The People v. O.J. Simpson and our fascination for true crime
What you deserve to watch:
Stanley Kubrick once wondered what would happen if artists made a pornographic film. Smut, but with superb cinematography, lighting, writing and direction. In talks with ribald novelist Terry Southern for a particularly juicy adaptation, it was a task the master considered but passed on, and the idea of beautiful porn—as opposed to elegant erotica—remains an elusive dream.
The closest we get, I believe, is with the craft and artistry we now find in the lurid genre of true-crime recreation. From the format-rejuvenating Serial podcast to superlative shows like The Jinx and Show Me a Hero, true crime is now handled with sensitivity and skill by talented aces, sharpening their claws with fact. When done right, the genre flaunts the breathless, captivating breadth of great long-form journalism. And nobody has pulled it off quite as well as the show covering ‘the trial of the twentieth century.’
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson tells us about an inescapably huge case. We are all aware a famous footballer was— preposterously—acquitted of the cold-blooded, brutal murder of his ex-wife and her lover despite hard evidence pointing his way. We know who he was (from his supporting part in the Naked Gun movies if not from sport) and we know he later shamelessly co-wrote a book “hypothetically” detailing how he would have committed the crime. (On the cover of the book titled If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer, the “If” was nearly hidden.)
Developed by crackerjack screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski—who wrote Tim Burton’s finest film Ed Wood, besides other scripts about singularly odd real people—this show doubles down on the detail. Based on a book by Jeffrey Toobin, the series obsessively makes use of its ten-hour canvas to tell us how incredibly things unfolded in what could have been a straightforward arrest and trial. As it stands, nothing at all remained straightforward, and zooming novelistically through a highly compelling, brilliantly cast set of real-life characters, the show keeps tightening its grip on the narrative. And the audience.
Everything is nuance. Time, for example, in a quest for sensation, overdid the chiaroscuro they added to Simpson’s face. “They made him blacker,” says an incredulous magazine vendor, also black, shaking his head. Made in a world where we still need to say Black Lives Matter, the show delves critically, mercilessly into race dynamics. Simpson, as a star footballer, had embraced gentrification eagerly, leaving his background behind. Black jurors watch Martin Lawrence’s sitcom, while OJ, in prison, is a Seinfeld man— one who wants Kramer to get his own show. “He became white,” says a black lawyer with disdain. “Well, he got the cops chasing him,” retort his friends, laughing. “He’s black now.”
The series begins almost too drily, breaking facts stripped of background score as the investigations begin and the camera snakes around increasingly alert panicked faces. It is only at the end of the first episode, with the sardonic song choice of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released (belted out by Nina Simone), that things get well and truly cinematic. By now we have met some principal players—OJ, his buddy Robert Kardashian, his lawyer Bob Shapiro, head prosecutor Marcia Clark, the inimitable Johnnie Cochran—and it’s hard not to be hooked by each of them.
Cochran, played with startling conviction and icy flair by Courtney B. Vance, is instantly charismatic, an iconic lawyer deliberating what suit to wear to Neverland—“I can’t wear lime, Michael’s afraid of that colour”—and becomes the lynchpin of the dramatic narrative. Things happen because Cochran, that well-dressed sledgehammer, causes or reacts to them. Sarah Paulson is brilliant as the steely but vulnerable Clark, an unfairly hated prosecutor who keeps a Jim Morrison poster behind her desk and both tequila and whiskey inside of it.
(Both these actors deservedly won Emmys last week, the show—streaming in India on Hotstar— winning seven more, including the hard-fought prize for Outstanding Limited Series.)
The level of character detailing is staggering, and I found myself frequently drawn to the clueless Kardashian—David Schwimmer, true to form, playing a man recently divorced—who believes blindly in OJ’s innocence. A close friend who needs to believe The Juice hasn’t done it, Schwimmer plays the part with a valiant, hopeless desperation as the scales gradually fall from his eyes. He is a man constantly out of his depth, particularly when lecturing his kids (yes, those kids) about how virtue matters more than fame.
It was historic, the first trial to cannibalise every television station, even pushing the 1994 NBA finals to a corner of the screen. Cuba Gooding Jr. is fine as Simpson himself, but the circus is far more interesting than the man—even if he signs suicide notes with a smiley face. American Crime Story, with its invasive cinematography and its muscular, tense directing style, gets it. It knows that all you need from Kiss From A Rose are the opening bars and not the song.
At one point, OJ and his legal ‘dream team’ sit in a boardroom furiously dismissing a tell-all book about the victim. The book has already been tossed aside when Shapiro speaks. “Lesbian sex, page 197,” he says, sending every single person scurrying to the passage in question. Gay Talese would be proud. In storytelling, as in court, it’s all about knowing which words are most loaded.
What life’s too short to watch:
Brand new on Netflix is Joe Swanberg’s Easy, an anthology of eight Chicago-based vignettes about love, relationships and sex. Swanberg, the pioneer of mumblecore cinema, assembles a lovely cast—Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dave Franco, Kiersey Clemons— but the self-contained episodes, while well-written and relatable, add to nothing and end up oddly unfulfilling. We’ve seen mumblecore done masterfully on television— from Togetherness to High Maintenance— and this doesn’t hit the spot. Easy is a mocktail.
Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen