The tone for Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson is set within the first two minutes of the first episode, before O.J. Simpson is even introduced.
The show begins with real life footage of cab driver Rodney King being beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers after a high speed chase. The footage, which would eventually be broadcast to millions, led to the riots. It’s this specific event that Murphy wants viewers to keep in the back of their minds while watching American Crime Story.
American Crime Story could have been just another retelling of the infamous Simpson trial that shook the country to its core in 1995. Murphy could have decided to focus on nothing but the trial and the people closest to Simpson involved in the case, but he didn’t. Instead, Murphy used the case to open up a discussion about race in America and the issues that still face the people that come before the judicial system on a daily basis.
Because as much as the Simpson trial was about a man that allegedly murdered his ex-wife, it also became a story within the public eye as a battle between the white prosecutors and police officers who were taking on a black celebrity. That’s the story that Murphy focuses on and that’s the heart of American Crime Story. It’s also what makes it such an invigorating watch.
It’s important to note, however, that Murphy never makes an excuse for Simpson.
The majority of people know exactly what happened during the Simpson trial. Or, at the very least, they know what the outcome was. It still stands as one of the most controversial verdicts in history and defined itself as one of the top stories of the decade.
With the amount of coverage being given to Simpson this year, including a seven and a half hour documentary on ESPN, American Crime Story needed to figure out a way to make the story interesting again for an audience of people that already knew what was going to happen.
Choosing to focus on the racial tensions that had spread out among the country, and internationally, was the smartest decision Murphy could have made. It was a way for him to move the story forward and have it still relate to an audience in 2016 without having to rely on a twentieth anniversary to capture attention.
The way Murphy explores the tension surrounding Simpson’s trial could be used as a backdrop for many of the protests we’re seeing today. It’s important to note, however, that Murphy never makes an excuse for Simpson. He never hints that Simpson is innocent and never glorifies the death of Nicole Brown. Rather, he lets the public debate speak for itself and dives into the controversial debate that was being held at the time.
For the first time in Ryan Murphy’s career, he doesn’t go for the over-the-top shock value, but sits back and lets history speak for itself.
As the episodes go on, you never lose sight of the Rodney King beating or the riots that followed. There’s a reason Murphy decided to start the series with it, after all. It acts as a turning point in public opinion on the case and raises the question, “Is there a bigger aspect to this case that we’re not addressing?”
As the trial progresses, Murphy does focus much more on the interesting relationship between Simpson and his team of lawyers, including the now iconic team of Robert Shapiro and Johnny Cochran. The courtroom drama picks up, Simpson begins to deteriorate and the Kardashians get some play. The late Robert Kardashian, father of Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Rob, was one of Simpson’s best friends and a supporting figure throughout the trial.
But none of this ever feels as important as the discussion being held outside of the courtroom about racial tensions in America and the ongoing battles between the LAPD and the black community.
It never feels as important as going back to 1991 and remembering the pain and anger that the Rodney King footage instilled in American citizens.
And for that reason alone, for Murphy’s decision to focus on the larger subject matter instead of making American Crime Story a simple retelling of the trial, the show is a complete success.
American Crime Story airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on FX.