Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

O.J. Simpson’s lawyers expose the dark American underbelly on an incendiary American Crime Story

Courtney B. Vance
Courtney B. Vance

The story goes that God rained down manna—bread, sustenance, whatever you want to interpret it as—from heaven in order to feed the starving Israelites, some of whom were beginning to question their mass exodus. It was a literal godsend: He provided His people with the means to keep living, effectively renewing their faith and giving them the strength—literal and figurative strength—to survive. In American Crime Story, this manna comes in the form of vitriolic racism spewed by Mark Fuhrman. This isn’t a story that you would find in the Old Testament, but it’s perhaps just as miraculous.

In “Manna From Heaven,” both sides learn of the Fuhrman tapes, 13 hours of recordings with a screenwriter (who was doing research for a script) in which Fuhrman repeatedly uses racial epithets, is candid about police brutality, and disparages blacks, Mexicans, and women. ”They are a gift from God,” Cochran preaches, knowing that these tapes will help O.J. Simpson get an acquittal. Later, after getting the subpoena, he muses that there is “a higher power watching over us.” This godsend does feel a little too good to be true. The “small technicality” to get a judge to enforce the subpoena doesn’t go well for Cochran; the judge not only bashes Cochran’s use of “gratuitous alliteration” but then declares that the tapes aren’t relevant to Simpson’s case. F. Lee Bailey saves the day, using his, uh, whiteness to get the judge to agree. Then, there is still the matter of getting the tapes to be heard in court.

As both sides go through the tapes/transcripts with a fine tooth comb, the viewers slowly get the gist of Fuhrman’s horrifying racism and hatred. The amount of times the word “nigger” was hatefully uttered during this hour of television made my stomach turn; I can’t begin to imagine listening to 13 hours of it. Clark, Darden, & co. know that this is enough to sink their case—remember earlier in the season when Darden and Cochran debated the blinding power the word “nigger” can have? That, but times a million—but they’ve also discovered something else. On the tape, Fuhrman also says horrible things about Peggy, a detective, one of Fuhrman’s prior superiors, and Judge Ito’s wife. If Peggy is called on to be a material witness, Ito will have to be removed and there will be a mistrial. A mistrial is promising for the prosecution because they get to start over, keep Fuhrman off the stand, and ignore those damn gloves. It’s possibly the only way they have to win, especially now that the jury shenanigans are over.

The defense is also aware of this and correctly assumes that a mistrial might just be the prosecution’s strategy. It’s time to have the conversation with Ito, in open court. The Simpson trial sometimes resembled a pretty fucked-up set of Russian nesting dolls: there were trials within trials, problems within problems, racism within racism—everything you can imagine. The tapes aren’t just important in terms of “proving” the defense’s suggestion that Simpson was set up by a racist police officer, but the tapes are important in the larger sense of the LAPD, the tense racial climate in Los Angeles, the need for transparency and accountability when it comes to police officers (the more things change, etc.), and the public demand to know the types of officers the LAPD is hiring and supporting. At the end of it all, it’s ruled that only two sentences from 13 hours will be allowed in court, just enough to prove Fuhrman’s perjury and nothing else.

As the tape debate rages on, and as American Crime Story roars toward an end, the tensions between, well, everyone are increasing. The dislike and disrespect between attorneys is almost palpable; the heated exchanges in court are enough to provide viewers with secondhand anxiety. Courtney B. Vance might be the M.V.P. of the season but Sterling K. Brown is definitely giving him a run for his money. There are two scenes in tonight’s episode that almost knocked me off my feet, scenes that I immediately rewinded to watch again (and again), as if to study Brown’s intensity. Brown expertly captures Darden’s frustrations at this point in the trial—frustration with the case, with Johnnie Cochran’s court habits, with Clark for not listening to him (and also maybe some sexual frustration, hey-o), and with himself for not doing the best job. Brown also captures the ticking of the internal bomb that’s prime to go off—there are moments when you can practically see his anger meter creeping up—and when that bomb does explode, holy shit does Brown sell it.

In the courtroom, Darden butts heads with Cochran as they argue about Darden (quoting a witness) saying that a voice “sounded black.” Cochran has been condescending since day one, disrespectful since day two, and petty since day three. There is no professionalism between these two attorneys anymore, just snarling anger. Cochran, as Darden puts it, “continually make[s] statements about me and race,” as if one of Cochran’s defense strategy is to turn the black jurors against Darden, to make him seem like an enemy or traitor to his own race. Later, Darden can’t hide his anger during the discussion about the tapes, telling Cochran that he has “presented a defense that is based completely on lies and deception,” bringing up Cochran’s relationship with the public/media, and how “the defense has made [the trial] into a circus,” nearly getting held in contempt.


Even more memorable is the elevator scene where Darden confronts Clark about her decision to use Fuhrman as a witness, despite how many times Darden warned her against it. “You put me on this trial because you wanted a black face but the truth is you never wanted a black voice,” he tells her—in what is the best line of the episode, perhaps of the series. Darden has been wary of this since he was first put on the case, knowing that his brown skin is one of the main reasons why he’s sitting at that table in court. This one scene, that one line, is so representative of much of today’s current world, a time when there are so many conversations about why we need diversity but not many actions taken to correct that problem. And when companies do hire a diverse employee (and let’s be honest, it’s usually just one), they do very little to ensure career longevity, little to change an environment in which that employee is the other. It’s the equivalent of a media site hiring a woman to fend off the “______ is male-dominated” criticisms but then never doing anything to support her when it comes to safety or online harassment. It’s the equivalent of a college putting a black person on the brochure cover but then shrugging off black students’ concerns about racism on campus. Darden feels like he is little more than just a token.

But hey, at least we get some prime shipping moments with Clark and Darden! Those looks! That arm touch! The apologies! That’s something, right?


Stray observations

  • What a great, great series of television despite it being incredibly depressing at times and also making me scream into my pillow about the frustrations of racism and sexism!
  • “Women who work in male-dominated professions, I think, are tougher than most.” So, does anyone want to embroider this line for me to hang above my desk? But really: I didn’t mind how on-the-nose this line was because it was worth it to see Marcia Clark’s (and Darden’s) reaction shots.
  • I’d also take a “You put me on this trial because you wanted a black face but the truth is you never wanted a black voice” cross-stitch to gift to former employers.
  • “You couldn’t get away with this plot twist in an airplane paperback.”
  • American Crime Story-inspired band names: Mint Julep and Condescension, Gratuitous Alliteration.
  • Oh, right, and Fuhrman took the stand and pled the fifth on everything, including the question if he planted or manufactured any evidence in this case.
  • And Clark was granted primary custody! Now she can marry Darden and the two can split time taking care of the children, right?
  • “How can you teach screenwriting if you can’t sell a script?” is definitely a dig at someone’s film professor.
  • “Shall I take off my watch and jewelry?” AHHH, Sarah Paulson. Just, ahhh.