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Courtney B. Vance of FX's 'The People v. O.J. Simpson': What It Tells Us About Race in America Today
February 1, 2016  | By David Hinckley

If America had paid attention to what was really going on at the O.J. Simpson murder trial, says Courtney B. Vance, we might not be suffering the trouble and the death we see in our cities two decades later.

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, an intense 10-part series that launches Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX, digs into the byplay, intrigue, maneuvering, and general gamesmanship of the ultra-high-profile 1995 trial in which Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Vance plays Johnnie Cochran, the attorney who guided Simpson’s legal "Dream Team" to a come-from-behind victory that stunned much of America.

Vance says it shouldn’t have, but suggests he knows the reason: because too many of the people who followed the case made the same mistake as prosecutor Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulsen, below left, with Christian Clemenson as Bill Hodgman).

"She didn’t understand what the case was about," says Vance. "The jury consultants told her it was about celebrity, image and most of all race. She didn’t believe it.

"She thought she was putting away a monster. Yet at the time he was one of the most likeable people in America. She needed to negate that image, and she never did."

That huge blind spot, Vance says, played right into Cochran’s hands.

"All the defense has to do is create doubt," Vance points out. "So Johnnie made the case about everything but the crime. He poked holes everywhere he could find them."

Perhaps the biggest hole was obligingly opened by lead LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale). A tape surfaced on which Fuhrman was throwing around racial slurs, after he swore on the witness stand that he had no bias against black people and didn’t use that kind of language.

Cochran drove a truckload of doubt through that one.

"Johnnie had worked on police brutality cases under Mayor Tom Bradley," notes Vance. "He knew the territory. He was the perfect man for that job."

Planting the suggestion that the LAPD’s main investigator might have wanted to nail a black man went a long way toward winning the case for Cochran, but Vance suggests it also exposes a much wider and more serious problem for America.

"The O.J. issue is unresolved today," he says. “We’re still going through it because it’s still about race.

"African-Americans see the police differently than whites. In their eyes, the police treat them as animals."

He points to the case of the late Laquan McDonald, the Chicago teenager who was shot 16 times by a police officer, apparently because he was carrying a small pocketknife. Video footage showed MacDonald was walking away when he was shot.

"If that policeman had just talked to him the way he would have talked to a white kid," says Vance. "Take a little more time. Tell him to raise his hands, put down the knife.

"But he didn’t, and that’s why black people, when they see a policeman, think differently."

As for the O.J. case, Vance notes that race wasn’t the only factor that blocked what Clark and her team assumed would be a slam-dunk conviction.

"Johnnie and the defense team had some luck, too," he says. "The Fuhrman tape just fell into their lap. Then there was the ego thing between Cochran and [assistant prosecutor Chris] Darden (played by Sterling K. Brown, left), which helped lead Darden into asking O.J. to try on the glove that didn’t fit.

"Marcia didn’t know he was going to do that. She didn’t want him to. But he thought he’d be the hero, so he did, which gave Johnnie the line ‘If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.’ "

That line crystallized for many observers Cochran’s sense of theatricality, which made some love him and some hate him – and everyone acknowledge his skill.

"Even the people who didn’t like him knew how good he was," says Vance.

The People v. O.J. Simpson suggests Cochran didn’t initially want to take the case any more than Simpson’s original team, headed by Robert Shapiro (John Travolta, below left, with David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson) with assistance from the famous likes of F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), wanted him to join.

But the defense realized it needed a black face on the team, to put it bluntly, and Cochran was sold when his wife found his weak spot. Imagine how you’d feel, she asked, if someone else were to get O.J. off.

Interestingly, Vance may have been one of the few people in America who didn’t follow the real-life case back in 1994.

"I’d been a huge O.J. fan while I was growing up," he says. "When he was at USC and when he played for the Bills. But I didn’t know that much about the murder case. I saw the Bronco chase and then didn’t pay much attention until the verdict.

"So getting this role was an opportunity to fill in the gaps. I researched Johnnie, but I deliberately didn’t watch any video, because I didn’t want to imitate him.

"I wanted to go for a feeling, who he is, how he could take charge of a courtroom. If I can give a sense of the great man, I’ve done my job."

Which is more than America has done with the issues Vance says were exposed clearly and urgently in the O.J. trial.

"They’re still out there today," he says. "More than 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington, we are still judging people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character."

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