Gender v. Race: The Genius of American Crime Story

[Spoilers ahead]

There is a deeply-entrenched and widely-held view of what justice consists in: punishment of those culpable for some specific harm. With deep Kantian roots, it takes the impartial court as paradigmatic of how to deal justice: utilitarian considerations about what would result in the most good should be discounted, instead we should consider only what is directly relevant for the particular crime in question. The linchpin of this account is culpability or blame-worthiness of the individual on trial.

However, considerations of social justice bring to our attention a potential shortcoming of this approach. If we consider systemic bigotry, there might very well be harm done for which we cannot identify any particular individual who is culpable for it. Institutional racism, for instance, might self-perpetuate through wide-spread internalized racist perceptions which get passed on. In this case, harm is being done even though we might not be able to point to many people who intentionally try to keep the racist system going.

So how do we deal with institutional bigotry? There certainly are liberals who would insist on letting the system deal with it as best it can, even if slow and imperfect. On the other hand, we can also find people for whom culpability isn’t very important- what matters is the harm done and how it can be stopped. I’m going to speculate that most people don’t consistently take either extreme position- we either ignore or grapple with this tension whenever we encounter it. And it’s this tension that the first season of American Crime Story uses to great effect.

First, for a bit of background. O.J. Simpson was an incredibly popular American football hero, who went on trial in 1995 for the murder of his ex-wife. The show American Crime Story dramatizes the “lengthy and highly-publicized trial” where he was eventually found not guilty.


 

A. Blackness on trial

One feature of the case that I haven’t mentioned until now, happens to be a huge part of what the trial was about: O. J. Simpson was black. Set against systemic racism in the police department, the case got tangled up in all sorts of race politics.

At the start of the first episode, we are shown the police discovering the bodies of the victims, as well as evidence tying Simpson to the crime. This ensures that we never question whether Simpson actually did the crime or not; from the beginning we watch the show under the understanding that he really was guilty. Because of this, we always sympathize with and root for the head prosecutor, Marcia Clark (played by the delightful Sarah Paulson). The defense, on the other hand, is lead by Johnnie Cochran, a black man who seems intent on “playing the race card,” which is to say make race an issue to obfuscate and get Simpson off. Since we know Simpson is guilty, Cochran is profoundly unlikable right from the beginning.

If this was all there was to the racial politics, the show would have been an interesting historical drama. However, here’s where the genius of the show kicks in. By showing us Cochran having to undergo racial profiling, and addressing head-on the racial history of the US, the show continuously complicates the spectator’s evaluation of Cochran. When Cochran is stopped for no reason by a white officer and treated appallingly in front of his daughter, we feel rage along with Cochran- we get a glimpse of the racist system he has to live with everyday.

We then learn that a key witness against Simpson is an actual member of the KKK, who boasts about his hatred of interracial couples, and listen to his boasting about the brutal ways he treats the black people he arrests. When Cochran learns about this, we see the anger, and understand it. Cochran’s official position that he is only bringing in race because race remains an important issue, not just because he wants to free his client, becomes more and more plausible the more we watch. And in the last episode, after the verdict, when even President Clinton acknowledge that racism in the police is a major problem, Cochran is vindicated. We end with a radically different impression of him, from when we first encountered him.

This isn’t to say that he becomes likable, we never get comfortable with his interference with the trial. Our Kantian sentiments about how a trial should take into account only relevant factors of a given crime always makes us uncomfortable and annoyed with Cochran’s methods. But in the end, we are forced to confront the tension between the fact that Simpson is guilty, and the fact that he is a black man in a society where black people are oppressed. In the last episode when we are shown side-by-side a dejected Marcia Cross who is upset at the way the court was manipulated by racial politics, and a Johnnie Cochran tearfully ecstatic that “the story [of systemic racism] is finally out of the shadows,” we realize that there is no easy judgement about who’s right and wrong, and whether this is a case of justice denied, or justice finally done.


 

B. The Gender Question

If the racial politics weren’t complex enough, the ubiquitous gender politics in the show make it even more engaging. After all Simpson, a black man, is being tried for the murder of a woman. It also turns out that his ex-wife (the victim) had called the police multiple times over domestic abuse at Simpson’s hand. This makes it fall within clearly within the purview of feminist politics.

Another fulcrum to analyze gender relations is Marcia Clark herself. In a highly commended episode, we are shown how she’s mocked for her appearance in ways her male colleagues are not, and it’s clear the public is still averse to a strong woman in a male profession. The show presents her role as a single mother unapologetically and in the last episode she talks about how she became a prosecutor in response to being raped when she was young. Clark would have been an easy feminist hero today, which makes the absence of support from women during the actual case all the more jarring to our contemporary sensibility.

As NYmag points out:

As the lead prosecutor on the 1995 case against O.J. Simpson for the double murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, Clark had come in for perhaps more public disparagement than any of the trial’s other players. She was mocked relentlessly in the press for her clothes and her hairstyles; tabloids published topless photos of her and reported breathlessly on her ongoing custody fight over her two sons, tsk-tsk-ing her for her alimony requests to pay for childcare she needed for her long hours working on the trial. Johnnie Cochran, a member of O.J.’s “Dream Team” defense, referred to her as “hysterical,” and Judge Lance Ito advised the jury not to be distracted by counsel’s clothes, in reference to Clark’s short skirts. Of course, people called her a bitch. Worse than that, they called her incompetent.

[…] Marcia Clark’s crucible came smack in the middle of the 1990s, when it is indeed fair to say that very few people wanted to talk about sexism. It is being revived for the screen today, during a period when lots of people want to talk about sexism and perhaps especially want to talk about the sexism of the 1990s.

This show, however, decided to present “a sharply feminist reexamination of her treatment in the courtroom and in the media.”

As an article in Salon, titled”Respect for Marcia Clark: Years after the humiliation, sexism and scrutiny during the O.J. trial — Clark finally getting well-deserved appreciation” put it:

In retrospect, Marcia Clark is a feminist hero, standing up for the life of a woman who was unjustly abused by her husband.

Feminist Marcia Clark vs. racial-justice-advocate Johnnie Cohran, with the question of what counts as justice constantly being raised- that’s what made this season so compelling. As a spectator our loyalties don’t really ever shift from our original sympathies from Clark, but our understanding of the salient issues undergoes multiple radical changes throughout the season.


 

Conclusion:

Although set two decades ago, racial and gender politics are still center stage in the cultural landscape. But showing us the complex ways in which institutional bigotry can act and intersect, as well as constantly reminding us that the categories of race and gender are meant to stand-in for actual, corporeal people, the show is a brilliant study of just how complex society can be to grasp. Simultaneously entertaining, illuminating, and thought-provoking, this is some of the best television that’s on right now. Watch it.

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