When Netflix first recommended that my husband and I should watch The People v O.J. Simpson, I rolled my eyes. I then proceeded to tell him how I knew all about the trial because I had watched it as a kid. It was one of the first current event and news stories I’d followed religiously growing up (yes, I’m showing my age, but too bad) and it captivated the whole country – it was all anyone talked about and I figured I knew the story backwards and forward. Well, I was wrong. American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson is still compelling, surprising and absolutely worth watching, even if you followed the original trial every day.
For something that took place over 20 years ago, the themes and issues of the trial are still incredibly relevant. DNA isn’t new science anymore, and thanks to all the crime procedural shows a modern jury would probably convict based on the evidence. However, the question of police integrity is still alive. Watching the scenes of the Rodney King beating, the tension and riots in LA just a couple of years before the O.J. trial, it makes sense why the jury didn’t trust the police. It’s like the events recently in the US – after cops have killed so many unarmed black kids, I now immediately assume the police are at fault when I hear yet another story about a police shooting.
20 years later and racial tension in America (and worldwide) is still high. In fact, looking at some of the right-wing movements around the world, it feels particularly applicable today. Can people trust cops of a different race? Is there corruption in the system, and how high up does it go?
But it’s not just racial issues that are at play. To watch the media circus of the O.J. trial as an adult now, I couldn’t help but empathize with Marcia Clark. Beyond the fact that Sarah Paulson gave a magnificent performance, Clark’s character is going through the same things women deal with today – going head to head against a dream team of men in a male-dominated career, trying to juggle important work with childcare, and then getting shamed in the media for the way she dresses or her hair style. I remember those things happening, but it’s only now that I understand how perfectly her experience mirrored the sexism we see today, how even high-powered women are undermined or viewed negatively simply because of their gender.
It’s also interesting to see the various characters and understand their impact on our pop culture today. I always saw Robert Kardashian sitting next to O.J. in the trial, but I never really knew what he did. Now I understand that he was more of a friend than an attorney, and yet he was the one with the greatest doubts about if his friend was innocent. And of course it’s intriguing that O.J. Simpson’s trial was one of the first doses of reality TV for the American audience, and Kardashian’s kids would go on to epitomize that genre.
Then there are all the details and behind the scenes elements that simply weren’t covered at the time. I always assumed there was a romance between Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, but when you see the situation they were in, their closeness and friendship makes more sense. I also finally got a better feel for the drama within the “dream team” and how the lawyers weren’t necessarily working well together, even if they did eventually get their client off. The experience of the jurors, the way Cochran played the press and even swayed Judge Ito… the list goes on and on. Sure, I watched the trial happen at the time, but now I feel like I really understand it and can see its importance today.
The Oscar Pistorius trial highlighted for South Africans the differences in the justice system that still exist for white and black citizens. We ended up talking about domestic violence against women, about gun control, and about celebrity justice. It seems that some issues are still deeply ingrained in our society, but at least that time the verdict proved to be vindication for the victim. For the locals who heard comparisons with the O.J. trial and never really understood it (beyond the high-profile nature of the case and its ubiquity), this is a fantastic opportunity.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson is on Netflix (yes, including South African Netflix) and truly is phenomenal. If you watched the original trial, you will be amazed at the deeper insight the series offers. If you never knew about the original trial, at least you can enjoy the truly phenomenal performances from the likes of Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Schwimmer, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, Kenneth Choi and Nathan Lane.