Have you been watching The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story? Even if you haven’t, you are no doubt aware of one of America’s most high-profile trials of recent times. A quasi-mythical American hero accused of brutally murdering his ex-wife; a legal “dream team” that cost billions, layered with allegations of misogyny and ego; a media sensation that tracked and tapped and salivated over every single second. I guess the real question is why it's taken so long to turn this story into a glossy studio drama.
FX’s dramatisation of the case has the veneer of Dallas, with big names to boot, including John Travolta and David Schwimmer. There are references to the Kardashians (Rob Kardashian was a personal friend of Simpson and part of his very large legal team). There are all the traces of excess and flamboyance of early 1990s wealthy, white Los Angeles. If, at the heart of the story, there wasn’t the murder of a young woman, or deeply rooted institutional and societal racism, its remaking could – at least for the first few episodes – be considered borderline ridiculous. But the gloss of the TV show in many ways is a mirror image of the case itself: the sordid intersection where wealth meets fame, where celebrity culture and the media feed off each other like lice, interwoven with a lesson in how law can be corrupted and manipulated and undermined by seemingly valueless men. It’s vulgar and brash. Precisely because it was.
But somewhere in this hyper-masculine, alpha world of egomaniac solicitors is Marcia Clark. Clark was the lead prosecutor. It was her job to convict Simpson. And there was a lot of evidence to suggest he did it. Yet OJ got off. Yes, Clark’s team made some fairly big mistakes (the glove!), but Simpson had bought himself an army of cunning and ruthless lawyers. His wealth, his status as an American hero, and his image as another black man being persecuted by the LAPD in a climate of race riots and high-profile civil rights cases was never going to be an easy case to crack.
Marcia was the target for all the fear of the progressive, professional independent women that were starting to shape America.
Marcia realises very quickly she’s got the case of her career on her hands. And, very quickly, we realise how hard it’s going to be for her, because of her gender. Her tiny frame seems to stand in stark contrast to the padded shoulders of her opposition in their big, expensive suits. She is a single mother. Scenes with her making breakfast, while on the phone, trying to put shoes on little boys’ feet, sharply contrast with how we see her counterparts in domesticity: always in large bedrooms, with lush silk sheets, carpeted floors and attractive wives in dressing gowns, listening to them plot and plan their way to greatness.
The recent sixth episode, Marcia Marcia Marcia, explored in detail how Marcia became the number-one target for the sexism permeating the era. Her hair and clothes were ruthlessly mocked. Tabloids printed nude pictures of her. Her ex-husband went on TV, claiming she was a bad mother. Marcia was not just fighting the legal team of the century, on the case of the decade – she was day in, day out battling the sexism of all corners of society. Women thought she was a “bitch” (according to focus groups), Simpson’s lead defence, Johnnie Cochrane, called her “hysterical”. Marcia was an island in a sea of hatred and humiliation. She was the target for all the fear of the progressive, professional independent women that were starting to shape America.
And she had nerves of steel. When her rivals mock her for her “childcare crisis”, she stands to address the judge: “I am offended by Mr Cochrane’s remark as a woman and as a mother. Mr Cochrane may not know what it’s like to work a 70-hour week and also take care of a family, but I do. …To belittle my childcare in your courtroom is unconscionable and totally out of line.” (Catch this on iPlayer. It will put hairs your neck. Sarah Paulson's performance is exceptional). But, despite all our fist-pumping now, Marcia was exhausted. Her colleague finds her in her office, crying on the floor. In a complex legal battle of alliances and re-alliances, it seems that no one (bar perhaps Chris Darden, her colleague) is truly on her side.
Clark was forced to change her hair after intense media scrutiny
Which is why you can imagine her surprise when she learnt that the FX show was going to paint her as not the shrill, angry, evil woman that 1990s America feared (it is worth mentioning that Hillary Clinton was First Lady at this time). I was surprised, too. When I first started watching the series, I was near-blind by the absurdity of Ross from Friends as Rob Kardashian (American TV of the last 20 years going full circle, perhaps?). I had no idea that I would be presented with a woman whose struggle articled a nation in change – women out of the house and into the workplace, centre stage.
Clark has been framed as the big loser of the case, which, in some cases, is true. After the trial, she quit law, wrote crime novels and disappeared. When she learnt there was to be a film, she claims she suffered PTSD, so awful was the experience. But what FX’s TV show has done has revealed that her very presence in that courtroom, in that stubborn, fearful, bullying male-owned space, meant that she was far from a loser.
I’ve heard men in power – particularly MPs – admit that there are many mediocre men in the Houses of Parliament and other institutions of power. Women, they say, have to be exceptional to get a look in. To stand in that courtroom, in the biggest case of the decade, proves just how exceptional Marcia Clark must have been.
The People Vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is on BBC 2 at 9pm tonight