Cuba Gooding Jr on OJ Simpson, America’s race divide and the murder trial that riveted the world

The new show dives back into the case that captured the world and exposed America's racial divide.

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Like most Angelenos, Cuba Gooding Jr remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing on the day in June 1994 when the OJ Simpson saga began to unfold on TV with a car chase involving a white Ford Bronco. “I was with my crew, drinking beers, watching the basketball game,” says Gooding, who was 26 years old at the time and among Hollywood’s new generation of rising stars.

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“The game covered the screen, with one of those windows set at the bottom with a camera in a helicopter following the white Bronco along the Los Angeles freeways,” he says. “A couple of hours later the Bronco and all those cop cars around it covered the screen, and the ball game was in the inset at the bottom.

“It was a real hotbed in LA then, and OJ captured the attention of America from the beginning. We’d come from the Rodney King verdict [in 1992], and the riots that followed because the cops got away with that beating, as they always did, and we had murders every night from the Bloods and the Crips, the gangsters, and even people shooting each other on the freeways in road-rage incidents.

“And then this was happening. Watching with my crew, young black men, we were thinking, here we go again, we are about to watch OJ Simpson, ‘the Juice’, a hero, getting shot by the police, or shooting himself in the back of that Bronco.”

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As the sensational live coverage took over US TV channels, there wasn’t a citizen who didn’t know that Simpson, the most celebrated of American football stars, part-time movie star and full-time pitchman for Hertz rental cars in jovial nightly TV ads, was being arrested on charges of murdering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her young friend Ronald Goldman.

Gooding, whose breakout role in Boyz N the Hood (1991) depicted life in the South Central district of LA where the race riots took place, has spent a lot of time thinking about the murders and the “trial of the century” that followed. He is starring as OJ Simpson in a ten-part serial, The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story – so anticipated it’s the first US drama the BBC’s bought for primetime on a weekday in five years.

American Crime Story is a new “docu-drama” strand, made by US cable network Fox and produced by Ryan Murphy, the “king of reality TV”, who has already brought us Glee and American Horror Story. Following the OJ Simpson series will be an exploration of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

We know the outcome of The People v OJ Simpson: Simpson was acquitted on the basis of “reasonable doubt”, a not-guilty verdict that left the nation aghast, but averted anticipated riots.

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Does Gooding think that OJ did it?

“At the time, I did not care,” he says. “Black people did not want to believe that Simpson did it. Doing this movie, I realised that it was not really about ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, it was about making sure that the cops did not f*** with another black man.”

We meet at the Mercer Hotel, in New York’s SoHo. A high-energy, fast-talking guy, Gooding has come barrelling in off the snow-covered streets in a khaki anorak and hiking trousers, as if ready for combat.

Fox and the producers are happy to see The People v OJ Simpson promoted within the context of racial disharmony in the US. That conflict is, as always, a backbeat to this year’s presidential election, with the “minority” vote being crucial to the Democrats while the Republican frontrunners trade in white fears.

And what happened in Los Angeles in 1992 has been happening again all over the country. The key element in the story of the beating of Rodney King, which led to outrage and riots over the acquittal of King’s police attackers, was its recording on a video camera in the hands of a passer-by. The recent series of cases brought against the American police for killings and beatings have all involved recordings on CCTV cameras or mobile phones. The dire relationship between violent, racist American policemen (known to kill at least 600 people a year, most of them people from an ethnic minority) and African-Americans can no longer be denied, and has given birth to the “Black Lives Matter” protest campaign.

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“The People v OJ Simpson is a ten hour trailer for Black Lives Matter,” says New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, whose book about the OJ case, The Run of His Life, is the basis for the series, and who acted as a consultant.

But it is a little more complicated. OJ Simpson is no poster boy for innocence: subsequent civil cases established that he did kill his wife and Ronald Goldman, and he’s currently in jail in Nevada for armed robbery and kidnap following a dispute in 2007 over the ownership of sports memorabilia.

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He got away with murder in 1995 as the result of an unholy combination of police venality, prosecutorial vanity and incompetence, political back-stabbing, and the brilliant and ruthlessly cynical performance of his Dream Team of lawyers who did exactly what they had promised. They gave him “the best defence money can buy”. The result is terrific material for a TV series: it has been dubbed Pulp Non-fiction.

It even stars John Travolta as OJ’s lead lawyer, Robert Shapiro. Travolta, whose own career was rescued by his turn in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, gives a clunky but irresistible performance. He looks in horror at OJ’s handwritten suicide note and says, “Jesus Christ! Who the hell signs a suicide note with a happy face?”

As the evidence against OJ builds, Travolta hams it up, scratching his head and pounding his fist on piles of paper until he’s hit by a moment of inspiration: there’s a dirty cop on the case, Mark Fuhrman, who has been caught on tape boasting of beating up “n******”, and who once tried to sue the City of Los Angeles for a disability pension on the grounds that being a policeman had made him “hate” black people.

Bingo! Travolta’s eyebrows shoot up. The race card! Shapiro “leaks” the Fuhrman story to none other than Toobin, and signs up flamboyant lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who has made millions of dollars suing the LA police in civil courts for violating the civil rights of black people.

The rest is history: Cochran told OJ that if he had just one black juror, he would get him safely home. He did, and he did. He pounced on the infamous blood-soaked glove, said to have been worn by OJ, but possibly planted by Fuhrman, and famously declared to the jury: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”

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Cochran is played by Courtney B Vance, and with such panache that old hands who were in court forget it’s not Johnnie himself. The real Cochran told me soon after the trial that what counted was that this time it was a rich black man who had secured an acquittal, rather than yet another rich white man, and that that had evened the score of racial injustice.

American justice has never quite recovered its dignity. Neither has American broadcasting. One of OJ’s best buddies was Robert Kardashian, father of the Kardashians. He is played by David Schwimmer, formerly of Friends. There is a priceless scene in which his son and daughters squeal with delight as they watch TV and feel, for the first time, the thrill of public exposure. Dad then takes them to the diner, where they are recognised and led to the best table, as heads turn and flashbulbs burst. It was the birth of “reality TV” and the Kardashian phenomenon. Just for that, OJ should surely be serving life.

Gooding is convinced that OJ is brain-damaged from the repeated concussions suffered by American football players. He decided against meeting him when preparing for the part, instead basing his performance on the “braggadocious marquee athletes” he had got to know while researching to play Rod “Show me the money!” Tidwell, in the 1996 Tom Cruise film Jerry Maguire, for which Gooding won the Oscar as best supporting actor.

“He’s the shell of a man now, in prison,” says Gooding. “I know that from my own friends and relatives who’ve been inside. But I also know what happens to these athletes who have been looked after all their lives so they can nurture their special talent. That stunts their social skills, and when their brains go from the concussions, something happens they can’t control.”

He remembers the time on set when, as OJ, he attends Nicole Brown Simpson’s funeral, and, to the gasps of the mourners, shamelessly leans into her open coffin and kisses her face.

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“I had to rush out to my trailer, I just could not stop crying,” he says. “I realised it was because, in real life, rooting for OJ, I had never acknowledged the victims. We had even gone to church to pray for Johnnie Cochran to get OJ ‘out of his predicament’! I thought I was going crazy, having a nervous breakdown.”

Gooding silences himself for a few moments, and calls for more coffee. “We have a responsibility as artists to reflect society, to provide an outlet for anger,” he says. “But this has been the hardest role to excise from my soul.

“My pivotal roles seem to come at a time when I am going through similar things to my character. With Boyz N the Hood, I experienced rough handling by a cop just before we filmed the scene when a cop holds a gun to my head.

“Now, I have been separated from my wife while making the OJ movie. One day I went to a recital at my daughter’s school, and my wife didn’t have a ticket for me, so I had to sit apart from my family. Remember that OJ tried to join Nicole at his daughter’s school recital on the day she died? And then he flew to Chicago, right? Well, that day, I too flew to Chicago, with a buddy, to watch a ball game. And in the evening, I get a call from Ryan, who tells me that they have just wrapped the murder scene!”

Gooding has been married to his childhood sweetheart, Sara Kapfer, since 1994. They have three children. She filed for divorce in 2014, but Gooding says they remain married and he still hopes for a reconciliation. He says she is not treating him well. He is upset. He shakes his head, and laughs off the memory of that night in Chicago and its chilling echo of the OJ story.

“Perhaps it’s God’s will,” he says. “But it really f**** with your psyche.”

The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story begins tonight at 9pm on BBC2 (11:15pm in Wales)