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Five Things You Need to Know Before Watching “The People v. O.J. Simpson”

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If you are reading this, chances are you were either not born or too young to understand the gravity of the O.J. Simpson murder case (officially known as the People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson). For many, Ryan Murphy’s latest frontier will be a first glimpse into a controversy that revolutionized court television, shifted views towards the criminal justice system and divided a nation. Here are five things you should know before you watch.

Who are the key players?

Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson: former actor, sports commentator, and running back whose tenure with the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend on the evening of June 12,  1994. Though he was acquitted of the charges, he is currently serving a 33-year stint in prison  after being convicted of robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas almost eight years ago.

Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ronald Goldman: the victims of this brutal double-homicide that took place outside of the former’s condominium. Simpson-Brown was the mother of two children. Simpson frequently turned violent towards Simpson-Brown and after her death her sister, Denise established the Nicole Brown Foundation for victims of domestic violence. Goldman, a friend of Brown’s and a waiter at a California restaurant was also a victim in the fatal stabbing.

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.: lead trial lawyer of Simpson’s defense team, Cochran’s rhetorical fervor was instrumental in convincing the jury that the accused’s prosecution was race driven. After past statements made by Mark Fuhrman came to light, he urged the jury to, “do the right thing,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Cochran later defended a number of celebrity clients including Michael Jackson, actor Todd Bridges and football player Jim Brown.

Mark Fuhrman: Former Los Angeles Police Department detective who allegedly discovered the match to a bloody glove found at the crime scene at the defendant’s residence. This piece of physical evidence made Simpson the only suspect. Somewhat of a lull had been reached in the case when it was uncovered that Fuhrman had previously said during several interviews that he would often racially profile and beat suspects who were not white, as well as manufacture evidence. This revelation turned the tide of the case and later led to Simpson’s acquittal. Fuhrman retired shortly after the case was finished and relocated to rural Idaho.

The jury: the final jury of the case consisted of twelve jurors. Two of the jurors were college graduates, nine were had high school diplomas and one had no degree according to The USA Today. The jury also consisted of ten women and two men. Nine of the jurors were black, one was Hispanic/Latino and two were white. More interestingly, several jurors reported that they or another family member had experienced a negative interaction with the police, according to the New York Times.

What About that Car Chase?

The time is 5:51 p.m.. The day is Friday, June 17, 1994. A white Ford Bronco barrels down  Santa Ana Freeway in Orange County California. Inside the vehicle is a terrified O.J. and a friend by the name of Al Cowlings. Crowds along overpasses and roadways watch in awe. Almost four hours earlier, Robert Shapiro (another lawyer of Simpson’s) called his client to inform him that LAPD officials ordered him to surrender by 11 a.m. that day. Instead, Simpson and his accomplice flee, and the chase that ensues lasts for more than 90 minutes. Eventually, the two fugitives retreat to Simpson’s Brentwood, California residence where they are greeted by police and negotiate their surrender. By 9:37 p.m., Simpson is in police custody. The O.J. Simpson Car Chase will go down in the annals of history as one of the most notorious to ever take place and the riveting sequence of events guaranteed that this trial would have the whole of America’s interest piqued.

The Trial took place during a dime when race relations were tense

Racial tension in America during the early 1990s was at its highest since the Civil Rights Movement and, much like today, many were becoming critical of the justice system’s mistreatment of people of color. Just three years earlier, Rodney King was viciously assaulted by four law enforcement officers, according to the Los Angeles Times. In the months that ensued, riots broke out across California. It can be argued that the Ryan Murphy-helmed series is reopening old scars, but in any case the show will provide some interesting talking points on race and the shortcomings of the criminal justice system It also provides a chance to draw some parallels between eras of civil unrest in America.

The impact of the case has been long lasting

Before the “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the television landscape was dominated by scripted programs such as soap operas and sitcoms. However, in the wake of America’s newfound intrigue in the minutiae of day-to-day happenings, reality television became more and more prevalent. Court TV (now TruTV) and CNN’s decision to cover every detail of the case was risky in 1994 but paid off when millions of viewers turned away from the glamorous productions of tinsel town to witness this tale of fame, murder and violence. More substantially, innovations made in the availability of DNA testing resulted in the release and exoneration of more than 300 inmates, according to the Washington Post. Millions of Americans seeing the crucial role DNA testing played in Simpson’s acquittal made the practice seem less mysterious and confusing, and as a result, many convicts asked for the service to prove their innocence.

Ryan Murphy’s relationship with race and violence conflict

Murphy’s record with characters from marginalized backgrounds, specifically black characters, is spotty at best. The small screen hit-maker is known for writing his black female characters (Mercedes Jones in Glee and Zayday Williams in Scream Queens) as different incarnations of the “Sassy Black Friend” trope as well as almost never casting non-white men in his shows. Though he has provided Black actresses with standout roles in a few programs (Angela Bassett was nominated for an Emmy for her performance as Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven), too many of Murphy’s productions make racial stereotypes into a joke, perpetuating ideas that harm black people, as well as other people of color.

Murphy’s relationship with violence has also had its fair share of controversy. After the season premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel (the fifth season of the series) it became clear that Murphy had a penchant for using graphic rape scenes for pure shock value, as they more than often contributed nothing to the overall plot of the show. If Ryan Murphy wants American Crime Story to be taken as a series with a storyline and valuable social commentary, he will have to step away from his habit of overindulgence and exercise both restraint and respect, in spite of the graphic nature of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ronald Goldman’s murder.

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson premieres tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on FX.


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