Why a TV show based on the O.J. Simpson trial 20 years ago is still relevant

American Crime Story revives 1994 murder case involving former football star

Like many Americans who lived through it, actors Cuba Gooding Jr, John Travolta and David Schwimmer remember the 1994-1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial like it was yesterday.

Just as the generation before them never forgot where they were when President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, those in their 30s and older vividly recall seeing live footage of Simpson speeding down a highway the day of his arrest, followed by a widely televised trial that ended, controversially, with the former football star being cleared of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Looking back on it today, the actors - who re-enact these events in the buzzy new star-studded series American Crime Story: The People V O.J. Simpson - say the still-contentious case was nothing less than a watershed moment for the United States.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles, the cast and creators of the 10-episode show - which debuts in Singapore tomorrow on Fox Crime (StarHub TV Channel 503/Singtel TV Channel 313) - note that it was a critical point for race relations and say it also ushered in a new era of tabloid journalism, round-the-clock news and reality television.

Oscar-winner Gooding Jr (Jerry Maguire, 1996), who plays Simpson, recalls how the trial and its outcome divided a nation along racial lines, with polls at the time indicating that about 70 per cent of blacks believed Simpson was innocent and 70 per cent of whites were convinced of his guilt.

"I remember when the jury said, 'We, the people, find Orenthal James Simpson not guilty.' I was like, 'Yeah!'"

The 48-year-old says he celebrated the verdict as he thought Simpson had been unfairly targeted by the authorities because he was black, the actor having experienced this prejudice growing up in Los Angeles.

"I've had cops pull me over all the time. And then the Rodney King beating happened and everybody felt a sense of tension and frustration due to the police harassment," he says, referring to the unrest sparked by the 1992 acquittal of the policemen caught on video beating up King, an unarmed black man.

The series stars another big movie star, 61-year-old Travolta, who plays Simpson's lawyer Robert Shapiro.

For him, the case is even more memorable because it coincided with a personal milestone - his mid-career resurrection with the 1994 crime drama Pulp Fiction.

"We had just won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and my father, who was a football coach, was obsessed with the case. So I had my dad on the sofa watching every second of it from the car chase."

Reflecting on the significance of the sensational trial - which made the lawyers on both sides famous - Travolta says: "It's where the legal system broke down. It was more important for certain lawyers to become celebrities than it was their client.

"That's the interesting fault of the legal and judicial system."

Schwimmer, the 49-year-old actor best known for the sitcom Friends (1994 to 2004), plays the late lawyer Robert Kardashian, a close friend of Simpson's. Kardashian's involvement in the defence team thrust him into the national spotlight, paving the way for the successful reality TV dynasty launched later by his ex-wife Kris Jenner and daughters Kim, Kourtney and Khloe.

Schwimmer believes the trialsignified the dawn of reality TV and a new kind of tabloid journalism.

"We had just shot the pilot for Friends and I was very aware - as someone here living in Los Angeles - of the tension in the city at the time, given the riots following the Rodney King incident," he recalls.

And he remembers watching the Simpson case on TV and thinking "it had all the makings of myth and Greek tragedy - this celebrated, iconic hero, fallen".

Tackling bias against blacks

"It was also the first time we started seeing helicopter chases on the news and it felt like the birth of a new kind of tabloid journalism.

"It was one of the first times you were privy to such a high-profile murder trial - you got to tune in every day and it was better than any soap opera on the planet," he says of the televised proceedings, which attracted millions of viewers.

"I remember watching the car chase and they cut to people cheering (for Simpson). I remember feeling repulsion, like something was wrong. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was about what we were watching and filming, and people responding to being on camera."

The creators of American Crime Story, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, say these are just some of the reasons why the 21-year-old case remains relevant today.

Karaszewski, 54, believes that the way the case grabbed the national imagination and became all anyone could talk about made it "this weird ground zero of the beginning of 24-hour media".

Alexander, 52, points out that in the early 1990s, "CNN and Court TV were kind of new ideas", and notes that Simpson's slacker house guest Kato Kaelin became one of the first celebrities to be famous just for, well, being famous.

This, along with the unprecedented tabloid-style media attention on Simpson, the lawyers and others involved, represented the first stirrings of modern celebrity culture.

"You had the beginnings of reality television, where you had Kato becoming so famous. Everyone was talking about Kato and nobody knew why they were talking about Kato because he hadn't done anything," Alexander says.

However, the main objective of the series - which is executive produced by Ryan Murphy of Glee (2009 to 2015) and American Horror Story (2011-) fame - is to draw a line between the Simpson case and current debates about police misconduct and racial bias following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and similar cases.

That is why the pilot episode opens with footage of the Rodney King beating, even though it was not directly related to the Simpson trial.

Alexander explains: "We focused on this idea of police violence against blacks in Los Angeles. Larry and I felt that was the overarching idea for the show.

"We knew that was our opening because it was going to plant a flag saying, 'Ultimately, this is what the show is going to be about'."

That underlying motif will explain why Simpson was acquitted after his lawyers, Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran, managed to convince the jury that the case was really about race.

Karaszewski says the audience will see "the genius of Cochran and Shapiro, who turned the trial about whether O.J. was guilty or innocent into a trial about the Los Angeles Police Department and their shameful history with African Americans. And it just became such an overriding issue that it clouded every statement in the trial."

Alexander continues: "At a certain point, Cochran wasn't even talking about Simpson. He was talking about what the police had been doing all this time and saying, 'This is a way for you 12 people to send a message.'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'Reliving O.J. Simpson trial'. Print Edition | Subscribe