Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode five of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” titled “The Race Card.”
Any doubt — and there really isn’t — about why this series has such resonance today can be laid to rest with this riveting hour, so expertly directed by John Singleton (“Boyz ‘N the Hood”), who is reunited with his star, Cuba Gooding Jr.
The theme is the infamous race card, and while many of our characters struggle with it, fumble it, and otherwise do their best to avoid it, Johnnie Cochran (a bravura Courtney B. Vance) knows exactly how to play it.
He’s learned the hard way: A flashback to his days as L.A.’s first black assistant district attorney shows him getting pulled over for a DWB: driving while black. He handles the situation calmly — clearly it’s happened before — until the cop addresses his daughters: “Is this your father’s car?” he says, gesturing to the Mercedes. That’s what makes Cochran lose his temper: “This is the third time this week someone’s pulled me over for no reason.” When the cop finally learns his mistake and meekly apologizes, his daughter prods: “Daddy, did he call you a n—-r?”(It’s not the last time we’ll hear it this hour.) Cochran chastises her for using a “terrible” word. But the seeds have been planted, as the camera pulls back to show the LAPD motto “to protect and serve” on the cop’s motorcycle. Message delivered.
As each side preps for trial, Singleton takes us into their strategy sessions, cutting back and forth, with revealing soundbites that serve to undercut whatever Marcia Clark and co. are planning. It’s like watching a tennis match where every serve gets returned with equal, if not more vehement, force.
Bill Hodgman (Christian Clemenson): “It all starts with the Akita.”
Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer): “I guess everyone’s aware their bombshell witness is a dog.”
Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson): “The amount of physical evidence is overwhelming. Frankly, it’s more hard evidence than I’ve ever seen.”
Johnnie Cochran: “Evidence doesn’t win the day. Jurors go with the narrative that makes sense. We’re here to tell a story. Our job is tell that story better than the other side tells theirs.”
The prosecution is planning to focus on the abuse, the evidence, and all that blood; the defense is going to hammer on the LAPD’s rush to judgment. But the big question is Mark Fuhrman. Will the D.A. call him? “And if they do, we’ll rip him apart,” says F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) with relish.
He’s the third rail of this case, which the defense sees clearly. They’ve done their homework into his checkered past. But the D.A.’s office needs him, since he’s the one who found the critical evidence. Now that Chris Darden’s (Sterling K. Brown) on the case, Clark and Hodgman try to pawn him off on him.
At first, Darden accepts the assignment reluctantly, but his first pass at prepping Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale) doesn’t go well. He sees through the cop’s mask of politeness. “There’s a way certain white people talk to black people,” he tells Clark, trying to convince her they don’t need him as a witness. But she tells him he’s just playing into the defense. Her advice: “Massage it.”
Heading into trial, the natural opposition between prosecution and defense crystallizes into two faces: Johnnie Cochran vs. Chris Darden. War has been declared, and Darden isn’t happy about it. He feels betrayed by his friend and mentor. “It’s obvious to me Mr. Darden is being used as a tool by the DA’s office because he’s black,” Cochran tells the press.
But when Darden confronts him about it, Cochran dismisses him. “Brother, I’m not trying to be respectful. I’m trying to win.”
Things only get more heated when Darden argues in court to dismiss Fuhrman’s prior statements about the “N” word, arguing that it’s so inflammatory that it will impair the jury.
Cochran rises in outrage: “I am ashamed that Mr. Darden would allow himself to become an apologist for Mark Fuhrman.” He leans over to Darden and whispers, “N—-r, please.”
Opening statements get interrupted when Bill Hodgman suffers chest pains in the courtroom, brought on when Cochran starts reeling off a list of witnesses that haven’t been submitted to the prosecution. He’d been warned about it the night before by Carl Douglas, but proceeded anyway: “There comes a time when you have to fall on your sword for your client,” he tells him. Hodgman does recover, but has to recuse himself from the case, allowing Darden to be promoted to co-counsel.
From there, it’s on to the unusual, though not unprecedented, jury tours of Nicole Brown and O.J. Simpson’s homes — staged brilliantly by Cochran. Gone are naked photos of Paula Barbieri and O.J.’s white golfing buddies; added are pieces of African-American art “on loan from the Cochran collection.” And as luck would have it, all of Nicole Brown’s personal effects have been removed from her house, leaving it bare. (It was up for sale at the time.)
In an odd moment, Simpson confronts Darden: “Get off my bench. I don’t want you on my bench.” Did it really happen? Would Simpson have let himself be seen as so confrontational in front of the jury? But it serves a greater narrative purpose: It brings Cochran back over to Darden to defuse the situation, and then offer some counsel: “Whatever happens, don’t do Fuhrman. Make the white people do him.”
That sends Darden into a tailspin. He thinks Cochran’s trying to get inside his head again, but his father sees it for what it is: “Could it be possible he’s just trying to give you some good advice, black man to black man?”
Another prep session with Fuhrman convinces him the detective’s a time bomb, and he doesn’t want to be anywhere near it. This time he’s firm with Marcia: “I’m not putting Fuhrman on the stand.” She tries to persuade him: “The truth is, Fuhrman will present best if you have him.” And he comes right back: “Say it. It’s because I’m black.” She realizes she’s been beaten: She’ll handle the detective. Little does she know he’s got a drawerful of Nazi memorabilia.
It’s tempting to want to fact-check every frame: Hodgman’s chest pains happened during a strategy meeting in the D.A.’s office, not in the courtroom; Darden also delivered an opening statement that didn’t make into the hour. Let’s grant the show dramatic license — the trial of the century lasted for eight months, not ten hours of TV.
But yes, the defense did make over O.J.’s house before the jury visit. (Carl Douglas told Dateline in 2014 he did a little redecorating — it’s one of the things Ryan Murphy said surprised him the most in his research.) And yes, Ito allowed Nicole Brown’s home to be shown without any furnishings. “Isn’t it equally stunning for a jury to see a completely vacant home, knowing that it had once been the home of a vibrant person and children?” he said then. But he did rule that the life-sized statue of Simpson — which we see the jurors gape at on the lawn — be hidden under a sheet.
Set aside the details, though, and consider the emotion — and that’s what this episode really delivers. Vance embodies Cochran’s unwavering confidence, while Brown proves he can more than hold his own with his A-list castmates, delivering on Darden’s uncertainty, torn between his duty as a prosecutor and being called an “Uncle Tom” by his own community.
Witness the scene where he tries to explain his position to Marcia Clark, recalling his days as a law student under affirmative action. “I remember,” she says. “No, you don’t,” he counters. “You’re white.”
A few notes:
• The “N” word: We’re unfortunately going to be hearing a lot more about it and of it (thank you, Mark Fuhrman). It was used often on HBO’s “The Wire,” and pointedly addressed on ABC’s “Black-ish” earlier this season.
• Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne (Robert Morse), who covered the trial for the magazine, gets courted by Judge Ito and promised a guaranteed front-row seat next to the Goldmans, with whom he’s clearly sympathetic. But he dines out on the tawdry gossip he gleans from that perch. He shares nuggets with his companions at an all-white dinner party — but quickly falls silent when the black butler enters the room.
• F. Lee Bailey’s line of the week: “Come on, Bob, pretend we’re at the Oscars,” he tells Shapiro, who hesitates for a minute when confronted by the crush at the courtroom. (Runner-up: “I suppose that makes you Jesus,” when Shapiro calls him “Judas” for leaking the dream team turmoil to the Daily News.)