In “100% Not Guilty”, the racial conflicts inextricable from the O.J. case go from serving as cultural context to being crucial elements of this fantastic retelling. Without losing the hyperbolic swagger which makes the opening episodes so entertaining, American Crime Story moves to tackling head-on the issues which contributed to the story at its heart being worthy of a re-staging, 20 years after the fact.
That energy is apparent from the gripping teaser, which opens with a cocaine-fueled club scene out-Scorseseing much of the Vinyl pilot. The frenetic strobe lights and swaying bodies are fun enough to watch on their own, but they’re made all the more meaningful by the contrast with O.J. sitting in his prison cell. His partying days behind him for the time being, O.J. has only memories to keep him busy while he awaits trial.
But his prospects of freedom get better and better as Bob makes it clearer and clearer that he’s unfit to serve as the lead attorney on this “dream team.” “You know how these people think,” he says to Johnnie, a remark which he doesn’t take well, and rightfully so. Johnnie sees the ugliness of Bob’s ineptitude, but he’s not going to let it keep him from doing his job. A quick series of cuts captures the rapid-fire debate between Johnnie and Marcia over the admissibility of hair strands from the crime scene, and the rapid pacing of the sequence emphasizes Cochran’s professionalism. Marcia is plenty self-righteous, but so is Johnnie, and his rhetorical skills win the battle, getting the evidence thrown out. Even if emotions drive Johnnie, he doesn’t let them get in the way of doing what he does best.
As professional as Johnnie can be, his convictions are in full display as he attempts to cheer O.J. up, a scene which also features some of the strongest acting of the series thus far. Anthony Hemingway emphasizes the strengths of the performances by cleverly hiding the men’s reactions, building the tension around how O.J. will receive Johnnie’s speech, and both Courtney B. Vance and Cuba Gooding, Jr. work magic here. “You are O.J. Simpson, and you are an inspiration,” Johnnie says, and it’s hard not to be moved by his words, even with everything we know in hindsight.
The scene sets the tone for an episode in which the characters aren’t afraid to wear their emotions on their sleeves. O.J. pleads “absolutely 100% not guilty,” and the boisterous musical cue — amidst O.J.’s sunglasses indoors and the frenzy of hype inside the courtroom — highlights his proud defiance of the charges against him. The publicity only increases as Faye Reznick sells the story of Nicole’s use of the “Brentwood Hello” to eager writers looking to cash in on the O.J. phenomenon. Connie Britton is outstanding here, playing up Faye’s theatricality without wholly discounting her earnestness, and the scene also functions as a meta-textual commentary on our own lurid fascination with the show: There’s an undeniable entertainment value to getting inside the minds of larger than life figures, and it fuels the sales of Faye’s book as well as our excitement with Ryan Murphy’s controlled madness.
Still, American Crime Story does an impressive job of not letting us forget that two people were murdered, brutally so, regardless of who committed the crime. The family of the less discussed of those two victims, Ron Goldman, stops by Marcia’s office, further encouraging her lack of amusement with the media hubbub. O.J. may or may not have murdered Ron and Nicole, and the show leaves the question open, but it’s to the credit of writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski that they don’t let the story around the case wholly overwhelm the violence at its core.
Marcia certainly doesn’t forget, and she wants to seek the death penalty, even if the jurors prove to be a substantial roadblock to a conviction of any kind. The women are much less sympathetic towards Nicole than she’d hope, referring to Nicole as a “gold digger” and Marcia as a “bitch.” Racism is, of course, the defining issue of discrimination in the O.J. case, but the show never lets us forget the misogyny which also haunts its characters.
Both of these issues are beyond the scope of Bob, who flails in his role more and more as “100% Not Guilty” proceeds. He’s outraged by the suggestion that him and his colleagues are “playing the race card,” but the wiser Johnnie isn’t afraid to show him up, explaining to the judge that he believes in the necessity of calling attention to the racism which undoubtedly colors O.J.’s case. John Travolta’s performance continues to feel wildly miscalculated, but his contrast with the assured and measured Vance nicely mirrors the relationship between the men they portray.
Sure enough, Bob is soon out, and, much to Johnnie’s chagrin, Christopher is in for the prosecution, setting the stage for the furious sociopolitical battle soon to come. There’s a lot more at stake in the O.J. trial than the mere question of his guilt, and American Crime Story is fleshing out these issues while also continuing to be hugely entertaining TV.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.