A decade after trial, O.J. verdict is still a hot topic

Fall TV Preview

October 04, 2005|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

After all the live coverage of the trial and endless media post-mortems after the verdict, it seems reasonable to ask whether there are any lessons left to be learned from the trial of O.J. Simpson 10 years later.

The answer compellingly delivered by PBS tonight in a Frontline documentary titled The O.J. Verdict is a resounding yes. The lessons are not so much about the trial itself as they are about us - we, the people of the United States - and how our legal system works (or doesn't), how our media decide what to cover (or ignore), and how deeply divided we continue to be on matters of race.

The first little-known piece of news in tonight's report is that the verdict in the Simpson trial was the most watched event in TV history. An estimated 150 million Americans stopped what they were doing on Oct. 3, 1995, to find out whether Simpson was going to be convicted or acquitted of killing his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

Tonight's film, which was produced and directed by Peabody Award-winner Ofra Bikel, vividly takes viewers back to that day through deft editing of archival videotape and illuminating interviews done a decade later - many of them with key players in the drama. But instead of stopping there, Bikel takes the analysis deeper, with sociologists and cultural critics trying to place such memories in a larger historical context.

Mark Watts, a CNN correspondent in 1995 and one of the few African-American reporters covering the trial, says in the film: "In the trial, everything is about race. Black people deal with race every day. Whites who said it's not a trial about race speak that way because they haven't been on the receiving end of injustices at the hands of a white person."

Michael Eric Dyson, professor of African-American studies at the University of Pennsylvania, expands on the theme: "O.J. was a term that represented every black person that ever got beat up by the criminal justice system."

The film finds some of its most powerful testimony in a closing scene filmed in a barbershop in South Central Los Angeles, where a group of African-American customers agree that Simpson was somehow involved in the killing of his wife. Their analysis of lessons to be learned from the case is among the film's most provocative.

"I feel within my heart that the Negro killed her, ain't no question, you know what I mean?" one man says. "I think it was a wake-up call to him, because all you white folks that loved him and pretended that they liked him because he had money, they kicked his [expletive] to the curb. ... And I would hope that Negroes learn that no matter how high you ascend ... you still a [racial epithet] in America."

`Close to Home

Annabeth Chase is a young prosecuting attorney with a perfect conviction record, a new baby and more stress than any working mom in a TV drama has ever been allowed to acknowledge. As the show's title suggests, CBS is promoting the fact that in her role as an assistant district attorney, Chase mostly prosecutes cases from the suburban world in which she and her family live.

The theme of danger beneath the sunny suburban veneer certainly speaks to the post-9/11 mood of paranoia that seems to be permeating American life these days. But it is the winning performance of Jennifer Finnigan as Chase - along with the multilayered depiction of the cost of trying to be a killer attorney at work and loving caregiver at home - that makes CBS' Close to Home one of the most promising arrivals of the fall.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

To read other reviews and previews, see photos and schedules of this fall's TV shows, go online to baltimoresun.com/falltv.

On TV

The O.J. Verdict, 9 p.m., MPT (Channels 22 and 67), WETA (Channel 26); Close to Home, 10 p.m., WJZ (Channel 13).

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