Jae C. Hong/AFP/Getty Images; FX
Jae C. Hong/AFP/Getty Images; FX
Shock. Disbelief. And though even now I hate to admit it, a bit of relief.
Those were the three emotions I experienced on Oct. 3, 1995, after a TV had been wheeled into our classroom for us to witness the live verdict being read in the O.J. Simpson trial.
The relief came not because I didn't think O.J. did it (I wasn't completely sure), but because I was at a teenager at a Los Angeles school bordering a neighborhood that was hard hit during the Rodney King riots, and we were all on edge—thanks, in part, to multiple warnings from the school administration that a guilty verdict could elicit more riots, and the precautions we should take.
Did O.J. do it? None of us in that class really knew, or at least, no one felt sure enough to say. But we could all tell you about the glove not fitting (the image seen round the world) and every awful thing that was said about Marcia Clark's hair—you know, the important things the media focused on in the "trial of the century."
When I first watched last night's mind-blowing premiere of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, I felt a sickening wave of disgust as I recalled my feelings about the verdict, and about the trial in general, given that the only important issue that truly mattered, of course, was the thought that two innocent people, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, were murdered. A mother who was stabbed to death on her front steps as she must have desperately worried about what would become of her two sleeping children inside. A friend whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Somehow, all of that was lost.
A few weeks after watching the premiere, Sterling K. Brown, the breakout star who plays prosecutor Chris Darden—just wait ‘til you see his stunning performance ahead—opened up to me about his own reaction when the verdict was read in 1995, and how it has changed.
"I was a freshman at Stanford University in the Ujamaa House," he recalled, "which is 50 percent African American and 50 percent other. And as that verdict came down, we black folks, we acted a fool, because we were ridiculously happy and the white folks stared at us like we were acting a fool. ‘How could you be so happy?!' When you've been pulled over numerous times for doing nothing, when you've been followed or profiled, which is the experience of many, many young black men, it's nice to see that, you know what, I belong in this system. It was a sort of vindicating experience that I'm not always going to be the victim. Sometimes, I get held up. And that's what that verdict was to me."
Now, after spending close to a year working on the FX miniseries and digging deep into the facts of the trial, Brown says he sees it all differently. "It was a 180 for me in that I recognize what I didn't see at that time because I was so mad about the Los Angeles Police Department and Rodney King, what I didn't see was that two innocent people had their lives brutally taken away from them. And I feel like that becomes an afterthought rather than the forethought of what this case should have been."
Most of the rest of the cast of The People v. O.J. have decided to remain silent about whether they think O.J. did it, though they admit to having far more insight than they did 20 years ago.
"If we did our job right, people will understand how they came up with that verdict based on incompetence on many different levels," Cuba Gooding Jr. who plays O.J. himself, tells me. "And I hope even in that statement, I hope you don't think that I think he's guilty or innocent. But there are things to be evaluated so that we can correct certain issues within society and within our judicial system."
David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian) , John Travolta (Bob Shapiro) and Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran) also noted that their opinions did not change regarding O.J.'s guilt, going through the shooting process. "I think the minimum you'll go away with is, understanding why the result was why it was," Travolta adds.
"My opinion about the verdict didn't change," echoes Sarah Paulson, "The only thing that changed is just an important thing in life in general. You cannot know until you walk in their shoes. We are so quick to judge. I don't think any of us can really ever know."
One person who firmly believes O.J. is guilty is perhaps the most important voice to thie story: Jeffrey Toobin, the author of the book on which this 10-part FX miniseries is based.
"My book and this series differ in one way," Toobin tells me. "I have always been very clear that I think O.J. is guilty. The series doesn't take an explicit position…I think the producers didn't want this series to be about whether he did it or not. They meant it to be about how the events unfolded and why they arrived at the verdict they did."
"I think there's so much evidence about his guilt," says Scott Alexander, who co-wrote the scripts. "And what we've tried to do with this show is show how it slipped through the fingers of the prosecution's team."
If you watched the first episode, you know that the mind-blowing details provided in just the first 30 minutes seemed iron-clad. The blood trail, the cut on his left hand, the timeline, the glove, the history of domestic abuse, the fact that he didn't ask how Nicole died….It was a stunning reminder of everything the prosecution had.
Remarkably, The People v. O.J. Simpson is devastatingly addictive for the exact same reason as America's other latest true-crime TV obsession: Netflix's Making a Murderer. Both expose the worst evils of the criminal justice system at the hands of, as Steven Avery's defense attorney Dean Strang puts it in Murderer, "just a tragic lack of humility of everyone who participates in our criminal justice system."
"A tragic lack of humility." There really could not be a more perfect description for what lies ahead on The People v. O.J. Simpson.
David Schwimmer refers to it as "hubris," a k a excessive pride and arrogance. "It was incredibly illuminating to be able to understand," he explains, "from a human perspective, what both the prosecution and defense were experiencing. For me, the biggest thing was learning how hubris played a part in both the prosecution and the defense determining the outcome of the trial."
Yes, both the prosecution and the defense. Marcia Clark, with all her good intentions, believed the case was such a slam-dunk initially, she took some risks that in hindsight, may have cost her the case. And O.J.'s "Dream Team," so ridiculously swollen with ego, used any and all means necessary to win. So they could be famous and get any table they wanted at Mr. Chow.
Prepare for an engrossing, thrilling, and ultimately—um, spoiler alert? —devastating ride.
The next episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.