simpson trial only seems dated on the surface. In a recent profile by The Hollywood Reporter, executive producer Brad Simpson (no relation to O. J.) explained that, although the premise of Season 1 was not initially intended to be an allegory for the current-day racial justice movement, the parallels aren’t lost on him — and they won’t be lost on the audience, either.
“As [the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others] happened, we started to realize, ‘Oh, we’re not going to have to be telling people why the race story is important,'” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was intense to be working on a show and watching the news come out and feeling like we’re not making a historical piece anymore.”
This point is an interesting one — in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, continued police brutality and the astronomically high death rate of black men in the United States, is there anything we can learn from revisiting O. J. Simpson’s saga?
Now, there are some key differences between the deaths of Martin, Brown, Tamir Rice and others, and the trial of O. J. Simpson. The first is that, unlike these young men, Simpson is very much alive. He is wealthy and famous, with all of the privilege that accompanies those statuses. He also may actually be guilty of murder. Even though Simpson was acquitted of murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her alleged boyfriend Ronald Goldman, he has all but admitted his guilt in the years since. None of this can be said for the young black men who have been murdered by white police officers simply for being black.
That said, there were strong tensions within white and black communities alike when the trial took place. Notable for being broadcast so publicly on television, every aspect of the trial was racially divided, from the lawyers to the jury to the spectators, not to mention the defendant and the victims. And, certainly, there was racism at play in the courtroom. It’s possible, then, that examining the O. J. trial in light of an increased cultural awareness of racism in the criminal and legal systems would be beneficial in every conceivable way. By reconsidering the facts of what went down in the courtroom — and in the media circus outside the doors — we might be able to better understand the system that has destroyed the lives of so many people of color, both historically and in recent years. Similarly, revisiting the trial and the cultural conversations surrounding it might provide insight into ways in which we can continue those conversations today. As with all media consumption, it’s important to look critically at how the material is being presented, but it’s entirely possible that American Crime Story will add some nuance to our present understanding of racial justice and the media’s role in addressing it.
I do fear that it’s a bit disingenuous of American Crime Story‘s producers to claim that their show has strong ties to the advocacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. If they truly wanted to take a historic case with parallels to the current state of racial justice in the United States, they could have chosen to focus on the Rodney King case. King, a black man, was beaten by police officers; much like the Eric Garner case, his assault was captured on camera. And, much like the tragedies that have mobilized so many people in the last few years, the police who harmed King were later acquitted. The King case is also an artefact of the ’90s, but one with much clearer parallels to current conversations. Depending on how the treatment of racism and racial justice in Season 1 is received by audiences, perhaps we’ll see a dramatization of King’s assault in a future instalment.
Tune into FX on Feb. 2 to watch the premiere of The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story.