The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story Episode 5 Recap: Playing The Race Card

Photo: Courtesy of FX.
Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance)
"All right, girls, what do we say to the police?"
"Nothing."
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"And who talks to the police?"
"Our lawyer."
That's how the fifth episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story opens: With a flashback to Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) driving his two young daughters through a white neighborhood of Los Angeles to get dinner getting pulled over by a police officer — for the third time that week, he notes during the arrest. What starts as a traffic stop for "changing lanes without signaling" (read: racial profiling) turns into a full-on cuffing against the hood of Johnnie Cochran's car due to his "hostile attitude." Cochran's daughters look on in horror while their father urges the officer to call in his driver's license to confirm his identity.
"Have a nice night, Mr. Assistant District Attorney," the police officer says as a form of non-pology after he calls in the I.D., uncuffs Cochran, and drives away, the camera focusing on the L.A.P.D. slogan "To protect and serve" written on the side of his motorcycle.
Back in the car, Cochran's daughter asks, "Daddy, did he call you a n-----?"
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"No, he didn't. He didn't have to. And don't you girls ever use that word. It's a terrible word," Cochran responds as they drive off.
This episode is called "The Race Card," and back in the present day (1995), Cochran himself is playing it. He's accusing the D.A.'s office — the very same one for which he was working during that traffic stop — of adding Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) to the prosecution team in O.J. Simpson's murder trial so that it would have a Black lawyer, too. It's an attempt to undercut Darden's confidence and undermine the prosecution.
There's a great back-and-forth scene intercutting the initial strategy the prosecution and defense are planning to take. The most important takeaway from these tense discussions is that the defense is going to accuse the L.A.P.D. of incorrectly collecting evidence, which Cochran insists doesn't even win the day anyway. He says the jury believes the stronger narrative — which, duh, we've all seen Making a Murderer — and the defense is going to tell a much better story.
The prosecution, on the other hand, thinks that they've got this thing in the bag because of that aforementioned evidence, which Marcia Clark thinks is extremely strong. I'd say they agree to disagree, but that's pretty much how the whole prosecution/defense dichotomy we've had going in the American judicial system since 1787 works in the first place.
Then, it's time to assign which lawyer is going to try which witness on the stand. Chris Darden gets the unfortunate task of trying Detective Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale). When Darden does his preliminary interview to find out how Fuhrman will come off while he testifies, Darden perceives Furhman as being way too polite, which Darden thinks is covering up deep-seated racism. He shares this sentiment with Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), who responds with an extremely naïve sentence that I sincerely hope was only written for the show to provide viewers with more context about what exactly Darden is trying to say.
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"That makes no sense, because when people act polite, it’s because they are polite," Clark says.
Darden tries to clarify what he's saying. "Marcia, I don't expect you to understand, but there's a way that certain white people talk to Black people. It's disengenious. Look, Furhman doesn't have to be a witness. He's not even the cop who entered the gloves into evidence. He doesn't have to take the stand."
Clark won't hear of it. "Chris, he's what we've got. Fuhrman has something to contribute, and you need to get him ready. So, you know, massage it. Do whatever is necessary to make him come across as credible."
In the hallway before each side's preliminary statements, Darden confronts Cochran about his press conference. Darden wants to smooth things over. "I hope we can treat each other with respect," he tells Cochran, who replies, "Brother, I ain't trying to be respectful. I'm trying to win."
Photo: Courtesy of FX.
F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), and Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer)
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And go for the jugular Cochran does. But first, Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) asks that O.J. Simpson's (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) history of domestic violence — all 62 allegations — be excluded from Simpson's murder trial because it's irrelevant. The prosecution argues that his character and history with Nicole Brown Simpson is completely relevant, as it's the entire reason as to why he'd have motive to murder her.
Next, Darden gets up and asks that the defense not be allowed to enter racially insensitive statements containing the n-word that Detective Fuhrman made 15 years ago into the trial because they will incense members of the jury, particularly African-American ones. Johnnie Cochran is not having it. He gets up and delivers an epic takedown that should get Courtney B. Vance an Emmy.
"[Mr. Darden's] remarks this afternoon are deeply demeaning to African-Americans, and so first and foremost, Your Honor, I would like to apologize to African-Americans across this country. It is preposterous to say that African-Americans collectively are so unstable that they can not hear offensive words without losing their moral sense of right and wrong. They live with offensive words, offensive looks, offensive treatment every day. And so Your Honor, I am ashamed that Mr. Darden would allow himself to became an apologist for Mr. Fuhrman. Who are any of us to testify as an expert as to what words Black people can and cannot handle? Your Honor, across America, believe you me, African-Americans are offended at this very moment. And so for a friend that I deeply respect, I will say this was outlandish, unfortunate, and unwarranted."
The press has a field day with that one. "Lawyers Face Off Over Race," the headlines blare. Darden reads select lines from an article aloud: "76% of African-Americans do not believe Darden is doing a good job." He's called an Uncle Tom. He asks to talk to the press and tells Marcia Clark they need to reconsider letting Mark Fuhrman take the stand. She still doesn't budge.
The defense isn't playing fair, though. They forgot to enter a bunch of witnesses into discovery. Rather than admitting their mea culpa, Cochran has Carl Douglas (Dale Godboldo) take responsibility for it. This upsets prosecutor Bill Hodgeman (Christian Clemenson) so much that he collapses and is removed from the courtroom on a stretcher. In reality, this never happened, but the show added it in for dramatic effect to show how far the defense went to thrwart and frustrate the prosecution. Plus, Hodgeman did get extremely flustered during that moment, and he did actually go to the hospital later in the day on January 25, 1995. Rather than replace Hodgeman, the prosecution makes Darden second lead attorney on the case.
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This episode also introducers Dominick Dunne (Robert Morse), who covered O.J. Simpson's trial for Vanity Fair. He's able to do this because Judge Ito (Kenneth Choi) offers him a front-row seat, right next to Nicole Brown Simpson's parents. Dunne's daughter was also murdered, and Ito thought he'd be able to act with the appropriate amount of tact and decorum around the Simpsons.
Dunne is mainly used in this episode as an expository device, providing facts such as that O.J.'s current girlfriend had broken up with him for Michael Bolton on the night of the murders, and that she returned to him after he was arrested. Dunne also said that prior to her death, whenever Nicole and O.J. broke up, her parents urged them to get back together, and O.J. had apparently hooked her father up with a Hertz dealership.
Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) & O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.)
It's also the week that the jury gets to visit the crime scene and O.J.'s house. Cochran stages the entire mansion to make it look like a true man of the people's pad. By the time Cochran is through with it, O.J. Simpson's house is outfitted with African masks, pictures of Black families ("These aren't even my kids. I don't even know who these people are," O.J. notes when he sees them.), and sympathy-provoking photos of Simpson's mother in a wheelchair. What Cochran can't change, though, is Simpson's attitude. When Darden sits on a bench on the lawn, O.J. flips out. "Get off my bench. I don't want you on my bench, hear me? Shouldn't even be in my house!" he screams in full view of all the jurors.
Cochran tries to play it off by saying, "He gets emotional." The jurors look disturbed, though.
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Before Darden can walk away, Cochran gives him a private message. "Don't do Fuhrman," he says. "Let the white people do him."
This sends Darden into a tailspin. After all the ways in which Cochran has manipulated him so far, why would he possibly interpret anything Cochran tells him as an attempt to help? But when he interviews Fuhrman again about using the n-word, Darden decides he doesn't want to put him on the stand. "The truth is that Fuhrman will present best if you have him," Clark says when Darden comes to her with his decision. He stares her down, forcing her to admit it's because he's Black.
Finally, Clark agrees that she'll try Fuhrman when he takes the stand. As she does so, music swells. It's Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Ouvertüre. As if the opera by a noted anti-Semite wasn't enough of a signal, the next scene is of Fuhrman polishing a glass case. Inside are medals from the Third Reich. The episode ends focused on a particularly ornate one with a swastika in the middle. Just a casual weeknight, polishing his Nazi relics. And this is the guy that's going to take the stand to testify about the infamous glove. I'd say oy vey, but I don't think Mark Fuhrman would like it very much.
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