In 2016, television has found room for two retellings of the O.J. Simpson trial, and both have avoided feeling redundant in the slightest. First up was The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a dramatization brought to life in part by camp virtuoso Ryan Murphy which highlighted the fever-pitched lunacy of the case (and which I recapped here). Next was O.J.: Made in America, a documentary from the more sober-minded Ezra Edelman which immediately dismissed fears of retread by providing sociopolitical context for life in Los Angeles in the 90s and personal context for O.J.’s attitude towards race beyond the scope of American Crime Story. As both of these miniseries make clear, the trial encompasses many of the forces continuing to shape and define American life: race, class, celebrity and gender.
The first three factors are well represented in the two programs. Murphy wisely begins with footage from the Rodney King riots, establishing the definitive role of race and class in the case from the get-go. Given the star-studded cast of American Crime Story, the series can hardly avoid acting as a meditation on celebrity, but Murphy (in conjunction with the stalwart biopic scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) draws out the complicated relationships the major players in the O.J. trial have with fame. Amidst the exploration of these crucial themes, viewers are reminded that the case ultimately revolves around the brutal murders of two individuals, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and their bodies are amongst the most gruesome sights on TV since Hannibal went off the air.
Enter Made in America, which uses its seven-and-a-half hour running time to explore the ramifications and subtext of the O.J. case in astonishing depth. Edelman goes beyond the King riots, showing how Watts and the 39th Street and Dalton raids were also instrumental to the polarization of opinions on O.J. along racial lines. Made in America traces O.J.’s journey from emblematizing “post-racial” America, before the term had ever been used, to demonstrating why such a concept could never truly come to fruition. As American Crime Story also emphasizes, race is inextricable from class both within and beyond the context of the case, particularly since O.J.’s image of himself as transcendent of skin color reflects his entrenchment in the wealthy and white-dominated Brentwood community. Edelman highlights how O.J. once signified a race-blind notion of celebrity, a particularly shocking concept when considered in conjunction with the heightened race-consciousness of his fellow black celebrity athlete contemporaries.
Yet as masterful of a job as Edelman does investigating these various issues and their relevance to O.J., he doesn’t explore the systemic pertinence of gender to the same extent. There’s a brief mention of potential jurors calling Marcia Clark a “bitch,” as well as images of tabloids with headlines questioning her maternal abilities, but no explicit linkage is made between these examples of sexist discourse. Edelman rubs in our faces the brutal pictures of Nicole’s injuries at O.J.’s hands, but he emphasizes the connection between the acquittal and American negligence of domestic abuse much less than the black affinity with O.J.’s legal fate.
Enter “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the sixth and perhaps finest of American Crime Story’s ten gripping hours. The episode, one of four directed by Murphy himself, opens on a tight close-up of Marcia’s (Sarah Paulson) face as she finds herself on the losing end of a divorce court proceeding with her ex-husband, Gordon (Brian Byrnes). His lawyer explains, much to Marcia’s disgust, that Gordon shouldn’t have to “pay added child support to pay strangers to take care of the children,” highlighting the acceptability of declaring Marcia’s abilities as a prosecutor and a mother to be incompaitible.
In addition to Marcia’s maternal capacities being deemed relevant to the case, her physical appearance is equally fair game. She comes home to her son watching media coverage of the trial, which includes an interview with a fashion writer who describes Marcia’s look as “frump incarnate.” Understandably, she responds to this criticism by getting her hair done by a stylist who promises to make her look like Farrah Fawcett, a move which only leads to more scrutiny. In case there’s any doubt that Marcia suffers specifically due to her gender, the act in which she gets her hair done ends with a grocery store checkout guy making a crude period joke as she buys tampons. Her plight only worsens as the episode goes on, with the final act revealing her ex-husband’s (the one before Gordon) disclosure of a nude photo of her to the tabloids.
Lest sexism seem like Marcia’s problem alone, Murphy explores its direct implications to O.J. and Nicole’s relationship prior to the end of the pre-credits teaser. Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) cross-examines a teary-eyed Denise Brown (Jordana Brewster), Nicole’s sister, who tells the court about O.J.’s public sexual harassment of his ex-wife. Darden brags to the defense as he exits the courtroom, showing that even the exposure of misogyny is yet another tool for men to do battle with one another over their own interests.
And for all of the emphasis on sexism in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the episode also takes care to highlight the other forms of discrimination inextricable from the O.J. case. After an approving nod from Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) uses the N-word continuously as he cross-examines Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale), forcing the jury to wallow in its ugly power. The defense attorneys know as well as anyone that the post-racial America once epitomized by the real-life O.J. are as fictional as any conspiracy theories they can drum up, and the lawyers expose the grim reality as it befits their case.
Thus, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” exposes the intersection between the powerful forms of marginalization which shape the O.J. trial, as well as, more broadly, contemporary American life. For all of the virtues of Made in America, foremost among them being the documentary’s attention to the connection between the verdict and the vicious treatment of black Los Angelenos by the L.A.P.D., Edelman sells the role of misogyny short. As such, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” positions itself as the missing sixth chapter to Made in America, combining with Edelman’s insights to comprehensively explore the wide-reaching significance of the O.J. case.
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.