With Mark Fuhrman Looming, ‘American Crime Story’ Took A Long, Hard Look At Race

In last week’s episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, there was a contentious scene in the judge’s chambers over whether the defense intended to play “the race card.” After Shapiro — still the lead attorney at the time — insisted that he would never, never do such a thing, Johnnie Cochran interrupted him with a speech about how racial issues are pervasive and can’t be ignored, and that of course they would be a part of the trial. Cochran replaced Shapiro as lead attorney by the end of that episode. This week’s episode — helmed by Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton — was titled “The Race Card.” So, I guess that settles that.

1) The episode focused almost entirely on the bubbling racial aspect of the trial in the lead-up to Mark Fuhrman’s testimony, which means we got a lot of Johnnie Cochran. This is by no means a complaint, as Courtney B. Vance is really doing tremendous work, filling him with confidence and a conniving charisma — alliteration! — while also showing us some of his motivation and private moments.

The most notable of these moments last night was the flashback scene at the beginning where he was stopped by a white cop with his daughters in the car. It’s was a tough line to tiptoe, one that risked leaving the viewer with the idea that Cochran’s entire view of the LAPD was shaped by one traffic stop, and Vance handled it really well. Vance and Sarah Paulson are putting in work on this show, and I’ve got to imagine people will remember when it comes time to hand out awards.

2) Also doing work last night: Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden. Darden was kind of the flipside of the Cochran coin in this episode. Where Cochran was a hard-driving force who mapped out a plan and stuck to it, Darden was left to second guess himself and have crises of conscience. Where Cochran would act, Darden would react. You could see it in their multiple asides throughout the episode (telling Darden he was trying to win, not be respectful; telling Darden to make the white people put Fuhrman on the stand), but you really saw it in the faces Brown made when he was processing bad news. Here’s the one from when Clark told him he was responsible for Fuhrman. More expressive than 1,500 words.

3) Of course, all of this — the focus on race and the relationship between Darden and Cochran — culminated in the moment during the trial when Darden tried to get the n-word banned from the proceedings and Cochran calmly took his glasses off, rubbed his temples, and laid waste to both the argument and the man. It was an evisceration, made even more brutal by the multiple times he referred to Darden as “my friend.” You do not bring a knife to a gunfight, and you do not waive a juicy steak in front of a tiger. You’ll get shot and mauled. As Darden found out — metaphorically, mostly — last night.

4) My one real complaint with this show has been that sometimes it just doesn’t know how to get out of its own way. We saw it back in the third episode when Robert Kardashian gave his kids the hilarious in hindsight “We are Kardashians” speech about the nature of fame, and we saw it again in the courtroom last night when Cochran leaned over to Darden after their back and forth to say “N*gga, please.” It felt a little gratuitous. The point was made, well, in a powerful scene that set the stage for what is sure to be an explosive future scene with Fuhrman on the stand. Tossing this in there after that was kind of fun, sure, but I think it might have undercut the otherwise serious discussion about race the show was trying to have.

5) The thing with Cochran and his team aggressively redecorating O.J.’s house to turn it from a shrine to golf and pretty ladies in bikinis into an African art exhibit was well-played and based in reality, but something tells me the real Johnnie Cochran wasn’t blasting “Fantastic Voyage” by Coolio while he did it. Although that is a really fun mental image.

While O.J. may not have liked that they overhauled his house (“Everybody loves my house! It was in Sunset magazine!”), I think from the screencap, it’s clear that Johnny Cochran was plenty pleased with himself.

6) One area where the episode did fudge the facts a bit: The collapse of prosecutor Bill Hodgman in the courtroom during the opening statement witness fiasco. While Hodgman did indeed have health problems that caused the trial to be briefly postponed, it didn’t play out quite that dramatically in real life. From the Los Angeles Times 1995 coverage of the trial:

Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman, 41, complained of chest pains during a trial strategy meeting at the Downtown Criminal Courts Building and was taken by paramedics to California Medical Center, Garcetti said at a news conference. […]

Garcetti said Hodgman had been “very calm, quite subdued during the meeting” in the district attorney’s office conference room. […]

Garcetti said Hodgman was seated next to him at the strategy meeting when he asked to be excused. “He told me that he was not feeling well,” the district attorney said. “He said he was disoriented and felt chest pains.”

So, you know, not quite almost dying in court because of witness-related chicanery, but shrug emoji drama etc. etc. etc.

7) The episode was light on both Travolta and Schwimmer (more on this second part later today, as our Quest for 100 Juices took a devastating blow), which was understandable given its subject matter and their shrinking roles in the proceedings as we move to trial with Cochran running the show, but “light on” doesn’t mean “devoid of,” so we did get one great Travolta moment: Him standing in the hallway of Cochran’s office, refusing to enter the conference room because F. Lee Bailey was in there. Just delightful. Any time you can get John Travolta to throw a tantrum in a hallway like a teenage girl, in character as one of the most famous attorneys in recent memory, you really just can’t turn that opportunity down.

8) This episode also gave us our formal introduction to Robert Morse — Bert Cooper from Mad Men! — as Vanity Fair correspondent Dominick Dunne. Dunne covered the trial extensively for the magazine, which is fine and great and something you may google on your own time, because we need to hit two things quickly:

  • There may never be a more 1990s moment on television than Judge Lance Ito showing off a signed picture of Arsenio Hall while in his chambers during the O.J. Simpson trial. The only way it could have topped that is if Pauly Shore was sitting in the corner quietly, or if the thing Ito showed off was a poster signed by the cast of Surf Ninjas.
  • That fancy dinner he had was great. Just a bunch of rich old white people sitting around in tuxedos and fur coats gossiping about everything under the sun, but then clamming up like terrified witnesses at a mob trial the second the all-minority staff came in to serve the food. I desperately wanted the staff to keep coming out of the kitchen one at a time every 30 seconds to check on them, just to keep interrupting Dunne’s stories.

Caption: White people!

9) Man, you know who I feel bad for? Carl, Johnnie Cochran’s associate. All he did this episode: Stand in the hallway with Shapiro during the teen tantrum, work extremely late while his boss was at home having sexy time, get told to take a public and embarrassing fall to cover for Shapiro’s staff’s error, and sit back and watch as doing that last thing caused another human being to collapse from stress and get wheeled out of court on a stretcher. Poor Carl. He deserves a vacation.

10) Hey there, Mark Fuhrman. How’s it going? Big day coming up for you at trial, what with both sides very concerned about things you said and did in the past that might indicate some sort of animosity based on race. Hope you have everything under contr-… aaaaaaand you’re polishing your Nazi memorabilia.

Should make for a fun next episode.