As soon as it premiered, The People v. O.J. Simpson was earning rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Everyone is blown away by the performances, the writing and the production value, and it seems clear that the American Crime Story brand is Ryan Murphy’s latest success. But lots of shows have talented casts and crisp scripts — what’s making The People v. O.J. Simpson stand out?
Arguably, it’s the fact that the show has prioritized taking what many would see as very dated events and characters and making them incredibly relevant to audiences raised on hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #YesAllWomen.
In a recent interview with Variety, Cuba Gooding Jr., the show’s star, discussed the importance that art plays in discussing socially relevant topics.
“I saw that movie Straight Outta Compton,” he said. “You need that artistic outlet.”
He went on to say that he believes that The People v. O.J. Simpson provides a very similar outlet: “Artistry enables people to understand ‘we hear you. We’re as frustrated as you are. Let’s talk and open this dialogue.’ I think that’s what this show does.”
From the very first episode, The People v. O.J. Simpson commits to making a 20-year-old legal case relevant for a 21st century audience. There are a few wink-wink, nod-nod moments, like when a young Kris Jenner (Selma Blair) scolds her daughters for running amok during Nicole Brown Simpson’s funeral or when Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) implores a suicidal O.J. not to shoot himself in “Kimmy’s bedroom.” “See, this still matters,” the show insists. “Come see your favorite pop culture icons as kids!”
But much of it is more subtle than that, in a way that’s extremely effective. The truth is, millennials like myself remember the Bronco chase and the sentencing, but the racial and sexual politics of the trial aren’t as easy for us to recall. We might “know” (because we’ve been told) that O.J.’s trial was a critical moment for discussions of racial justice in the U.S., but what does that have to do with our lives today? And what relevance does Nicole’s murder have to present-day feminism?
A lot more than we thought, it seems.
The first episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson hints at the tension that’s to come between Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), a challenging feat given that the characters have no scenes together in the episode. The show is careful to not take a side, at least not explicitly, showing that both lawyers have very good reasons for approaching the case as passionately as they do.
Johnnie is tired of police officers getting off the hook for killing unarmed black people, and he works hard to prevent any more innocent black men and women from going to jail. He even jokes that he wouldn’t take the O.J. case if asked because he’s so certain that the jury would find him guilty. (Cochran did eventually join O.J.’s legal team, but we may need to wait a few episodes to see that play out on the show.)
Meanwhile, Marcia has witnessed too many rich and powerful men get away with abusing the women in their lives. Though the evidence that O.J. actually murdered Nicole isn’t conclusive, the fact that he has prior charges of battery against her makes Marcia very suspicious. She commits herself to the prosecution, promising that she will find some justice for the women who so desperately need it.
Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark aren’t the cultural icons today that they were in the ‘90s, but the issues they felt passionate about are as relevant as ever. It’s not hard to draw a connection between Johnnie’s anger at white cops and today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Nor is it difficult to see how Marcia’s passion laid the groundwork for current movements advocating for the safety of women in their homes, in their neighborhoods, at work, on college campuses and online. These are issues we hear and think about daily, and often we shy away from media that depicts them too directly, fearing that it will hit too close to home.
This is the beauty of a show like The People v. O.J. Simpson or a movie like Straight Outta Compton. Beneath the ‘90s nostalgia, there’s a real message about the very issues that we still face today. And because we’re somewhat removed from the specific events and cultural references, those deeper messages are much easier to digest. By watching a show set in the very specific cultural landscape of Southern California in the ‘90s, we can engage with the events at face value before taking a moment to consider how those very issues are continually reflected back daily two decades later.
This may not be the issue on which audiences are most fixated in the moment while they’re watching — the Kardashian jokes are certainly going to pop out more explicitly. But I suspect that this undercurrent of cultural relevance is the reason people will still be talking about The People v. O.J. Simpson once Emmy season rolls around.