From the moment of its announcement, a fundamental question surrounding The People v. O.J. Simpson has been the treatment of its central subject’s guilt. Would showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski portray O.J. as innocent, as a jury of his peers found him to be? Or would the series consider the uncertainty which continues to surround the case, fueled in part by O.J. himself?
By refusing to say categorically that O.J. didn’t do it, Alexander and Karaszewski leave open the possibility of his guilt. But American Crime Story appears to have something more interesting on its mind than revealing “the truth,” whatever that means: exploring any and all angles of a fascinating moment in American cultural history. This exploration necessitates an unwillingness to take sides in order to work, and “The Race Card” succeeds, perhaps better than any other episode in the strong season, by refusing to shy away from the hypocrisy prevalent on both sides of the O.J. case.
Nor does the series condemn anyone’s hypocrisy, presenting it instead as the result of systemic pressures out of their control. “The Race Card” emphasizes this motif from the captivating flashback in the teaser, in which Johnnie gets racially profiled for driving through a wealthy Californian neighborhood. He downplays the racism inherent in the situation to his daughters, a striking move given his later insistence on race as an unavoidable facet of the American sociopolitical climate. Johnnie’s decision to conceal the truth from his daughters is understandable, but also a stark contrast with his professional behavior.
Johnnie also exhorts the girls never to use the “n-word,” a commandment he himself disobeys in the end of the first act. He responds to Chris’s insistence on ignoring Mark Fuhrman’s racism with a racist utterance of his own, rebuking Chris with the epithet he’d once insisted should never be used, under any circumstances.
“The Race Card” calls direct attention to Johnnie’s hypocrisy, but is his behavior really so different from that of the prosecutors? Marcia insists that O.J.’s history of domestic violence against Nicole be a part of the trial, while Fuhrman’s history of bigotry should be excluded. Both are tangential to the case, providing background information rather than substantial evidence regarding O.J.’s guilt, but the prosecutors are happy to use the information which fits their case and disregard that which harms them. The episode emphasizes the connection between the two legal teams by crosscutting between them as they form their strategies. “Our job is to tell our story better than the other side tells theirs,” Johnnie says, and his statement appears to apply equally to both sides. They’re both hypocritical, but they only act as their jobs require them to.
Still, the hypocrisy takes its toll, as Chris finds out when he’s mortified to read himself being described as an “Uncle Tom.” He wants to explain his actions to the press, but Gil fears an exacerbation of the situation. He knows that hypocrisy is unavoidable in their line of work, and he only wants to protect Chris from making the limits of their strategies more evident to the media.
But the defense fairs no better, and therein lies the strength of “The Race Card” and the entire first half of The People v. O.J. Simpson. Johnnie follows up his racist remark by mentioning witnesses previously unrevealed to the prosecution in his opening statement, highlighting his willingness to play legal games to get what he wants. He even borders on alienating his client with his strategic maneuvers, as O.J. doesn’t initially understand why the presentation of his house needs to be altered for jurors. Like the prosecution, Johnnie will do what it takes to get what he wants, and American Crime Story makes no pretense of glamorizing his tactics.
Even Fuhrman, a man whose hateful worldview may or may not have affected his work in the O.J. case, doesn’t get spared from the show’s critical gaze. “The Race Card” closes on the pointed image of his Nazi memorabilia, discouraging any sympathy we may be tempted to have for him. As Chris explains about racist language, the power of the image troubles any attempts at objective interpretation of Fuhrman or his actions. The stakes of the O.J. trial went far beyond the question of his guilt, and American Crime Story succeeds by taking an unflinching and even-handed look at those conditions.
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.