In 1995, viewers across America were transfixed by the the O. J. Simpson trial, with its noirish mixture of L. A. glamour and dead-eyed depravity. This February, over two decades later, the trial is back as historical fiction. The aim of FX’s The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, as Nicholas Dames wrote last week in Public Books, is not so much “fidelity to historical detail” as “evocation of a vanished era in its most intimate aspects: the moment-to-moment feeling of being alive then, the sensory and affective horizons of a time still within living memory, seen through the slight parallax of the present.”
But if the series whet your appetite for more historical detail, don’t worry. Plenty of ink has been spilled about the trial, and the particularly American questions it raised about race, class, gender, law, media, and fame. In anticipation of tonight’s finale, “The Verdict,” we present you with this reading list.
If I Did It, Here’s How it Happened (2006 Cancelled Edition)
O. J. Simpson
I Did It: Confessions of a Killer (2007)
Fred and Kim Goldman
A decade after Simpson’s acquittal for the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown and waiter Ronald Goldman, this impossibly-titled book was released under the editorial auspices of the Goldman family. Publication of the book—originally titled OJ Simpson: If I Did It, Here’s How it Happened—was terminated in 2006 following public outcry, but was re-released with a new title by the Goldmans in 2007. The book contains details on Simpson’s volatile marriage to Brown as well as musings (from Simpson’s perspective) on her violent habits and split personality (one chapter is entitled, “The Two-Nicoles”). Chapter Six, “The Night in Question,” details a “hypothetical” unfolding of events on the night of the murder, according to the interpretations of Simpson and ghostwriter Pablo Fenjves. For some, the book provides definite proof of guilt; for others, it simply illustrates a salacious cash grab. In either case, the book delights in blurring boundaries between truth, lies and gossip.
The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson (1996)
In 1995, journalist Jeffrey Toobin spent eight months writing about Simpson’s trial for the New Yorker, and later published this bestseller about the case. Toobin’s story provided the basis for today’s TV adaptation. His recounting foregrounds the competing perceptions and exploitations of race that circulated during the trial. Though unequivocal about Simpson’s guilt, Toobin also suggests that Simpson came to represent very real injustices produced by the intersection of American racism and criminal law. Simpson, whose wealth and celebrity had arguably distanced him from the black community, became a symbolic stand-in for securing retribution for racial injustice. Whether or not this reading of Simpson is fair, or true, is for the reader to determine.
Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King (2000)
For readers looking for a bird’s-eye perspective on the socio-cultural phenomenon that was the O. J. trial, Jacobs’s book explores the division of black and white public opinion following Simpson’s acquittal. Though the trial is not central to Jacobs’s argument, he makes reference to it as part of a broader cultural genealogy of the black public sphere, drawing from empirical evidence and case studies in New York, Chicago, and L. A. Jacobs considers similarly racially bifurcated reactions to the Watts rebellion (1965) and the Rodney King incident (1991-92), arguing that blacks and black presses have, as a matter of course, advanced alternative, “counter-hegemonic” interpretations of racialized events, distinct from those of mainstream media.
Reading Rodney King: Reading Urban Uprising (1993)
The first episode of The People v. O. J. Simpson opens with footage of police officers beating Rodney King. While it has been remarked that footage like this is often used in film and TV as shorthand for racial tension, its particular significance to the Simpson trial cannot be mistaken. In this compilation of essays edited by philosopher Robert Gooding-Williams, comprised of commentary from legal scholars, philosophers, and social scientists, the choreography of events—beating, acquittal, and uprising—receives sensitive treatment. For those interested in the complex interplay of ideology, poverty, economics, and power at work in the American imagination preceding the O. J. trial, this anthology may provide some answers. It may also provide context for those mystified by the phenomenon of a jury rendering an acquittal for a defendant under conditions of seemingly evidential guilt.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man” (1995)
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“Every day, in every way, we are getting meta and meta.” Gates’s article opens with this quote from philosopher John Wisdom. From here, Gates proceeds to tackle the peculiar focus of commentary in the aftermath of the Simpson trial: “the reaction to the reaction to the reaction to the verdict—which is to say, black indignation at white anger at black jubilation at Simpson’s acquittal.” Gates’s article, published in the New Yorker in 1995, raises some of the themes—for example, black counternarratives—on which Ronald Jacobs would later elaborate. Gates suggests that while black counternarratives are often read as paranoid fantasies, or as “patholog[ies] of disenfranchisement,” more privileged classes partake in fantasies of their own—for example, the fantasy of incorruptible cops and a nimbly working legal system.