LOS ANGELES – In October 1995, Courtney B. Vance and Tony Goldwyn took a break from filming a TV movie in Toronto to watch news coverage of the riveting end to a Los Angeles drama: O.J. Simpson was not guilty of murder, a jury declared.
“I screamed ‘yes!’ and he screamed ‘no!’ and we were looking at each other like we were crazy, trying to figure out what the great divide was about,” Vance recalled, adding, “much like the rest of the country.”
The so-called trial of the century, which proved at once gaudy and racially revealing, and what led to the verdict are dramatized in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” FX’s 10-part series which debuted last Tuesday. It’s the debut entry for the channel’s “American Crime Story” anthology.
As defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, Vance holds sway in the courtroom and is a standout in the impressive ensemble cast that includes Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, the former football star accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
Also on board are John Travolta as defense attorney Robert Shapiro; David Schwimmer as Simpson friend Robert Kardashian (with brief glimpses of his children, including Kim Kardashian West), and Sarah Paulson, notable as prosecutor Marcia Clark.
For Vance, the project meant revisiting the black-white split – starting between him and Goldwyn – on whether justice was served by the verdict.
“I wasn’t cheering for O.J. It wasn’t about O.J. at all. … We grew up with black history, seeing how great we were and how much we suffered,” he said, citing a record of inequality that includes Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager lynched after flirting with a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.
“There was no justice, there was no recourse for African-Americans for centuries. And that’s what African-Americans were cheering about,” Vance said.
He declined to offer an opinion on the guilt or innocence of Simpson, who in 1997 was found liable in a civil suit and ordered to pay the victims’ families $33.5 million. He has been in a Nevada prison since 2008 on a robbery and kidnapping conviction.
Vance took on the challenging role of Cochran, a former LA assistant district attorney, knowing how much work would be required to “make this project sing.” While he immersed himself in books about the case, he didn’t look at news clips of Cochran to glean his gestures or cadence.
“I said, ‘No, I’m me, and he’s iconic.’ If I can suggest him to the audience, get the audience into the story, I will have done the job,” Vance said.
Skillful flamboyance became Cochran’s signature trait. After Simpson dramatically failed to get his hands into blood-stained gloves found at the murder scene, Cochran turned the moment into unlikely poetry and a pop-culture catchphrase: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” he told jurors.
But there was much more to Cochran, a passionate civil-rights advocate who fought against entrenched police abuse, said the series’ writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. They also are among the executive producers of the project from Ryan Murphy, co-creator of FX’s “American Horror Story” series.
Vance “manages to capture the great orator who can mesmerize a courtroom and isn’t above gigantic theatrics … but he also sees that Cochran fights the fight, and these things are extremely personal to him as well,” Karaszewski said.
Vance’s performance has drawn critical bouquets and, most welcome, praise from a fellow actor, wife Angela Bassett (“She’s very pleased,” he said).
The drama meshed with how both approach their work, Vance said, setting a standard and refusing to “do everything and anything, even though financially it hurts us sometime.”
The FX series is based on The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the 1996 nonfiction book by lawyer and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Despite the elapsed decades, executive producer Brad Simpson said the timing is right to contribute to the “endless conversation” about race and justice in America, now dominated by police shootings of African-Americans and ensuing protests.
Vance agrees, but quotes Martin Luther King Jr. to strike a hopeful note.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Vance said. “It just takes a minute.”