The People vs OJ Simpson brought to life a crucial cultural event for a new generation
FX's true crime story has a lot to say about the modern world even if it is set in the 90s, says Huw Fullerton
I lived through the OJ Simpson trial back in 1995, every testimony, piece of evidence, juror selection and bizarre witness beaming around the world and entrancing millions as I went about my day – but I completely ignored it. It was the trial of the century, and I didn’t know a damn thing about it.
In my defence I was only 3 years old, and the majority of my life has been lived in a different century.
So I can only salute American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, which over ten weeks has woven the lurid true-life tale of how a bang-to-rights celebrity suspect (aka Cuba Gooding Jr’s American footballer OJ Simpson) was acquitted of the murder of two people after his trial became a televised circus. It’s opened up to me (and presumably many others in my generation) a piece of recent history that still has immense relevance to the world we live in today, which we would previously only have read about passingly in magazine articles.
The issues of race, media scrutiny, sexist pressures on women in the public eye and fame highlighted in the series are still the same problems dividing us today, which is simultaneously intensely depressing – how have we not come on in 20 years? – and illuminating.
How we understand the fallout from modern events such as the deaths of black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of the police can really only be understood in the context of public uproar and conflicts like the OJ trial. Riots and court cases that happened decades ago, historic prejudices and abuses of power that have built up like sediment, deepening over the years into more and more anger and unrest. The People vs OJ has opened up just a tiny fraction of that history to people in an accessible way, and I think it’s a powerful piece of television for that reason alone.
With that said it’s also great drama with terrific performances (Sarah Paulson, Sterling K Brown and Courtney B Vance as the warring attorneys have stood out for me in particular), and all the better for being shown on the BBC rather than hidden away on some satellite channel like increasing numbers of great American shows. The prominent UK platform has meant the trial could ignite debate all over again, an echo of the real-life case’s dominance of the media with the added benefit of hindsight and (albeit heavily dramatised) insight into what else was going on outside of the courtroom.
For its second series, American Crime Story will be focusing on another complex issue when it examines the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and I’m looking forward to seeing it. But I don’t think I’ll feel as personally connected to it as I do to The People vs OJ. It’s unusual, brave and addictive drama, and (despite a few flaws like the slight miscasting of Gooding Jr as OJ) one of my favourite series this year.
In a small way TV history has been made in this depiction of TV history, and I’m so glad I got the chance to live through it the second time around.