The People v. O.J. Simpson Review: Manna from Heaven

God brought us these tapes. — Johnnie Cochran

If we hadn’t lived through the O.J. Simpson trial, we’d all swear this show strained credulity to a degree that lacked realism. This case had it all. The way in which facts and relevance disappeared in favor of basically anything else is repulsive to watch, and was more than a little gross and unsettling to see in 1995. What continues to be lost in the series is a voice for the victims and their families, though occasionally we do catch a snippet. This week, we saw Fred Goldman plead for people to recognize that two people died in the crime, which seems insane for him to have to point out, but was in fact extremely important.

Johnnie Cochran successfully took a murder case and turned it into a treatise on racism in the United States. I recall wondering at the time whether or not it was all designed to get an acquittal, or because he was a racist himself. American Crime Story depicts him as a powerful man obsessed with all things race, blinded by his rage over the plight of the black man or woman in America. He was Jeremiah Wright – before anyone knew of the latter – and with a courtroom as his church.

We’ve been hired to defend a client, not burn a city down. — Robert Shapiro

But, was it all an act to play on white guilt and jury sympathy to win cases? Even if it wasn’t, he was effective with it, and he used it repeatedly throughout his career. He was seen on the same level as Sharpton and Jackson, fighting against systemic injustice. The series plays it both ways, where at some times it seem clear Cochran sees everything through a racial prism, and other times it’s an obvious tactic to score points within the trial.

Whereas Barry Scheck used science to cast doubt on technique, Cochran and F. Lee Bailey consistently went after the racism element, unwilling to compromise and perfectly happy to inflame not just a jury, but also a community. Their problem — though we never see it debated — is there’s no alternate theory of the crime. Neither of them can point to someone else, so the key is to make sure the vitriol towards the police or the white race in general superseded any focus on the truth that Nicole and Ron were brutally killed outside their home. I have no doubt both men knew their client was guilty as sin, but their job was to provide a vigorous defense.

We know how the story ends, so as we move towards the finale of The People v. O.J. Simpson, the series gives us a few other things about which to think, including exactly when the prosecution internally fell apart and became its own worst enemy. Two weeks ago, we saw Christopher Darden set to enter Marcia Clark’s hotel room for perceived sexual contact, but the event never happened. Following that moment, the relationship became strained and both participants made errors in court.

But, Marcia didn’t yet know her biggest mistake was months earlier, and it had a name with the initials M.F.

It’s hard to be hated by both sides. It takes a man of certain…character. — F. Lee Bailey

Whatever you may believe about Mark Fuhrman, what’s clear is Darden was correct to object to his inclusion in the state’s case against O.J. Simpson. He had a checkered past and once the tapes became a thing and the defense became aware of the contents, everything changed. Ironically (because the series runs on FX), Fuhrman has been a regular contributor on Fox News for many years, has become a bestselling author, and has become an expert in criminal investigations. But, it was pretty easy to paint him as a bigot and a sexist in the trial. To tell this part of the story, we also got the “N” word many times, both spoken and in various shots of documents. It’s never comfortable to hear that word, even in a retelling of actual events. It had to be done, but it’s always something that leaves a dull feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“Manna from Heaven” wasn’t the best episode of the season, but featured another very strong performance from Kenneth Choi and arguably Courtney B. Vance’s finest work as Cochran. He’s always good, but here he had to play both the calm Johnnie and the loud, angry, vengeful Johnnie. We got a particularly strong scene from Ito and Cochran – as well as Sterling K. Brown – when Ito ruled portions of the tapes admissible and Darden lost his cool. In that moment, we also saw Marcia Clark begin to understand her partner’s passion for the case and also the incontrovertible fact that he was right all along in his disagreement with using Fuhrman as a key witness.

You put me in this trial because you wanted a black face, but the truth is…you never wanted a black voice. — Christopher Darden

Following the body blows the state took with the tapes, Marcia and Chris began to patch things up, both admitting failings and saying they should have listened to one another. Clark apologizes, saying she was dead wrong about Fuhrman. Darden apologizes, saying he’s “sorry as shit about those gloves.” There’s a moment where the two look at each other in a way that dwarfs professionalism and feels more appropriate for a Do Not Disturb sign, but it doesn’t go much further than that.

What would have happened to the prosecution’s case and ultimately, the verdict, had Darden actually sealed the deal with Marcia in the hotel two weeks ago? Would those mistakes have happened while the two lawyers struggled and argued with one another? In the world of the series, it’s possible some things might have been different. In the actual trial, I doubt it. Cochran had the jury looking at everything on earth other than two stabbings. The boogeyman wasn’t O.J. Simpson. No, the monster under the bed was the racist policemen and a society that encouraged them to screw over a black man with money and fame.

The trip to North Carolina was interesting and both Vance and Lane took advantage of those scenes. Bailey knew how to reach the southern judges, and Cochran had to take a backseat in order to have a chance to achieve the greater good. His incredulous look as he listened to his colleague argue for access to the tapes was hilarious. I’d imagine that there was some creative license here, because Johnnie Cochran never struck me as an idiot. He, especially with his keen eye for racism even when it didn’t exist, would have immediately assumed he wouldn’t have been taken seriously in the south. He was tactical first, emotional second, though at times it felt like the two portions of his personality competed with one another.

In the case of Bailey, he didn’t care about racism; he just cared about whatever he could exploit to win the case. He was sleazy before the case, during the trial, and long after the verdict. It was the lack of conscience that made him such a good defense attorney and also why so many people despise lawyers. But, he made an offensively large amount of money looking the other way and taking whatever shortcut he could find.

We can see the prosecution cracking and the state’s case being ripped apart as the defense annihilated the forensics last week and has now succeeded in placing the microscope on the LAPD and not at O.J. Simpson. Ito permitted the jury to hear just two lines from the tapes, but in the court of public opinion, Fuhrman was pure evil. Amongst the attorneys and the judge, whose own wife was disparaged in the recordings, he was scum. As he re-entered the courtroom, Anthony Hemingway did a great job in making sure we saw the defense’s disgust, the prosecution’s abhorrence, the spectators’ revulsion, and even Lance Ito’s loathing of the detective. It was a tremendous few seconds of television.

Fuhrman invoked his rights against self-incrimination several times, and in the process allowed Johnnie Cochran to ask one final enormous question with knowledge of how the detective would answer.

Detective Fuhrman, did you plant or manufacture any evidence in this case? — Johnnie Cochran

I assert my Fifth Amendment privilege. — Mark Fuhrman

Cuba Gooding had a good week, especially as he celebrates in front of Robert Kardashian, who is almost ready to admit to himself that his buddy committed murder. O.J.’s big smile and energy felt completely real, because if anything seems to fit who that guy actually is, the one who dances as his defense team plans to use race as a tool to get him off. Nordberg wasn’t real. Nor was the television analyst. That was all a show.

That guy who hit Nicole, took a bunch of drugs, demeaned women, cashed in on his own heinous crime, and made phone calls about ‘Pedro Guerrero,” that’s the actual Simpson.

Although the Shapiro scenes were more primary than secondary this week, Travolta was horrible. In the scene where he fights unsuccessfully to accompany Cochran to North Carolina, the thick accent is gone, and while it’s terrible, the consistency or lack thereof is just as important. If you’re going to do a sucky voice, you’d better do it every single time, or you’ve really blown it. Later, he was better, and the voice was a bit more to form, but he’s the one sticking out like a sore thumb more often than not. Being surrounded by really good acting has made it far worse, and again, it’s not like he can’t act. He’s just not good in The People v. O.J. Simpson, at times comically bad and exceedingly cringe worthy.

The end of “Manna from Heaven” was different, but very important as both a lesson and for overall perspective. Clark’s secretary hands her an envelope that Marcia immediately thinks is from Ito, because it’s a ruling. It’s actually the ruling in her divorce case, and she finds she’s won primary custody. The other woman then says, “So you got everything.” Clark doesn’t speak, but does look up long enough for us to remember there were far bigger things in the world than the O.J. Simpson case.

Marcia Clark and her office were so driven to win the case, but she won far more in the OTHER court proceeding. After the Simpson verdict, everyone involved had to move on with life, some much easier than others, and for the families of the victims, it was a nightmare. But, being a mother would in the long run be a dominant winner over the lawyer who botched the O.J. Simpson trial.

It’s not going well for Marcia, Chris, or Gil. And it’s only going to get worse, though we’re approaching the end and the famous verdict, complete with Cochran embracing his client from behind as O.J. the court and the world hear the two words, “not guilty.”

I’m @GuyNamedJason. Shall I take off my watch and jewelry?

Written by Jason Martin