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American Crime Story

American Crime Story Plays The Race Card

...Literally; that's the episode title. Who has a winning hand and who busts out?

"The Race Card" is about exactly that: the positioning of OJ Simpson's defense as an objection to racist law enforcement and its practices, and the subsequent clumsy responses of the prosecution to that position. The episode isn't bad, but nor is it for me; it's for people who don't remember that Mark Fuhrman and his disputed (...for a while) use of the N-word came to obscure everything else about the case, explained in patience-testing detail because, honestly, even if you do recall how it went down it's kind of hard to believe. "Just don't put him on the stand!" is a thing I grumbled at the screen, out loud, despite having watched Fuhrman on the stand 21 years ago.

Directed by John "Boys N The Hood" Singleton, "The Race Card" is half subtle texturing (the Cochrans, both turned on by Johnnie's opening-statement brilliance; hee), quietly careful shot compositions, and the pleasure of watching good actors work; and half tiresome hand-holding and underlining. Or so it seems to a viewer who already knows the story and has spent more time than the average bear with secondary materials about the case. That the race card, once played, was the only one with any apparent effect on the game was and remains baggage worth unpacking, but a few of the choices here feel more didactic than artistic.

Key moments from "The Race Card," from first to worst.

  1. The 1982 "traffic" stop.
    Courtney B. Vance does such a brilliant job conveying that Johnnie Cochran's dudgeon, while often performative, is just as often underpinned with genuine anguish based in experience; Vance's choices in the opening sequence give a scene that frequently leans a little too hard on its points -- the series of shots of onlookers staring, open-mouthed, at Cochran cuffed on the hood of his Benz, for one -- emotional complexity.

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    His delivery of "No. He didn't have to" when one of his daughters asks if the cop called him the N-word has a thread of steel to it, a refusal to give in to despair; he's determined to let his daughters see him turning it to his own advantage.

  2. Shapiro's impotence
    Travolta's take on Shapiro's drowning-man rage at his reduction in status continues to impress me; he's almost pitiable, until you remember what he's so pissed about.

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    Even better is Singleton and his DP's framing of Shapiro during the jury walkthrough. He's tiny in the frame, the Heisman trophy the defense restaging of OJ's house has carefully positioned for jurors to enthuse aloud over dwarfing him in the foreground, but still in the back of the shot you can almost see the steam rising off him.

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  3. Dun dun DUNNE!!1!
    Granted, the shoehorning in of exposition regarding the murder of Dominick Dunne's daughter, Dominique, is clumsy, but the parallels between the cases can't be glossed, and Robert Morse's rendition of "ohhhh-kay" when Judge Ito proudly shows him the signed picture he received from Arsenio Hall is flawless:

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    Hat tip to the way he's shot when he's holding court at a dinner party; it's exactly how Dunne himself would have wanted it to feel, that he's at the center of things and is the top trader of information.

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  4. The quintessential '90s suit
    Olive green, with a garish tie.

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    At least it's properly fitted, unlike most of its ilk back then.

  5. The focus pull after the 1982 "traffic" stop.
    Elegantly constructed and still a little too much, IMO.
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  6. Fuhrman über alles.
    I hadn't recalled this particular set of allegations about Fuhrman's bigotry, that he wore the medals around on weekends and/or kept them in his desk. I also don't remember it from Toobin's book, though that doesn't mean Toobin didn't mention it.

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    That this is what the episode ends on, a pointedly lingering zoom in on that hideous symbol, on a red ground no less, has me conflicted, because on the one hand, you kind of can't overstate how fucked up it is that this guy had a law-enforcement job. It's also hard to exaggerate how completely he seemed to take over the case at the time. Part of me thinks that mirroring Fuhrman's outsized influence on the trial, as well as the feelings of revulsion he occasioned, is an interesting way for American Crime Story to go, that it's both just that Fuhrman got put on trial himself and an injustice generally in the context of trying this specific double murder.

    But another part of me wonders if ACS should do what Ito couldn't to curb Fuhrman's importance relative to what actually happened, which is that two people got viciously killed and that whatever else he's guilty of, and there's plenty, Fuhrman didn't kill them.

    I can't decide. I don't think the contemporary audience needs to have that crime scene staged for them, as it were, to quite this extent. But one of the great and compelling things about ACS is how it puts us face-to-face with variations on the phrase "shouldn't be about." The trial "shouldn't be about race," is a thing people liked to say in 1995. Why shouldn't it have been? What did that mean -- it shouldn't only have been about race? it should be about race in a more simplistic way that didn't make white people feel guilty? And...it was about race, so...then what?

    I may not care for the overemphasis at times, but the tension between "should be" and "is" is at the heart of the Simpson case, whichever axis you lay it along -- black/white, public face/private, truth/spin. ACS's ability to, for lack of a better way of putting it, annoy me into thinking about dark tangles of issues isn't always elegant, but it gets the job done.

  7. Christopher Darden is that rattled by Cochran pointing out that Darden's useful to the prosecution because he's black?
    My sense of the situation IRL is that Darden felt intimidated by Cochran, starstruck, resentful of him, disappointed in him. Cochran was able to rattle Darden at will from the jump and Darden often skidded straight into whatever ditch Cochran had in mind. That part of their interactions, the ruthless idol manipulating a naive admirer, rang true; Darden's "say WHAAAAAT" face in response to Cochran's press conference snarking on the DA for installing an African-American on the trial team isn't believable.

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    Never mind not buying that this wouldn't have occurred to Darden before Marcia Clark even asked him to help out; he's a lawyer in Los Angeles. PR gamesmanship is that shocking to him?

    And that scene is a ghostly whisper compared to...

  8. The conference-room awkwardness when Darden is assigned Fuhrman as a witness.
    Do we need a reaction shot of every person in the room, including all the non-speaking guys? Sure you don't want to cut to a plant or a California state flag looking uncomfortable? A super-slo-mo shot of Clark chewing her lip? We GOT it.
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