“The People vs. O.J. Simpson”–Even Johnnie Cochran Wasn’t Cynical Enough About The Jury


I’ve been watching on Netflix this recent miniseries of the 1995 trial and it’s quite funny, although I’ve gotten through my usual six episodes of anything and probably won’t make it through all ten episodes — it’s maybe seven hours in total and that’s a little more than I’ll devote to a TV show, even a good one like this.

I was going to say the O.J. Trial was a formative event for me, but it was more of a confirmatory one. For example, in the miniseries, which is mostly accurate although somewhat pumped up, Johnnie Cochran starts out advising the Dream Team that their ideal juror is a black man, but they need to be worried about allowing black women on the jury because O.J. married a white woman.

But then focus groups reveal that not even Johnnie Cochran is cynical enough: black women love O.J., especially now that that blonde bitch ex-wife is permanently out of the picture. Meanwhile, white feminist prosecutor Marcia Clark thinks loading the jury up with black women is a great idea.

The miniseries length is a good one for this tale, since the screenwriters can squeeze in most of the self-satirizing incidents without needing to rush like in a movie or drag it out endlessly like in a multiyear series or in real life.

The casting is mostly fine. The people playing Johnnie Cochran (Courtney Vance) and Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) look much like the originals. Nathan Lane is F. Lee Bailey. David Schwimmer is amusing doing his Ross-from-Friends nice guy shtick as O.J.’s true-hearted business lawyer Robert Kardashian, whose four small children are a little more savvy to the broader implications of the excitement surrounding “Uncle Juice’s” troubles than is poor dear old Dad. Selma Blair plays his ex-wife, Kris Kardashian Jenner. Bruce Jenner is mentioned, but I haven’t seen him on screen yet.

Doing an impression vaguely reminiscent of Jeremy Iron’s memorable version of Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune as a cross between Dracula and Nixon, John Travolta dominates every scene he is in as O.J.’s self-absorbed celebrity criminal lawyer Robert Shapiro. This is a bit of a problem dramatically as Shapiro, who got elbowed aside as lead chair by the more street-smart Cochran, isn’t all that important of a character in the history. On the other hand, he’s John Travolta, genuine movie star since the 1970s, and nobody else in this Prestige Television-budgeted production brings that much charisma firepower to the screen. Travolta isn’t as competent as his fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise at picking scripts, but, even so, he’s one of the top 50 or so greatest movie stars of all time

Unfortunately, Cuba Gooding Jr. is terribly miscast as O.J. First, he’s not a big man. He could play a semi-credible NFL star two decades ago in Jerry Maguire cast opposite Tom Cruise, but only because Cruise is a small man. But Travolta and Schwimmer tower over Gooding in their many scenes together. O.J. wasn’t huge for the most famous football player in America (first as the most celebrated college football star since Red Grange in the 1920s, second when he ran for over 2000 yards in a 14 game season in 1976 in the NFL), a little over six feet and 200 pounds, but Gooding isn’t close to that.

Second, Gooding sounds more like Michael Jackson than O.J. Simpson, who was a deep-voiced Monday Night Football commentator, actor, and endorser for many years.

Third, Gooding is kind of character actor funny looking, while O.J. was leading man handsome with a giant head.

One theme of the series is spelled out in a derisive comment by Marcia Clark, who points out that the prosecution’s secret weapon is that all the alpha male egos on the Dream Team will cause the defense to implode.

Like virtually every single thing Marcia says in the show, this sounds reasonable and intelligent but turns out to be wrong. The seemingly chaotic defense team managed, if barely, to battle out their differences and adjust to circumstances, most notably in the internal coup in which Cochran replaced Shapiro at the top. In contrast, the more hierarchical prosecution was doomed by boss lady Marcia’s self-confidence in her own bad judgment, most notably about blacks, women, and, especially, black women.

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