Confirmation, OJ Simpson and Card-Playing

By

Leonard Zwelling

         Why go to the movies? The best scripted drama can be found
in made-for-TV films about real events. Here are two.

         The FX mini-series The
People vs. OJ Simpson
is a ten-parter that seems to make afresh the events
that transpired surrounding the violent deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and
Ronald Goldman in Los Angeles in 1994 and the trial that followed of Nicole’s
ex-husband, the football star OJ Simpson. It is worth watching because the
drama is so compelling and the characters all so flawed as human beings. Sarah
Poulson as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden are particularly
good in conveying the personal toll taken by this high profile case on those
caught up in the maelstrom of publicity surrounding the prosecutors and, more
importantly, the high-profile, highly paid defense attorneys, most critically
Johnnie Cochran.

         The key to the case and to the series is the clever way OJ’s
defense team turned a likely incident of domestic violence into a referendum on
race in America. The clever way the writers end the drama is also a comment on
race and where in the very stark black-white world of high-end LA OJ fit
before, during, and after the verdict.

         In Confirmation,
the lines become even more blurred. This is the story of the confirmation
hearings of Clarence Thomas to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and
the allegations brought against him by a law professor from Oklahoma, Anita
Hill, that he had sexually harassed her while she was on his payroll at the
EEOC. Like the OJ trial, this split the country in half as the Judiciary
Committee of old, white guys questioned the veracity of the small, black law
professor who had been contacted by the committee to testify. She did not
volunteer and probably wouldn’t have and, at many points, probably wished she
hadn’t.

         In this case, which was supposed to be about sexual
misconduct, the race card was once again played (actually this predated OJ in
history) to great effect as Thomas called the proceedings a “high tech
lynching.” It wasn’t. It was, however, another giant leap of the Senate into
the abyss of disdain by the public. No matter how you felt about the testimony
of the two principals, what had started as an expression of oppression of women
got turned into a racial issue about a black man who had successfully
negotiated the white world.

         Perhaps the saddest part of both of these two superb dramas
is that the forces driving them could be in play again today and in the same
fashion. In a nation ripped apart by polar points of view, loudly expressed,
occasionally leading to violence by crowds at political rallies or police using
guns, we really have not progressed since the 1990s despite having a black
President.

         As we watch these TV shows, we need to ask what is wrong
with us that we cannot get past race as a divisive issue in our society. Rather
than embrace our differences, which are largely skin deep only, we choose to
accent them and the wronged have to resort to movements from Black Lives Matter
to Oscar So White. Why?

         These films go a long way toward illustrating two dreadful
examples of playing the race card. But the real question is what game are we
playing that necessitates playing cards at all.

         The answer can be seen in the current Presidential campaign
where one group is happily pitted against another by the likes of Mr. Trump and
even Mr. Cruz.

         I’m with Rodney King. “Why can’t we all just get along?” And
even if we cannot, do we have to perpetrate such unmitigated evil on one
another simply because we can and think, often rightly, that we can get away
with it?

         It has been 25 years since Anita Hill testified on Capitol
Hill, yet sexual harassment, in offices and on campuses, is still a major
concern. So is racial inequality when it comes to opportunity and the manner in
which minorities are treated by authorities like the police. If having a black
President wasn’t enough to get America over its history of racial injustice,
and it seems not to be enough, then we need to rethink the entire matter and
address it anew.

         These two films make it clear that racial factors played a
huge role in the political and judicial life of the country in the 1990s. It
still does. And until it doesn’t any longer, these TV films will remain
relevant as reminders that we are aren’t there quite yet.

Leonard Zwelling