By Joe McGovern
March 02, 2016 at 04:50 PM EST
Ray Mickshaw/FX

“I met with Fuhrman. He says all the appropriate things, but truthfully, the guy’s not right. I get a really bad vibe from him. He’s one of those people that thinks that you can’t see how he really feels because he acts polite. There’s a way that certain white people talk to black people. It’s disingenuous.”

That is Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), 10 minutes into episode 5 of The People v. O.J. Simpson. The dialogue is not delivered in one full stretch like that — in the scene, Darden is conversing about Detective Mark Fuhrman with an apparently unconcerned Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) — but I’ve transcribed it as one complete block of text because those words are the skeleton key to understanding the truths of the world in which O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double homicide two decades ago.

Which is not to say that Darden’s remarks are any less valid as a cultural argument now. It’s fitting that this episode, titled “The Race Card” and directed by John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), is airing 48 hours after this year’s Oscar telecast, in which host Chris Rock came on stage and within seconds was asking the question: “Is Hollywood racist?”

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In answering that question, Rock didn’t accuse Hollywood of grotesque oppression or even anything deeply unsanitary. “Is it burning-cross racist? No,” he said. “Is it fetch-me-some-lemonade racist? No. It’s a different type of racist.” And after telling a trenchant, serious anecdote about meeting President Obama at an almost-all-white fundraiser (I would have love to seen a cutaway to the crowd after that one), Rock explained, “You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist.”

How ironic, also, that this episode is airing on the very same night as the 2016 presidential election’s crucial Super Tuesday, with American voters going to the polls in a dozen states. I wonder if Donald Trump (and many of his millions of supporters) understand what Rock meant by “sorority racist.” This might be redundant (because I’d bet a week’s salary that he’s a Trump supporter), but I wonder Mark Fuhrman, who retired after committing perjury in the Simpson trial and moved to northern Idaho, which has one of the highest concentrations of white supremacist groups in the country, and now makes his living as a Fox News contributor, got what the comedian meant.

But because Fuhrman’s spectacular importance in the trial (and on the show) won’t be fully explored until the next two episodes, I’ll only recommend for now that you watch very carefully the first scene between Darden and Fuhrman (carefully underplayed by Steven Pasquale). Listen to how Fuhrman calls Darden “Sir” and how he can’t quite make eye contact and how quickly he refers to “my black buddies” when rejecting Darden’s assertion that the defense intends to bring up his prior racist statements. 

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The episode lives up to its name from the very beginning. The opening scene features a flashback to an event in the early 1980s. Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) is driving his Rolls-Royce with his two daughters in the backseat through a swanky neighborhood in Los Angeles. He’s pulled over and eventually pulled out of the car and handcuffed for what the white police officer describes as his “hostile attitude.” He is released from the cuffs once the cop realizes that he’s an assistant district attorney, and once the officer drives away (without apologizing) and all the assorted white people on the sidewalk go back to their business, Cochran’s daughter asks a question.

“Daddy, did he call you a n—–?” “No, he didn’t,” Cochran responds. “He didn’t have to.” However, he adds: “But that is an ugly word.”

He’s right about that. But from this point in the series onward, the N-word will be uttered with liberty during both the re-creation of courtroom testimony and outside scenes, including in one satirically hilarious moment in the next episode when the word is said by a NBC News executive. (The total number of times that it’s said on The People v. O.J. Simpson likely won’t eclipse Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which included the N-word an estimated 65 times.)

The use of the word dominates the discussion that takes place in the show during a pre-trial evidentiary hearing. The two matters at hand are the 62 accusations of abuse, harassment, and stalking leveled at Simpson by his ex-wife — accusations so credible that O.J. only half-denied them, which is why the defense was so desperate to get them thrown out. (In a 10-page ruling delivered a week later, Ito ruled practically all of the domestic violence counts admissible, save a few that were based on hearsay.) But the prosecution wants something potentially even more damaging to their side thrown out. And that’s the N-word itself.

Next: A single word causes emotions to geyser in the courtroom. And a heart attack strikes — for effect.

The real timeline has been condensed (the pretrial hearings, like the opening statements, required days to complete), but Darden’s vehement petition to Judge Ito for the N-word to be disallowed from the courtroom is verbatim, though it ran nearly 20 minutes long.

It is a uniquely offensive and, as Darden says, “dirty, filthy word,” that will only serve to inflame the majority black jury. “It’s not a word that I allow people to use in my household,” he says. “I’m sure Mr. Cochran doesn’t.” (That line isn’t included here, although it offers an obvious callback to the episode’s opening scene.) There was one ad hominem attack in Darden’s remarks that the show also leaves out: “We are not running around or talking about or seeking to introduce to the jury the notion that this defendant has a fetish for blond-haired white women,” he said. “That would be inappropriate. That would inflame the passions of the jury. It would be outrageous.”

Indeed it would. Ito ultimately decided that the word was allowable, no small thanks to Cochran’s sermonizing rebuttal, with all of its tacit emphasis on Darden as an Uncle Tom, a betrayer of his own race. 

For the record, I’m not ever going to the word here in these recaps. Per EW’s standards and practices, the magazine and website’s objective is not to offend our readers with obscenity. When need be, I’ll either say “the N-word” or, in the case of quotes from the show, write the word with every letter except for the N dashed out. An archive search of Entertainment Weekly revealed the N-word, spelled out, has not appeared in the magazine for a decade. The word last appeared in two articles in early 2006, both movie reviews in which the usage was in quotes.

Every instance since then has been bleeped, as they say. And I have no intention changing that. But I do see Cochran’s point in the courtroom — unconnected to his own eagerness to have that word hit the jurors’ ears — that redacting the word supposes that African-Americans are not prepared to hear it. There was an obvious layer of condescension in Darden’s miscalculated attempt to keep the word censored. The fact that the prosecution assigned Darden the role of moral/racial arbiter was condescending in itself. As the show continues — brace yourselves for Nathan Lane’s N-word outburst next week as F. Lee Bailey —there’s a whole fascinating conversation to be had on this topic. And I’m glad that they show isn’t holding the word back, especially in the moment immediately after Cochran has finished his remarks, and he turns to Darden and stares him down, muttering “N—–, please.”

Incredibly, according to Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life (the source book for the show), that exchange actually happened. A few things from this episode that don’t actually happen, at least not in the way that they’re presented, include the courtroom heart attack of co-prosecutor Bill Hodgman (Christian Clemenson) while he was in mid-sentence. In reality, the 41-year-old attorney complained of chest paints later that same afternoon in the office of his boss Gil Garcetti and was hospitalized overnight. The irregular heartbeat doctors discovered effectively meant he needed to yield his place in the trial. But the scene is dramatized legitimately to illustrate the toll that the case was already taking on its participants, especially in light of the defense’s dirty tricks. (Hodgman is still alive and, unlike Clark or Darden, still prosecuting cases.)

The staging of O.J. Simpson’s house for the jury walk-through is accurate in the details of his staged house. Marcia Clark appeared on ABC’s The View in February and at about the 6 minute 30 second mark of the interview, spoke about that day:

And when Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne visits Lance Ito in his chambers during this episode, the murdered daughter that Dunne refers to is Dominique, an actress (she appeared in 1982’s Poltergeist) who was strangled by her ex-boyfriend. It is not true that the judge braggingly showed Dunne a signed photo of Arsenio Hall — that’s because that scene is lifted from a scene in Toobin’s book about himself. (I suppose it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that Ito could have showed the photo to both men.) Toobin met with Ito at the beginning of the trial and described the judge as having “a fatal lack of gravitas.” Of the Arsenio photo, with a note from the talk show host attached, Toobin writes, “I said it was a very nice letter,” then adds: “Ito beamed.”

“The Race Card” ends with the show’s best cliffhanger thus far. Fuhrman walks towards the camera, coming into focus once his face gets very close (an exact echo of a different scene in this episode with O.J.). On the soundtrack, which we assume is a stereo playing in Fuhrman’s house, we hear the overblown sound “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner, the virulently anti-Semitic 19th century German composer, who was Adolf Hitler’s favorite musician and role model. (And speaking of the composer, I’d say that the most demented moment of whole Oscar show on Sunday was when the director of Son of Saul, a Holocaust film, was played off stage via Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”)

Here we see Fuhrman polishing the glass case, in which rest his World War II memorabilia, including swastika-festooned medals. That little bit is totally invented for the show, right? In a word, nein.

Per allegations made in a declaration by a deputy district attorney and reported in the Los Angeles Times:

The detective, the declaration says, then told Coleman and Sergojan that in the mid-1980s he worked with Fuhrman in West Los Angeles. “At that time, Purdy had recently married a Jewish woman and Fuhrman had painted Purdy’s locker with swastikas,” Coleman’s declaration says.

Later, the declaration says, Coleman also was told “that Fuhrman walked around on weekends wearing Nazi paraphernalia.”

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seasons
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  • 02/02/16
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