Here we are. More than 20 years later. And how little we’ve changed, even after spending a full year glued to our televisions, tabloid magazine ink on our fingers and a judgement on every mind.
In just 10 episodes, The People vs. OJ Simpson made us gladly devour a meal we’d already binged upon to the point of utter sickness. And it doesn’t matter if you were too young to fully grasp the situation or if you followed along with every word—it’s impossible not to watch this and see the most publicized court case of our time in a different light.
This is largely due to the stellar writing, but the true hero of The People vs. OJ Simpson is the casting. The cast was utter perfection. Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran was superb. John Travolta’s Robert Shapiro masterfully walked the camp line. Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown portrayed Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden beautifully, both with an uncanny ability to move an audience to tears or least full-body cringes with just their eyes. And every single character on the show, no matter the side, made you empathize with them, with their story, for at least a moment. Everyone is human. Everyone has a narrative.
And it’s that, the focus on The Story that makes you understand what happened in 1995. Why the verdict was what it was, why the tabloids and news programs alike were so riveted and we too, the audiences at home, ate it all up. Why it was so important, however annoyed viewers were, to show the Kardashian children, to pinpoint the exact moment they, the “they” they are today, were born into a world desperate for the circus.
Because we exist in a world that loves that circus. And there are those who believe that is what’s wrong with society. And maybe it’s part of it. But the circus pulls focus from the real issues. The real issues of police brutality and racial targeting, and the real issues of domestic violence and abuse, and men believing other men and ignoring the cries of women. Because haircuts and topless photos and Star Magazine-sponsored “found innocent” parties are what sells. And the show played it all with an even hand between spectacle and understatement. Exactly what the case and all it represented, what it represents still, deserved. Because is there really any difference between 1995 and 2016?
“This isn’t some civil rights milestone,” Christopher Darden says to Johnnie Cochran in the finale. “Police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here. Unless of course you’re a famous rich one in Brentwood.”
The hairstyles are different. The suits and ties worn by the powerful lawyers in that LA courtroom would be painfully passe today. But black people are still being arrested, beaten and killed by the police. Women are still judged on appearance, the strong and educated dismissed as bitches. Bad people do bad things and go unpunished. The circus carries on uninterrupted.