FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” — which takes a hard look at race in America circa 1994 — premiered Wednesday at Los Angeles’ Westwood Village Theater. While the 10-hour series executive-produced by Ryan Murphy is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the show is a drama, not a documentary, about the legal teams that battled to convict or acquit the USC football legend of a double homicide.
Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays O.J. Simpson, doesn’t think the U.S. has made enough progress towards racial equality in the twenty years since.
“Race and diversity, we’ve made strides,” Gooding Jr. told Variety. “Have we made enough strides? No,” he decreed. “I think — in terms of America today, and the climate with the shootings and what not — I think we have to continue to question. We have to continue to probe,” he said, making clear that he wanted his work to be the impetus.
“As an artist, I’m not here to judge or form an opinion or even to influence you with my personal feelings,” Gooding Jr. continued. “I hope that my work influences you with the behavior of the role, with the statements that the scenes make, and the behind-the-scenes, and the characterizations and the motivations you see of people. You can identity with certain things, and find a revelation in your own frame of mind so that we can promote change. And that’s all I can do,” he said.
While executive producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson acknowledge that television has made much bigger strides than film in terms of diversity, Simpson noted that both are lagging where executives are concerned. “Diversity is not just about what’s behind the camera; it’s not just about the actors,” Simpson said. “When you go into executive boardrooms, whether in film or TV, most people are still white; most people are still men.”
Angel Parker (who plays attorney Shawn Chapman) thinks “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” will add to the diversity conversation and hopes AMPAS’ changes will actually make a difference.
While the drama covers a highly-publicized trial, John Singleton, who directed the episode titled “The Race Card,” didn’t feel his artistic liberties were hindered by the actual case. “I didn’t look at any of the real footage and think creatively about how to recreate that,” Singleton said. “I [thought] about how to really dramatize what was there, what was scripted.”
The show recreates the infamous white bronco car chase, but David Schwimmer (who plays Robert Kardashian) says he never enjoyed the type of journalism that covers chases, or what he calls tabloid journalism. “Suddenly, in live television, they would interrupt the program for us to watch high-speed chases shot by helicopter,” he said. “You were watching crime happen live, in real-time, and I found that distasteful. I thought, ‘this is a new low that this is entertainment,’ and I don’t find it entertaining.”
After the screening of the premiere episode, which received thunderous applause from the audience, the stars — including Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, John Travolta, Jordana Brewster, Malcolm-Jamal Warner and others — headed to a lively after-party at STK at the W Hotel, where they mingled into the night, along with FX and Fox execs John Landgraf, Dana Walden and Gary Newman. Gooding Jr. posed for selfies with partygoers, though he admitted he still hasn’t watched the show yet. “American Horror Story” alums Angela Bassett and Cheyenne Jackson showed up to support their FX counterparts, as did “Scream Queens” star Niecy Nash.
“Look at how it captures our society today,” said Chuck Saftler, FX’s president of program strategy. “In a weird way, that trial predicted the rise of reality TV, race issues, tabloid journalism and America’s fascination with celebrity.”
(Pictured top: Anthony Hemingway, Omar Gooding, John Singleton and Cuba Gooding Jr. at ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ film premiere; bottom: Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr.)