FX’s American Crime Story
Season 1, Episode 5: “The Race Card”
Directed by John Singleton
Written by Joe Robert Cole
* For a review of the previous episode, “100% Not Guilty” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” – click here
This episode starts out in 1982, as Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) is driving with his little girls. He’s pulled over by a motorcycle cop. Johnnie explains he’s on the way to dinner with his daughters. “This is the third time this week somebody‘s pulled me over for no reason,” he explains to the officer. When the cop tries to engage the girls, Johnnie gets “hostile” – supposedly. Cuffed and leaning over the hood of his car, Johnnie assures his daughters everything will be fine. Meanwhile, all the white faces look at him from the sidewalks. Then the officer comes back from checking on things, letting him go after recognizing his position as Assistant District Attorney. Johnnie’s daughters ask if the man called him “a nigger“, but Johnnie assures “he didn‘t have to” and asks them never to say that ugly word again.
Back to the present timeline in 1995. Johnnie’s introduced at a church, heralded for taking the reins on the O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr) case. Everyone is praying for Mr. Cochran in his litigation. The community is right behind him all the way.
Well on the television, as Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) and others watch on, Johnnie plays the titular race card. He claims, in front of reporters, the only reason Darden is now involved is due to his blackness, which pisses Marcia off, but resonates at least slightly with Darden.
With The Dream Team running full steam, Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) is refusing to work with F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) – or, he is for a few moments. “Judas,” Shapiro fires across the table. Bailey replies slyly: “I suppose that makes you Jesus?” Well Johnnie puts a stop to it all in the name of work.
This scene edits us back and forth between the prosecution/defense teams. Clark and Co. are going hard at the abuse angle, how Simpson was a serial abuser, pursuing Nicole Brown constantly and aggressively even before their relationship became fully serious. At the same time, Cochran and the others are going at the evidence, its credibility, et cetera, as well as the fact the witnesses to any of the supposed events, before and during, aren’t strong enough. This is amazing writing, as well as editing, because it puts us right in the room with both teams at once, giving a bird’s eye view of every step.
Then we find out Darden is taking on the Dt. Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale) angle. This makes Christopher more curious now, as if he’s feeling what Cochran had said, as if his race is the only reason for his assignment here. But he doesn’t bother to say anything about it to Marcia.
Fuhrman and Darden meet in the latter’s office. Christopher brings up what the defense may bring in front of the court. For his part, Fuhrman says “it‘s not going to be an issue” and even makes the comment about his “black buddies” from the force. Something about him gives Darden a “real bad vibe” and he brings his concerns to Marcia, about the things Fuhrman may be hiding, how he feels Fuhrman is playing a part for them. Here, we’re seeing the difference between how blacks and whites understand racism. Marcia simply tells Christopher: “Massage it.”
Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi) meets with Dominick Dunne (Robert Morse). Ito gives Dunne a front-row seat to the Simpson trial. Dunne’s history with violent trials is clear, as his own daughter was murdered. Those who don’t know, Dunne is an actual journalist and writer, whose daughter Dominique was murdered and whose killer got off light. This is a nice, interesting piece because we also see Ito’s own fame-whoring here. He hauls out a picture from Arsenio Hall – signed and everything. The look from Dunne shows us how he feels, as well as how we can glean the way Ito sees stardom. Incredibly interesting.
At the start of the trial, Darden and Cochran meet in the lobby. Christopher wants them to be respectful of one another, but Cochran makes clear: “Brother, I ain‘t tryin‘ to be respectful – I‘m trying to win.”
Shapiro is up giving his piece on the domestic abuse charges, how they ought not be relevant to the murder case. However, the prosecution clears things up, like we’re all thinking: that’s some flawed logic, Shapiro. The prosecution begins to dig up O.J’s jealousy, his anger, his quick temper, and so on. Certainly doesn’t have O.J. sitting there listening too easily. But when Darden gets up hoping to “address a separate issue“, he brings forth the situation concerning Fuhrman – his past with racial epithets, slurs, his possible prejudice. Christopher drives home there is no legal precedent for it in their case: “The N–word is a dirty, filthy word, your honor. It is so prejudicial and inflammatory that the use of it in any situation will evoke an emotional response from any African–American. We‘re talking about a word that blinds people, and when you mention that word to this jury it will blind them to the truth. They won‘t be able to discern what‘s true and what‘s not. It will impair their judgement. It will affect their ability to be fair. It‘ll force the black jurors to make a choice: whose side are you on – the man, or the brothers? So the People strongly urge the court, respectfully, not to allow that vile word to be uttered at any time during this trial.” Johnnie paints this statement as “outlandish, unwarranted” and “preposterous” and as an offence to all African-Americans. On the side after giving his statement, Johnnie leans to Darden and says: “Nigga, please.” Wow. Just wow. What a powerful scene.
The media immediately starts painting Cochran as the saviour of black people, whereas Darden comes off as an “Uncle Tom” to many, supposedly. Either way, Christopher isn’t happy. Nobody around him seems to get the racial complexities with which he is dealing. Darden starts talking about affirmative action when he was going to college and Marcia says she remembers: “No you don‘t, you‘re white,” replies Chris. The issue of race penetrates every aspect of this trial, from the crime itself involving O.J. to Johnnie, to Darden’s involvement and assignment with his team. Nothing here is unaffected.
At home, Johnnie practices his speeches for his wife Melodie (Tayler Buck). We see how part of his speaking, his practice is also being able to speak, to orate, to write well. He gets in some alliteration, a bit of flowery talk. Certain times Johnnie is funny and endearing, while others as we’ve seen he can be incredibly intense, even vicious.
Johnnie gets a call about Shapiro’s people fooling up witnesses for discovery. Seems as if Cochran is ready to go full barrel, no matter who it costs.
At the trial, things are heating up. Outside are mobs of people trying to get pictures of the defense, the suspect, Johnnie. People have “FREE THE JUICE” shirts and signs proclaiming O.J. as innocent. Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), Bailey, and all the rest head inside for the opening statements. Judge Ito starts things off, he jury arrives, and finally everyone is seated.
First up, Marcia brings her statement, which focuses on the public persona of Simpson, how “like many public men he has a private side” – a batterer, an abuser, and now, murder. She brings up the bloody glove, other DNA facts, so on. Truly damning evidence, if it’s all on the level, right?
Then comes Johnnie. He smiles at the jury, beginning with a Martin Luther King quote about justice. Johnnie leaps into a mention of witnesses, people that the prosecution were not aware of due to the Shapiro-end flub. Bill Hodgman (Christian Clemenson) jumps up angrily to bring out the point of the witnesses being unavailable to them before the statements. Everyone is in shock. Ito claims he’s never seen Hodgman look as he is now. And not long afterwards, Hodgman keels over, his chest tightening. He’s wheeled out on a stretcher, which casts an ominous cloud over the proceedings. In the office, Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) is throttled with the news of Hogdman, not sure where to go from there. Although, Marcia keeps pushing Darden as being “ready” to step up.
Later, Marcia calls Chris during the night. She tells him about his sort-of promotion, but either way Darden is very happy. “Now it‘s on us,” says Clark.
During a lavish dinner party, Dunne is running his mouth about the trial. Then while a black butler serves them, everyone stops talking. Funny – he’s supposed to have a better perspective on these things due to his own daughter, yet there he is playing interpersonal racial politics between the rich and the servants, and gossiping about the case and those involved with all those high society people. Goes to show how the white upper class view these things.
Right afterwards, we cut to Johnnie at the Simpson home. He looks fondly at the pictures on the table in the hall, which show O.J. and his family. But then there’s too many white women kicking around. Johnnie remarks to himself: “This won‘t do at all.” Cut to all sorts of black art, pictures of Simpson and his beautiful black grandma – all from “the Cochran collection,” quips the man himself.
Johnnie meets with O.J. to tell him about appearances, for the next time everyone sees him up at the old house. Cochran lets him know about the redecorating, though, O.J. isn’t incredibly pleased. He doesn’t like all the placating happening, making himself seem more black, or whatever it is Johnnie wants out of him. Johnnie just wants him to seem like the average African-American instead of the “Mayor of Brentwood” – and Simpson responds saying: “I did what I had the right to do.” He had people with their hands out hoping to make it, like he did. “You gotta do it on your own,” says O.J. The man won’t apologize for getting out of the hood, essentially. Similar to what other famous black people have expressed over the years. So many angles we white people never can understand about what it is to be black.
Up at the home of Nicole Brown, everybody’s in attendance. Except there is nothing there, at all. The walls are bare. “This tells them nothing,” says an angry Clark: “She was a mother, there was a family!” In opposition, the Simpson house looks forced, a “complete misrepresentation” in Darden’s eyes. Even O.J. doesn’t look very happy, he knows it was all a pose. Marcia definitely knows, as does Darden. They both are extremely displeased with the state of affairs. When Darden sits on a bench in the backyard, O.J. tells him to get off, which leads to Johnnie and Chris aside talking – Johnnie advises him to “let the white people do” Fuhrman.
Back at his place, Chris calls his father and complains about what’s happening. His father suggests maybe Johnnie is truly trying to help. Cut over to Darden running through things with Fuhrman at the office. The detective tries to paint himself as a friend of African-Americans. Darden presses him on the use of racial epithets, which Fuhrman skirts around slightly before saying: “I haven‘t – ever.”
Clark and Darden come up against each other after she finally admits wanting to have him put Fuhrman on the stand. Their relationship seems a little fractured now, as Marcia agrees to take the detective. It’s obvious Chris is not comfortable.
The very finish of the episode sees the evidence on Fuhrman come forward, to the audience only. The WWII memorabilia, the medals, he particularly mentioned collecting earlier turns out to be.. troubling. Definitely things brewing in terms of Furhman’s prejudice. Wait and see. Of course if you know the story of the trial, then it’s obvious. But part of why I love this series is because of how it frames the real events, the racial issues it examines, as well as all the characters on whom we’re gaining insight through these types of scenes.
Next episode is titled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” – a beautiful play on the old Brady Bunch catchphrase. Stay tuned with me, fellow fans. This series gets better and better each episode.