Friday, May 3, 2019
May 3, 2019: Rodney King in Context: The People vs. O.J. Simpson
[On April 29th, 1992, civil unrest erupted in Los Angeles after the four officers who had beaten Rodney King on video were acquitted on all charges. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy King himself and other contexts for and representations of the LA riots, leading up to a special weekend post on the narrative of “race riots” itself.]
On the problems and possibilities of shoehorning historical footage into historical fictions.
Probably the most surprising thing for this AmericanStudier about the TV series The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016) was that the show’s heart and soul was David Schwimmer’s multi-layered and moving performance as Robert Kardashian. But a close second was the way that the show’s creators chose to open the first episode: with news footage from the Rodney King beating, trial, and riots. Of course this was another famous and divisive trial (and especially verdict) from the same city, just two years before the Nicole Brown Simpson/Ron Goldman murders and three years before the O.J. trial and verdict. And of course both historical events featured the Los Angeles police department in prominent and controversial (to put in mildly) ways. But at the same time, for a TV show focused so fully on offering fictional interpretations of a very particular set of historical figures and events, in a very specific time frame (from the first discovery of Simpson and Goldman’s bodies through to the immediate aftermath of the O.J. verdict), opening with distinct events from 2-3 years prior was far from an obvious or inevitable choice, and one that demands our attention and analyses.
In at least some important ways, I would say that that choice reflects problems with historical fiction as a genre. I’ve written elsewhere in this space about director Oliver Stone’s controversial and somewhat underhanded choice to intersperse actual historical footage of and around the JFK assassination into his conspiracy theory-promoting historical fiction film JFK (1991), without in any way clarifying which footage is which. People separates its initial historical footage from the remainder of its fictional storytelling more clearly and fully, so I’m not suggesting that it blurs the lines between these media anywhere near as overtly as did Stone’s film. But nonetheless, opening a show based so closely on real figures with media footage from 1991 and 1992 does indeed intertwine more than just these two disparate historical moments and events; it seems to position its subsequent fictional representations as similarly authentic. Of course historical fiction is always subject to these kinds of questions, and the best historical fiction overtly forces us to think about the various ways in which “history” and “fiction” are not nearly as distinct as we like to believe. But to me there’s still something a bit sketchy about using 1991-2 footage to open a 2016 fictional show about 1994-5 events.
Yet I do understand the reasons why the creators opened with this footage, and indeed would argue that whatever its limitations, doing so does offer an interesting lens on both the King and O.J. histories. The show’s overt focus is of course on O.J., and one of its central through-lines, one closely linked to both Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran and Sterling K. Brown’s Christopher Darden (among other characters, but most especially those two), is an argument that issues of race, racial profiling, and police prejudice and brutality were among the most paramount in the developing narratives and debates around the O.J. trial. But at the same time, the show also focuses at length on themes of celebrity, of the idea of a televised trial and all of its effects, on how these late 20th century media stories could impact issues of race and justice among many others. And it’s worth considering whether and how those kinds of celebrity and media threads were likewise part of the Rodney King histories—of course King was not a celebrity like O.J. at the start of his unfolding public story, but to some degree he became one as the events unfolded; and in any case those events themselves were undoubtedly televised and covered in distinctly late 20th century ways. One more complex layer to the King story, and one that this fictional TV drama helps us consider.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?