Courtney B. Vance was filming a movie in Toronto with “Scandal” star Tony Goldwyn on Oct. 3, 1995, when the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case came down.
Vance, who does an incredible job playing defense attorney Johnnie Cochran in the FX limited series, “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” that premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday, remembers their different reactions watching in Goldwyn’s trailer.
“I cheered,” said Vance during an interview in Pasadena, Calif. “I said ‘Yes’ and he screamed ‘No’ and we looked at each other and started talking. He said, ‘Why did you say that?’ And I said ‘Why did you say that?’ ”
The reaction of the two actors of different races pretty much mirrored the racial divide after Simpson was acquitted of the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
Vance wasn’t cheering for Simpson.
“Someone had used the system and worked the system,” said Vance.
Based on the book, “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” by Jeffrey Toobin, the series should steer memories of all the continuing issues surrounding the celebrity case, including race relations, police violence, domestic violence and the imperfection of the jury system.
In interviews in Pasadena, a best-selling author, an Oscar-winning director, a celebrated news anchor and actors playing a prosecutor and a defense lawyer weighed in on their memories of the case and the importance of revisiting it.
The Author: A consultant on the series, Toobin made it clear his book “is a piece of journalism.” “I didn’t invent anything,” said Toobin. “This (series) is an extrapolation.”
But he confirmed details in the film. He said the scenes that show Simpson didn’t want to hire Cochran or play the race card were “absolutely” true, as was a line seen in the promos for the series.
“That line, ‘I’m not black; I’m O.J.,’ that was something he said more than once,” said Toobin. “What he meant is I am beyond the normal classifications.”
The irony of Simpson’s defense team using the race card when Simpson didn’t give back to the African-American community shouldn’t be lost on any viewer.
“That is the irony at the core of this whole story, which is Los Angeles had a deeply dysfunctional relationship between a largely white police force and the African-American community, which O.J. was able to exploit in my opinion in a completely undeserving cause,” said Toobin. “His lawyers were able to exploit the poisonous relationship between the LAPD and African-Americans to acquit a guilty man.”
Toobin thinks the adaptation of his book is “fabulous.”
“This is one of the great American stories,” said Toobin. “It has everything that obsesses the American people. It has sex, race, violence, sports, Hollywood. And the only eyewitness is a dog. Why would this not be a great miniseries?”
The Director: Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning director, lived in L.A. during the trial.
“I remember it as an absurdist trial,” Levinson said. “I thought what the prosecution needed to do was ridicule the defense position on things.”
For instance, the claim that the DNA evidence was suspect because it was left in a hot truck.
“You needed the prosecution to say, ‘So the DNA has to be 72 degrees in order for it to be accurate? We are using DNA from dinosaurs that lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago through Ice Ages, through heat waves, through all kinds of circumstances and we can still collect the DNA and understand prehistoric animals hundreds of years ago, but O.J. DNA apparently needs to be maintained at 72 degrees.’ ”
“There were so many things the prosecution could have attacked to break up these theories,” said Levinson. “They needed it to be dealt with so the jury would understand that it is illogical … It was a circus, it was the time, the atmosphere, all those things were playing out.”
The Anchor: Dan Rather anchored “The CBS Evening News” during the Simpson trial.
“We and every other network gave it a lot more coverage and a lot more air time than it deserved,” said Rather. “But like it or not, public interest was extremely high.”
“In news coverage, there was the unspoken undertow of race,” Rather said. “And sometimes it was spoken. I’m talking about the effort to be extra careful, to be extra sensitive. The question of race was I think a major factor in the way the trial was covered. Great trials generally make for great history, whether it was the Dreyfus case in France, the Scopes trial here, so like it or not like it, what it says about us as a society, the O.J. Simpson case was a great trial.”
Rather said he hopes the series will be educational.
“I hope what comes out of it … it is very important to teach young people the value of the jury system and questions about the jury system,” he said. “We have an ongoing national debate of whether the system of jury trials is the best way to go. … I’m a believer in the jury system. I’ve covered courts and trials all my life. As Churchill once said in another context, it is an imperfect system but it is better than any other system.”
The Prosecutor: Sterling K. Brown plays Christopher Darden, the black prosecutor who Cochran tried to manipulate by warning him he would be viewed unfavorably in the black community.
Brown was a freshman at Stanford University at the time, living in a dorm in which half the residents were black.
“When that verdict came down, the ebullience that came from all of the black student population was enormous, enormous,” said Brown. “And white people looked at us like we were crazy. At the time, I remember thinking I didn’t know if O.J. was innocent or guilty. But I knew the system had finally worked for somebody like me, and that was a cause to rejoice.”
After walking in Darden’s shoes 21 years later, Brown realizes that “two people had their lives brutally taken away from them. And I don’t think they necessarily received justice. Their story became an afterthought.”
“What Darden thought was when people are presented with the evidence they could only come to one logical conclusion – that O.J. Simpson was guilty of a double homicide. And he in his naivete, I think, didn’t take into full consideration the power of his image, the power of what it is like for black people to pin their hopes and dreams on someone who actually achieved and actualized the American dream.”
The Defense Lawyer: Back to Vance, a Harvard classmate of Toobin’s. One of the compelling scenes occurs when Cochran stocked Simpson’s home with furniture and trappings that might be in African-American homes – but were missing from his house – so the jury saw it during a visit. It was one of the gaps that were filled in for Vance.
“He didn’t have any pictures of black people in his house and yet black folks all over the world were cheering for him even though he didn’t really do much for black people,” Vance said. “The case was so strange … . A person black people were cheering didn’t really cheer for black people.”
Vance noted the continuing relevance of a case about the distrust of police when stories like the shooting of an African-American teen 16 times in Chicago surface.
“This will give us an opportunity to hopefully not just revisit and walk away from it again,” said Vance. “But to revisit it and spark discussions and take it to the world today. We are crazy today. You go, ‘How can somebody be shot 16 times? How can that happen?’ ”
That was the same question that was being shouted from Los Angeles to Buffalo in 1994.