The other day, a tyke in the office said that he didn’t know who OJ Simpson was. I nearly hit the roof. It wasn’t his fault: he was too young to remember the 1995 court case that put a retired American football player on trial for the murder of his ex-wife and a friend. But it was a big “where were you when” moment for all us thirty-somethings. That was our moon landing. How tawdry civilisation has become.
The People v OJ Simpson (BBC2, Mondays, 9pm) does the trial of the decade justice. What a cast! Cuba Gooding Jnr does a good job playing Simpson as someone unsure whether he’s guilty or not. Sarah Paulson, one of the most versatile actors of her era, is superb as the prosecution. Courtney B Vance offers a compelling defence. John Travolta is marvellous as the celebrity defence lawyer, Robert Shapiro. Celebrities are the aristocracy of Los Angeles and men like Shapiro exist to protect them from ever having to abide by the laws of poorer, uglier people. With this performance, Travolta reminds us that he’s more than just another celebrity Scientologist. He’s a brilliant actor.
One small complaint: the whole thing is too long. There’s a taste now for multi-episode dramas that compete in length. Nothing inherently bad about that – The Forsyte Saga ran for years. But some of these dramas would make their points better, more powerfully, if they were condensed into one film exploring a key theme. Are we really interested in the romantic lives of the prosecution or the moral dilemmas of a feckless Kardashian? No. But we would like to understand better how, in this rare instance, a fairly straightforward example of celebrity justice became tied up in wider questions about race.
White Americans mostly saw a guilty man escape punishment; many black Americans noted the police’s bungling and racism and concluded that he was at the centre of a conspiracy they recognised all too well. Ultimately, whether or not OJ actually did it is less interesting than how his legal team persuaded a jury to find him innocent. Less soap, please, more sociology. And make it snappier.
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