‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ Star Courtney B. Vance: ‘Justice Was Not Served’

American Crime Story: The People v.
Courtesy of FX

By the end of episode three of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Johnnie Cochran was no longer on the sidelines — he’d officially joined the infamous “dream team.” It only gets more intense from here, as in the coming weeks, he’ll command the courtroom — delivering those legendary one-liners.

The man who embodies him onscreen, Courtney B. Vance has won raves for his commanding performance. Here, Vance tells Variety how he prepared for the role, and the impact the series has on modern-day race relations.

What was the most challenging part of playing Johnnie Cochran?

The most challenging part was figuring out how I was going to approach it. I did a play, “My Children, My Africa,” years ago, and I knew nothing about South Africa, the dialect to do. I didn’t know how to begin. How much research do you do? How do you find your way in? What’s the first thing to attack? How do you cut it down to size? How do you make it manageable so you’re not overwhelmed? Johnnie Cochran is an overwhelming kind of guy. So I just began with his life. I just read as much I could, beginning with the Jeffrey Toobin book and found other books about him, what people said about him and what he said about himself. So then when I got into the arena, when I got into the cage of the courtroom, I had all the homework done and just let it flow, because he’s in me. I know him.

What did you learn about him through your research?

I learned he was an amazingly wonderful and beautifully flawed human being. I didn’t know him at all. I went to his house years ago for a party with my wife and I was in awe, like we all were. I just heard all the wonderful things he did, not only for O.J. and Michael Jackson but for common people, folks who needed someone to fight for them. I was impressed with his work against police brutality. He became well versed in the area. So when it became time for him to come on the O.J. trial, there was no better person to be there. He knew it better than anyone. He knew what was at stake. He knew the game had to be elevated. He knew why there had to be an African-American jury and he fought for it. If Marcia Clark had fought for the trial to be in Santa Monica, the trial would have taken a different direction. But she didn’t know, she didn’t understand. Because it was a black man and a white woman, there’s a deep history there. Everybody takes sides when it comes down to that. When she was going on about the domestic abuse, black women would just sit there and go, uh huh. It defies logic, but she didn’t understand. Johnnie understood.

In some ways, the case was almost over before it started, thanks to some of the strategies that Johnnie was able to see right away and implement.

So much so. It was over at the start because of what Marcia and the prosecution didn’t do. They should have fought to have the case moved. But it didn’t matter. Even if you had it in a makeshift tent — do not have in downtown [L.A.]. Do not have a black jury. Fight for a white jury. But she didn’t do it.

The prosecution didn’t know that race trumps everything. Even when they were listening to all the points that she was making about domestic abuse, the jury was listening to her and they were [not necessarily receptive]. They were thinking, “A white woman — she was with our man.”

It’s sad when Marcia says, “Black women love me.”

But in her past, they did. They absolutely loved her. But she had never had a case like this, when you have a celebrity hero who is the monster. How do you get people to not see the celebrity and see the monster?

What surprised you as you did your research?

It all surprised me. I knew nothing. I didn’t know [Judge Lance] Ito was such a celebrity hound. Imagine what kind of case this would have been if you didn’t have a judge who wanted it to be on television? Can you imagine what the trial would have been? CNN wouldn’t be what it is today. It wouldn’t have been the big deal it became because it was on TV for a year solid. It’s a lot for a whole world to chew on for a year. We’re still chewing on it.

Did it change your opinion of the case?

I didn’t follow it [back then]; I was just at the Bronco chase and the verdict. All I knew was I was so pleased that after 400 years that an African-American had worked the system in the biggest stage in the world. And a black man got off because the system was worked, the legal system was worked. Was justice served? I don’t know. Two people were murdered. If not O.J., who? In that sense, no, justice was not served. But we saw that we as African-Americans had to live for 400 years with all the many indignities. That’s why African-Americans were cheering. They weren’t cheering for O.J., because O.J. didn’t really have a sense of black people at all. He said, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” It wasn’t about him. He just happened to be the vehicle for which everyone had their own opinion. And because it was on TV for all to see, everyone had one.

Sometimes race will come up as a topic in popular culture, but then it will go away again. As a culture, so often we engage in …

Amnesia.

Because it’s more comfortable to just let it go away again. TV has been a part of process of repetitive amnesia. It’s not enough to talk about it or deal with it periodically. The people with power need to do something about it.

But we don’t do anything in this country until it’s an emergency. We don’t really look 20 or 30 or 40 years ahead and put a plan into place. We don’t do that.

So often, real change is hard to come by.

People don’t do anything unless it’s an emergency, because it’s uncomfortable. We know that we need to do something about our consumption of gasoline and that we need to switch to wind power or solar. But it’s about money. Nobody wants to give up [the status quo]. There’s money to be made in confusion, there’s money to be made in all these oil companies. And eventually when there’s a tragedy, when the gas starts to run out, then we’ll start to do it. But by then, it’s too late.

That’s what all these incidents that are happening are trying to tell us — “Pay attention.” How does it happen that a young man [Chicago’s Laquan McDonald] was shot 16 times a year and a half ago — and we’re just finding out about it? The mayor can explain all he wants to about how he didn’t know and there were extenuating circumstances. You had the information. It’s like Flint and the water. Same thing. If it was white folks, they would have tested the water first, because you knew they would be on you to do that. But because it’s black folks, “Ah, it doesn’t matter. It’s just them. They won’t push back. We can save money. Just do it.”

What was the experience like on-set?

One of the challenges we all had was working with four or five cameras at the same time. Watching the piece you notice how the cameras are continually moving in and out. That is very distracting as an actor. There are five cameras around your face in a close-up. They are everywhere, getting your coverage. We sometimes shot three scenes in a row. We just changed clothes and kept shooting. You have to have a certain kind of actor who can work like that. Where am I now? Who’s speaking? OK, let’s go! We don’t have time to play.

How did you handle it?

When I first saw those cameras in my face, I just fell apart. When they turned on me and started swirling in front of my face,  I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know the scene well enough to let them do whatever they wanted to do. I couldn’t maintain my focus. That was very disheartening. I said the next time I’ll be ready and I was.

It must have been a bonding experience for the cast.

We all recognized what we were up against. Everybody had their own private Idaho. Everybody had their own private challenges. And consequently we all had to be supportive because then it was going to be their turn to be up there with the cameras swirling. We all were very respectful of what we were all doing. We recognized the importance of this journey we were embarking on. It was going to require all of us to work together. None of us could work in isolation. It was a massive gig. If you don’t want to do the work to make that live and sing then you shouldn’t be in that hot kitchen. All of us wanted to be in there. We went through the war together and we came out victorious.

Did you have a favorite day of the shoot?

It maybe was the closing [arguments]. I didn’t get a whole lot of time to prep for it. [Originally] I had less than a day to prepare. The closing argument was maybe three pages. I jammed it in my head, and said, “I’m just going to have to get up there and make the best of it.” I went last — I was third.

By the time they got to me, they ran out of time. So they said, “We won’t be able to get back to it until Tuesday,” and it was Thursday. So I said, “Now I’ll be able to get it down.” By the time Tuesday came around, I was ready. I got four extra days to prep.

Why do you think audiences are responding to the series?

Because we really haven’t dealt with it. We keep going around the same bend. When there’s an opportunity to strike a blow to racism and sexism, we tend to pretend like it’s fine, there’s no problem. But there’s absolutely a problem because we keep butting our heads against it. We’ll get it, I think. Shooting a young man 16 times. Eventually we’re going to go, that’s enough. The entire world is watching. We’re preaching democracy throughout the world. They see what we’re doing and how we’re struggling. It’s very important that we deal with this.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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  1. Blac says:

    Summary: Black people know O.J. did it but don’t care because it was done to a white woman. And slavery. Good job, racists.

  2. chewy2 says:

    Tonight’s episode was very eye opening…I thought it was so ironic when Johnnie Cochran told the Dream Team that African-American Women didn’t like rich successful Black Men Marrying White Women. And Robert Kardashian piped in with, “they don’t, I didn’t know that” My mind flashed to his Daughters, and I laughed…

    • JoJoBrown says:

      Ok. Kardashian saying that like he was naive may have been writer’s liberties. Who really knows if Kardashian was that naive to think black women would be ok with successful black men choosing white women to share their success and money.

  3. Mike says:

    If O.J. Didn’t do it. His son did. The dog would have ate anyone it didn’t know. Akita’s are bad asses. Then his sons reaction at the verdict was over the top with relief. Local radio host in Dallas told a story of him driving Nicole and O.J.s son to Texas Stadium and his son slapping Nicole and saying shut up Bitch! Could be his son did it. Who ever it was , the dog knew them or the the story would be different. I I were Fred Goldman … Oh lets just say they should be glad Im not Fred Goldman

  4. Barbara says:

    Johnny Cochran may have been loved by the black community, but he didn’t do anything wonderful for Michael. They were pushing, as they should have, to have him charged and the criminal trial occur before any civil trial-because anything you say can be held against you in a criminal case. Either they didn’t fight hard enough, or their motions were not adequate or the judge was prejudiced, because everything they tried was denied. Michael ended up being caught between a rock and a hard place-and absolutely no choice but to settle, with the prosecutors still investigating.

    Just a year later, it became the law that you have to have the criminal case before the civil. That settlement Michael was forced to make, by Cochran, by his record label, by his tour promoters, by everybody (so they could continue to make money) ended up killing him.

  5. Mike says:

    “But we saw that we as African-Americans had to live for 400 years with all the many indignities. That’s why African-Americans were cheering. ” ? I wonder how can America be 240 yrs old this year and African- Americans be living with 400 yrs of indignities? 240 seems a respectable number of years, why lie about it?

    • Geri313 says:

      That’s what you took away from this? Geez.

      • Hayley says:

        Uh…are you for real? There was slavery in the colonies, maybe? Oh, yeah, that sounds like it could be right! All it took to figure that out was a slight knowledge of elementary school American history, or, hell, Google. But nope, you just decided to go ahead and call the man a liar without stopping to think, like an asshole. Way to go.

  6. hughes56 says:

    The defense team didn’t win this case, it was handed to them by the prosecutors.

  7. I am a black man. I was not cheering, not for that sellout OJ Simpson, who cared nothing about black folks, especially black women, until HE got into trouble. Like Michael Jackson and Hankerchief-Head Clarence Thomas, some people avoid black folks but play the race card when it is convenient.

    • Dunstan says:

      Keith, years before the murders, I was witness to a very small but very significant moment with O.J. that speaks to your point

      I was on a nearby corner in Santa Monica waiting to cross the street when O.J. pulled up in his white Rolls convertible. He was stopped at the red light. Since the top was down, you couldn’t miss him. On the opposite corner, just a few feet from his stopped car was a young black kid, maybe twelve years old. He saw O.J. too and I could tell, he was just trying to make some eye contact. O.J. couldn’t have missed him either but instead, he just stared straight ahead, not even waving when the kid did so.

      Right then, I knew what you said so well: O.J. cared nothing about black folks.

      • TM says:

        I can tell you though, from experience in my circles, that rich (feeling entitled) white people more often than not do not care for the common white kids one bit either, whether they might be fans or not. especially if the rich are also famous. Once you got rich and/or famous those who did lack for a strong family upbringing with values that emphasizes love, respect, humbleness and hard work as well as charity will go that route.
        It would be nice to think that everybody pulling himself up by his bootstraps feels kindness towards those who don’t manage that, but the opposite is true.

      • chewy2 says:

        I agree with you Keith, I did not cheer when the verdict came in the OJ Trial either. In fact it was very sad, justice was not done that day…Smdh?!

  8. savagewatct says:

    Tired of people saying that negligence of Flint had to do with it being a black city. Maybe some of these activists should look at the water quality of the places where fracking was going on. Those are mostly white victims. Or go to the Gulf of Mexico near the BP Ocean Spill happened and see all the people affected by the chemicals there. (mostly white) As far as OJ goes, it sounds like his son may have helped him.

    • Geri313 says:

      The “victims” of fracking, oh that’s rich. They don’t seem to mind taking the money and jobs that come with it. It’s not like the fracking problems reared their ugly heads years after the environmentally-dangerous practice is being conducted in a town. No, the dangers were well known, yet greed overcame decency. And yes, I know there are some very poor folks who may need this financially. But a guarantee you, they are in no way, shape or form why an area has agreed to frack. So no, it’s not the same as the people in Flint, MI.

      • Hayley says:

        You can be tired all you want, but you’re going to get more tired ’cause it’s a fact. The government knew that infrastructure needed a whole overhaul but they refused to spend the money because they knew, as Courtney said, the people it would affect would not have the voice, the money, or the political clout to call them on it until it was too late for so many of those poor people, including children.

  9. derrick may says:

    I don’t believe oj did this , I’m positive he didn’t do it but hes know who did , anybody who can spell cat if given the c and the t and can read know this. I agree with the other person everybody should read William dear book or get the video and you will be surprised . mr vance you sound stupid and once again you weren’t prepared you should check witm mr dear and cuba should stop speaking in public.

  10. leestanz61 says:

    I’ve always liked Mr. Vance work and how he express himself in interviews. I was not disappointed in this one also. Very well said.

  11. I remember watching this trial. Most people probably don’t know this, but this case should have been prosecuted in Santa Monica – not Los Angeles. So why was it moved? Some suggested that it was moved to give OJ a chance to beat the murder charges i.e. giving him a mush better chance of getting fellow blacks on the jury. Others said that if the case isn’t moved, and an all white jury convicts this black man, it would be another instance of a white jury “wronging” another black man i.e. the system is “rigged’ again the black man. Remember, the Rodney King case was just a few years prior…and blacks, of course, felt the Simi Valley’ white jury’ deliberately sided with the white officers (they didn’t). I think the OJ case was moved because the white liberals (Santa Monica & LA are run by Democratic party ‘white’ liberals) wanted to showcase this case to whole world; to show the whole world how our “new’ integration (race-nullification) system works. That is, OJ would be tried on the evidence. And the evidence would be deliberated by the jury, and the decision of the jury would be base solely on the evidence, regardless of racial make-up of the jury. After all, the case against Simpson was ironclad. Solid DNA evidence, OJ’s right-hand glove at the scene of the crime AND the left at his house; a fresh blood trail straight into OJ’s house and up the stairs; injuries to OJ’s right hand (his knife hand), etc. Again, ironclad evidence supposed to convict someone/ anyone every time.

    I also supported the decision to move the case (I’m a white guy). I didn’t believe (or didn’t want to believe) blacks would simply nullify ALL that evidence against OJ. With the pressure of the whole world on them…they wouldn’t DARE just nullify ALL that evidence, I thought.

    Well, we all know what that black jury did (one tag-along white female and a Hispanic male were also on the jury). They did exactly what they believed they were supposed to do: FREE OJ from the white man’s oppressive “justice” system.

    But even though OJ beat system (with the abundant help of his attorneys)…still, OJ’s reputation was gone. He was a double murderer…and every practical minded person knew it. He was a pariah. The poetic justice …OJ was convicted in Nevada for a series of felonies /… that any other person would have received maybe a few years. OJ got the max: 33 years (all-white jury AND a white judge)

  12. Hollywood…. Still making money off of the violent death of two people. Disgusting!

  13. dogerdraft says:

    Those who think OJ did it need to watch the DVD by world renowned Private Investigator Bill Dear.
    According to his 15 year investigation of the crime he concluded the son did the killings.

    • Matt says:

      DNA doesn’t lie. The blood of OJ, Nicole, and Ron were found at the crime scene, in the Bronco, and in his bedroom. He changed his story of how he got the cut on his hand. He owned the pair of shoes that the murderer wore at the crime scene, same size and everything. He failed a lie detector test. He was suicidal and wrote a note. Even Robert Kardashian, his best friend, was skeptical and doubted OJ’s innocence.

    • Yeah right. Oj did it, he got away with it. Even he couldn’t believe it when they said “Not Guilty.”.

      • dogerdraft says:

        I believed he did it also at the time but still couldn’t understand how how someone could brutally murder two people and still not have blood all over him or any bruises or marks on his body when Goldmans hands had bruises and cuts to his knuckles from the horrific fight he put up before his death.
        Simpson had no swelling or bruises on his face or body. Even with that I still believed he did it until I saw this DVD

  14. hoochmooch says:

    Wow I love how this clown is beside himself that a black man worked the system and got away with brutally murdering two people.

  15. J. Marie Green says:

    Great re-do of the OJ Trial. When it happened it was too much to watch each day. Now this version gave me a change to rethink the whole situation. Now I am convinced that law enforcement never have looked for another possible motive for those murders or even another killer. Great acting by Cuba Gooding and Courtney Vance.

    • Matt says:

      The DNA evidence is incontrovertible and the police discovered the evidence before they even knew what was going on. The defense’s case didn’t hold water, so they put on a circus to fool a jury that WANTED to be fooled. OJ wrote a book essentially admitting that he killed them. Thankfully, the Goldmans won the rights to OJ’s story or OJ would be receiving cash for killing his wife and Ron Goldman. That’s how sick our society can be. Race has nothing to do with cold hard facts.

    • Why would they look for another suspect. They had the right guy, jury said “nope.” You have to let it go. There’s no one else to find.

      • JoJoBrown says:

        Hey, Matt – They locked OJ up for those robbery charges before he had a chance to sink his teeth into finding Ron’s and Nicole’s killer. If they had not locked him up he may have had a chance to find the true murderer(s). Not much investigating you can do behind bars.

      • Matt says:

        Remember when OJ said he’d devote the rest of his life to finding Nicole’s murderer, but then spent most of his time playing golf with his rich white buddies. I hope OJ spends the rest of his life looking at himself in a mirror in his prison cell.

    • Robin says:

      You’re kidding right?

  16. Rollo says:

    It is absolutely magnificent television. i can’t wait to own the DVD or BluRay…it’s That good! EVERYBODY’S acting is superlative!

    • JoJoBrown says:

      Rollo – Totally agree! This series will be up for a boatload of accolades during the awards season. The writing gets better with each episode, the music is awesome, and the acting by Courtney (Cochrane), Natan (F.Lee), Sterline (Darden) is *FLAWLESS*.

    • Robin says:

      You are kidding right? I’ve seen better acting on the stage of a grade school. I’ve seen every episode hoping that it will “shake it’s self free” but so far,it’s been pitiful..plain pitiful.

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