How ‘The People v. OJ Simpson’ Stretched the Record to Reach a Higher Truth

In retrospect, the viral success of American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson makes perfect sense: an hour-long anthology series based on a trial that pitted race and gender politics against each other, brought to you by the creator of the most audacious hour-long anthology series on TV? That the show would flood the internet with commentary, complaints, and character rankings was inevitable; that it would turn out to be really, really good was a pleasant surprise.

For the most part, The People v. OJ sticks to the facts, for the simple reason that it would be hard to invent a trial this juicy. Its finale, “The Verdict,” is a tonally perfect send-off, both touching and deeply unsettling. In its departure from the official record, the episode  —and the series as a whole — manages to make a compelling case for OJ’s guilt without dismissing the symbolic significance of his acquittal.

This is the triumph of The People v. OJ Simpson: its 360-degree view of the trial demonstrates that many things can be true at the same time. Mark Fuhrman can be a vehement racist but still not have planted evidence. The LAPD can have a major race problem but still have treated OJ Simpson with kid gloves. The justice system can owe a serious debt to black Americans but also to victims of domestic violence. And finally, all this can be true, and still OJ Simpson could have murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Above all, the show breathes life into people who were flattened into easily mockable types during and after the trial. Courtney B. Vance has rightly been singled out for his nuanced performance as Johnnie Cochran, but the writers also deserve credit for downplaying the gregariousness that made Cochran a media star. Vance plays Cochran with charisma, to be sure, but the Cochran of the series come off less as a crass opportunist than someone in a powerful position who feels a real responsibility to LA’s black community.

In “The Verdict,” Cochran addresses the predominantly black jury in closing statements, telling them, “You may not know this, but you are empowered.” He raises his voice — the LA Times reported that he was “nearly shouting with indignation” — and appeals to the jury’s position of power within a justice system that has so often failed black people. “Maybe you’re the right people at the right time to be able to say, ‘No more,’” he says.

Later, after the verdict is announced, Cochran and prosecutor Chris Darden speak in private. The tension between these two black lawyers on opposing sides has been one of the strongest aspects of the series. “When the dust settles,” Darden’s former mentor tells him, “I’d like to help bring you back into the community.” Darden replies, “Well, I never left.” Darden gets the last word: “This isn’t some civil rights milestone,” he says. “Police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here.”

The next scene shows a triumphant Cochran entering his office, where music, drinks, and a cake await him, foreshadowing the party at OJ’s estate that will close the episode and the series. It all feels unseemly: they’re celebrating while the families of Ron and Nicole are mourning. But then, The People v. OJ pivots its perspective. Cochran watches in disbelief as President Bill Clinton speaks on TV about the trial and race in America, how we need to “spend more time listening to each other.” “That’s the victory,” Cochran says quietly, almost to himself. “Our story is now out of the shadows.”

Despite Cochran’s achievement, “The Verdict” makes it clear that The People v. OJ believes its title defendant is guilty. It was there from the start: ominous music plays as OJ bends over to kiss his dead wife, lying in a coffin. In the first episode, when the police arrive at the scene of the crime and later go to OJ’s Rockingham estate, there’s nothing to suggest that Fuhrman or anyone else planted or mishandled evidence. As the cops approach the big, honking statue of OJ in his football gear in the backyard, the camera frames it as a menacing presence, a statement of ego and entitlement. When OJ finds out Nicole’s dead, he cries, “Oh my God! Nicole has been killed?” The line sounds comically forced, and as the prosecution repeatedly points out in court, OJ never asks how she died.

As OJ, Cuba Gooding Jr. comes off more like a clown than a monster. His acting is so overwrought you wonder if it’s intentionally bad, as if the writers really want to hit home that this guy is lying, and that in the end, it won’t even matter — look at him, he’s not even lying well. Gooding Jr. isn’t nearly as physically imposing as OJ was in his prime; it’s kind of hard to imagine Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ committing these brutal murders. But then, maybe that’s a statement in itself — just because it’s hard to imagine doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

In Gooding Jr.’s final scenes as OJ Simpson, The People v. OJ abandons subtlety — and, to some extent, fact. Fresh out of prison, OJ returns home to his Rockingham estate, where protesters are lined up outside. Stepping out of the shower and into his big, luxurious bedroom, he sinks into a chair, puts his head in his hands, and begins to cry. But then he comes out and joins the party, even as he doesn’t seem to recognize anyone there. “Where are the guys from the club?” he asks, puzzled.

In an awkward speech, he vows to “pursue” the real killer; there’s some scattered applause before the music starts up again, and the camera closes in on AC Cowlings’ troubled face (he’s the one who drove the Bronco down the freeway). The whole celebration is infused with an atmosphere of dread. OJ’s son tells him the Riviera won’t accept his reservation (in reality, the swanky golf club refused to have him back as a member). Robert Kardashian locks eyes with his best friend before setting his bible down on a table — the same one he gave OJ when he first entered prison — and walking out. The scene — and the series — ends with OJ stepping out into the backyard and gazing at that looming statue: the man versus the myth.

The party scene deviates from reality in a few telling ways. Both protesters and supporters were awaiting OJ’s return home — the LA Times reported, “Preachers shouted messages of love and forgiveness, and a saxophonist played ‘Amazing Grace’” — but the show mostly gives voice to his angry detractors. According to Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life, on which the series was based, the party “was a rather quiet celebration,” and OJ “mostly stayed in his bedroom, receiving guests in small groups.” Finally, Robert Kardashian did in fact come to doubt the Juice’s innocence after his acquittal, but he didn’t publicly state these doubts until months later. In the finale — in which Kardashian vomits in a bathroom sink right after the verdict is announced, then comes out into the hallway and locks eyes with Marcia Clark — Kardashian is immediately wracked with guilt over the thought of having helped someone get away with murder.

That the series suggests OJ is guilty makes the show’s deeply empathetic view of its characters even more remarkable: It’s a lot easier to present a nuanced and balanced view of a trial when you’re not weighing in on its outcome. That The People v. OJ did weigh in, and at the same time demonstrated how the politics of race and gender can be pitted against each other without itself taking a side — and all while being ridiculously entertaining week after week — is pretty incredible. Because in the end, all the flashy moments — the young Kardashians watching their father set the stage for their global fame; the black-clad jury walking into the courtroom to the sounds of “Fight the Power”; Marcia Clark’s goddamn hair — mean nothing to the families of Ron and Nicole, whose portraits are the last thing we see before the final credits roll.

Both Clark and Darden resigned from the DA’s office after the Simpson case, and Clark embarked on a second career, writing crime novels. Having obsessed over these ten exquisite episodes over the past couple months, it’s easy to understand why. As she told The Hollywood Reporter, “There’s nothing like writing fiction to tell the truth.”