Screen Test

21-year-old case still relevant today

Seismic cultural shifts are sometimes heralded by pizza shortages.

In the second episode of American Crime Story: The People V O.J. Simpson, we see a pizza-delivery kitchen running out of cheese because people watching the Simpson case unfold live on television cannot tear themselves away from their screens.

The series - a dramatisation of the infamous Simpson murder trial - did not make this up: On June 17, 1994, 95 million people tuned in to live footage of police chasing the former footballer's truck along a Los Angeles highway and Domino's Pizza recorded its highest sales at the time.

Details like this bring the 21-year-old case roaring back to life in this new anthology series from Glee (2009 to 2015) and American Horror Story (2011-) producer Ryan Murphy.

It stars Cuba Gooding Jr as Simpson, John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance as his hotshot lawyers Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran, and David Schwimmer as his confidant Robert Kardashian.

At first glance, the relevance of the story, however gripping, is not immediately obvious: Why revisit a piece of recent history that has been extensively documented and retold?

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It turns out that people have short memories and, if early reactions to the series are any indication, even Americans who lived through the trial are discovering that they have misremembered or overlooked certain details, never mind the bigger picture.

Painting that bigger picture is the show's endgame, of course, and it goes about it with some skill, using individual stories to illustrate the overarching themes.

The first of these is the longstanding police bias against African Americans. This is an issue which the writers signal their intention to tackle from the start, dedicating the first moments of the pilot to the video of the 1991 Rodney King beating, before cutting to the discovery of the bloodied corpses of Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994.

The series goes over the evidence presented in the trial - which gripped the millions who followed the televised court proceedings at the time - but, crucially, it remains ambiguous on the question of Simpson's guilt.

That is because it is trying to make the same point as the book it is adapted from, Jeffrey Toobin's The Run Of His Life: The People V O.J. Simpson, which is that the case was really all about race.

In 1995, the verdict acquitting Simpson of murder became an ink-blot test that bitterly divided the nation, with most whites thinking he was guilty and most blacks convinced of his innocence.

The series seeks to explain that gulf by showing why African Americans could not help but see the trial as yet another instance of a black man being persecuted.

From the crowds that gathered by the freeways to cheer Simpson during the car chase, to Christopher Darden (played by Sterling K. Brown) - the black prosecutor who would disastrously ask Simpson to try on the bloodied gloves in court - the writers take pains to explore multiple AfricanAmerican perspectives.

Viewed in this broader context, the protests sparked by the Eric Garner case in New York or the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson 20 years later - which took many whites by surprise - make that much more sense.

By the same token, the series is a chilling reminder of how little things have progressed - not just in terms of race, but also a culture that worships celebrities.

This is clearly an important issue for the series. One of the few times it takes creative liberties with the facts is with a couple of tongue-in-cheek scenes imagining how the Kardashian girls' first brush with fame via their father might have thoroughly seduced them.

And if Simpson was guilty, it was fame that arguably helped him get away not only with murder, but also repeated spousal abuse. The condoning of such behaviour by top American athletes persists to this day, although, granted, you do not hear many of them complaining, as Simpson did after Brown's death, that he had sometimes "felt like a battered husband".

In re-examining the events of the case, the narrative also serves as a sort of media history, documenting the unprecedented wall-to-wall coverage of the arrest and trial, which ushered in the era of 24-hour news and its rapacious demands for more tabloid content.

Today, the latter seems unremarkable and even inevitable, but all the more reason to stop and think about how we got here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline '21-year-old case still relevant today'. Print Edition | Subscribe