Tuesday, March 1, 2016

REVIEW: 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' - Chris Darden & Johnnie Cochran Battle as the Trial Begins in 'The Race Card'

FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story - Episode 1.05 "The Race Card"

As the trial begins, Christopher Darden and Johnnie Cochran face off in court. Chris has doubts about Mark Fuhrman as a witness. The jury visits the crime scene.

The tension between the prosecution and the defense teams is only growing as the O.J. Simpson trial has officially started. Both sides are very passionate and determined about their arguments and their strategies for this trial. And yet, this episode does a phenomenal job in showing just how delicate this whole dynamic really was. This trial was a media circus that brought up many varied and intense emotions. As the trial begins, crowds have assembled in front of the court house to voice their opinions on O.J.'s innocence or guilt. But it's just as significant that the actual court proceedings are just as much a circus. In this episode alone, Judge Ito reaches out to Dominick Dunne to cover the proceedings and comfort the grieving family, Johnnie's team is able to go into O.J.'s house and completely redecorate before the jury visits and Bill is removed from the case because he experiences chest pains right in the middle of opening arguments. But this is only the beginning of the hijinks about to happen in this case. As the end of this episode suggests, things are only going to get worse for Marcia and Chris as this trial moves forward.

The perception behind Christopher Darden joining the prosecution team so suddenly is starting to build. Johnnie flings an accusation against the D.A.'s office saying that Chris was added to the team just so they had a black man representing their interests. That's the start of the battle between Chris and Johnnie throughout this episode. It's a battle that Johnnie has the advantage in too because of his experience and passion for this cause. Chris is a skilled attorney but his profile has had a meteoric rise and he's still getting used to his surroundings. He wants this to be a respectable fight between the two sides. That's the way that he has always done business. Johnnie does respect him as an attorney. The two of them were friends before this trial put them on opposing sides. And now, they are enemies saying whatever it takes in order to win their case and appeal to a jury that has been skewed African American.

Chris is a part of the prosecution's team but it takes him awhile to actually become a crucial member of the proceedings. Gil and Marcia believe that the optics look great. Gil is happy with the spice added to the team while Marcia is confident Chris can bring it home when he argues that Detective Fuhrmann's racist past not be allowed into questioning. It's an issue that Chris is able to speak to in an eloquent way. But it's still no match for Johnnie who has passion and emotion on his side. Their debate over the use of the N-word in this trial is phenomenal in this episode. It's a word that everyone in the African American community has heard and had to deal with. This episode opens with Johnnie being pulled over by the cops a decade prior simply because he's a black man in a white neighborhood. That wasn't completely necessary but it continued to showcase just how passionate Johnnie has always been about this issue and the experience and knowledge he brings to this case. All of that makes for one compelling moment in the courtroom where Johnnie easily beats Chris in this debate.

However, Chris' more daunting mission is getting Detective Fuhrmann ready to take the stand. Marcia believes that she needs Fuhrmann to testify in order to detail how the evidence was collected and the suspicion first fell on O.J. And yet, the defense already knows just how horrible a witness Fuhrmann will be for the prosecution's case. They joke that Marcia would never willingly put him on the stand in order to make her case. But that's exactly what she's doing. She fully believes that the evidence collected will be enough to overcome any potential issues from Fuhrmann's past. But she doesn't have to interact with Fuhrmann as a black man. Chris does. He notices all the subtle differences in Fuhrmann's interactions. They are pointed out a little bit to the audience for dramatic effect. But it's still powerful watching as Chris notices just how bad an idea this really is and being unable to convince Marcia otherwise. He spends a night questioning himself on what to do with Fuhrmann after Johnnie seemingly gives him advice. Chris has gotten so much power and importance now. But he doesn't quite know what to do with it. He is promoted once Bill is hospitalized. That's a huge accomplishment. And yet, it also comes with Marcia asserting herself as the lead prosecutor. Chris passing Fuhrmann off to her is good for him personally - though it will be so devastating to the case later on.

But again, so many aspects of the case are spiraling out of the prosecution's control. They are still operating this case like they normally would. Gil is still not allowing his prosecutors to give interviews to the press. The defense has been using public opinion to their advantage. This is a case that is passionate and emotion for them. O.J. stands accused of this horrible crime. Johnnie is spouting this incredible tale about systemic racism in the judicial system. All of that is deeply rooted in proven fact. It's a game that Johnnie knows how to play and he plays it well. He knows exactly what to say and do in order to connect with people's emotions in the way that he wants. He takes over a church service just in order to get Jesus on his side. He redecorates O.J.'s house to show the jury that he really was a family man who cared about the community he came from. He also knows exactly what to say in order to get O.J. to embrace that narrative. O.J. worked hard in order to get the success he had in life. He fully believes that that success can only come from hard work and determination. It's not the words he needs to be saying right now though. He returns home and so much of it is unfamiliar to him. It's all just a tactic that Johnnie has incorporated. The one genuine moment O.J. has is yelling at Chris for sitting on a bench in the backyard. But again, so much of that is meaningless. That doesn't destroy Johnnie's plan. He is still able to expertly manipulate these events to his advantage - even though he is also looking out for Chris who could have a very promising future for him. Of course, this case will soon spiral out of control in many immense and almost unbelievable ways. But that's again what makes this show so entertaining. It's able to fuel into the beliefs of the time while still making them very relevant and engaging to today's audience.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Race Card" was written by Joe Robert Cole and directed by John Singleton.
  • Christopher Darden is such a difficult role to get right. This case is so different than anything else he has ever worked on. He's in a position of power that he's not quite sure what to do with yet. And yet, Sterling Brown does a terrific job showcasing all of those complicated emotions. He has so many phenomenal moments in this episode opposite Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson.
  • Marcia really took Chris' advice and opinion seriously in the past. She didn't always listen to it - like when it came to jury selection - but she genuinely wanted to know what he had to say. And now, it seems like she's disregarding him just a little bit because of the confidence she has with her case.
  • Ito brings Dominick Dunne - a famous reporter for Vanity Fair - into the courtroom so that he can sit next to the Goldman family and not be too intrusive with the questions. But it's much more telling to see Dunne at his high-society dinner with his elite, white friends discussing the case but only when the black servants are out of the room. Also, Robert Morse is great.
  • Ito asking Dunne if he can get him a meeting with Arsenio Hall further proves just how fame and celebrity obsessed Ito is - and how that may complicate this case where celebrity is such a huge part.
  • Things are still tense between Shapiro and Lee. And yet, Shapiro's immature antics only take up one scene in this episode - when he refuses to join the meeting but eventually does and calls Lee, "Judas."
  • So much of Marcia's opening testimony focused on the blood trail that connects this entire case together. It's so daunting just waiting for the defense to use Barry to discredit the way all of this supposed evidence was obtained and tested.
  • Johnnie learns that Shapiro's office made a massive mistake in just casually forgetting to give the prosecution 12 of their prospective witnesses. He wonderfully uses that to his advantage in order to throw the prosecution off immediately. It also didn't seem to phase him at all that the emotion of that moment led to Bill's chest pains and the need for an ambulance to come.
  • Bill collapsing during court didn't really happen and is the show's first real big dramatization of the events. He was looking sick and Ito noticed. But he was able to leave for the day, report back to Gil and then went to the hospital with some chest pains - though they weren't bad enough for him to collapse just enough for him to be held for observation due to the stress in his life.
  • I laughed so hard at Johnnie telling Chris, "Nigger please."