Channeling Cochran, 20 Years Later

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Veteran actor Courtney B. Vance plays iconic lawyer Johnnie Cochran in FX’s new 10-part limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, based on the book written by Jeffrey Toobin. The 55-year-old Vance discussed the series with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead, and provided his perspective on how the sensational 1994 case altered the way Americans discuss race. An edited version of the interview follows.

MCN: How did you prepare for the role of playing Johnnie Cochran?

Courtney B. Vance: A lot of times, you have to look at these iconic roles and make a decision as to how are you going to get in, and how are you going to do this? Johnnie Cochran cut his teeth on police brutality cases for years before the O.J. Simpson case came up, and so I know I’m not him, and I wasn’t going to spend my time trying to be him. I spent my time researching and finding out as much as I could about his life and his journey.

And then I knew the scripts would be tremendous, so I wouldn’t have to worry about that. If I could just give the appearance and the semblance of Johnnie Cochran, the scripts would do the rest. And the audience would be able to enter into the world. That’s the main thing for me — that I get out of the way and people can enter into the world. If I do my job, then they don’t see me, they see Johnnie.

MCN: Why is now the best time for this project to happen, 20 years after the verdict was handed down?

CBV: Because we all started with watching the Bronco and ended with the verdict, with black people in one corner and white people in another corner, mad or happy, and nobody ends up learning anything. Everybody goes back to their corner knowing what they know. Yet two people were killed, and was justice really served? I don’t think so.

So I knew that we really needed to sit down and unearth this thing and look at it with 20 years’ perspective for people who were back there during that time and remember it.

Before, they were so emotional, but now, 20 years later, the emotion hopefully is not as prevalent, and so maybe some sense and some perspective can be gotten as we look at it with a 20-year telescope, and [we can] understand a couple of things and maybe have a conversation about it, whereas 20 years prior no conversation could be had.

It was a trial that had a little bit of everything in it for everybody. We put it on television, and the thing blew up.

MCN: Do you think that the show actually retries O.J.?

CBV: I think it’s looking at the trial from the perspective of the attorneys with background information about their lives and their histories, so you can get a better sense of why certain decisions were made — why a certain decision was made about the glove and about Mark Fuhrman and the tapes and all. Because we were so close to it, and because a lot of times we just saw the result of what happened, we don’t know exactly what happened with that.

We didn’t know about [prosecuting attorney] Marcia Clark and all the drama that ensued with her and her second husband. I don’t know how she survived that case. I don’t know how [prosecutor Christopher] Darden survived all the things he went through. I mean, it was so much in the history and the course of this case that was about so many things other than truth or innocence, as is every case.

Nothing is ever black and white — it’s all a series of shades of gray. We have the opportunity to actually look with perspective to see what happened, how it happened and, based on all of that, hopefully at the water coolers we can begin to [discuss it].

MCN: You were quoted as saying that you cheered the O.J. verdict. Explain to me what you were feeling then and why you felt that way?

CBV: I was in Toronto with Nathan Lane and Tony Goldwyn, doing a project for Hallmark called The Boys Next Door. And Tony and I were, I guess, in his trailer, watching the verdict. And if you talked to black people and you talked to white people, I think black people were not cheering for O.J. — it wasn’t about O.J. O.J. even himself says, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”

But this case was about race. Race is one of those things that we don’t like to talk about, like religion and politics. I mean it is a deep, deep issue that you can’t ignore. And we ignored it. We ignored it to our peril.

So my fist went up pumping because I’m realizing that finally Johnnie Cochran … this case was the culmination of all of his work. That’s what we were celebrating — all those times in courtrooms, throughout the American landscape, the black man and woman ended up on the short end of the stick. And this time, in the largest venue, we ended up victorious. So that’s what I think black Americans were celebrating. We’re not celebrating because two people were killed — nobody celebrates that. We were celebrating that finally somebody worked the system.

And was justice served? I don’t know whether it was or not, but the system was worked for the first time on this large a scale. That’s what I think African-Americans were celebrating.

MCN: Having said that, are you surprised that there is so much buzz around this show and the trial 20 years later?

CBV: I think there’s buzz around the show, No. 1, because the show was good. If the show wasn’t good, there wouldn’t be buzz. They wouldn’t be talking about it because the fact of the matter is Fox spent a lot of time and a lot of money to make sure, to ensure, that this would be done well. As [executive producer and director] Ryan Murphy said, they spent a lot of money on lawyers, making sure that every line was well-researched and was correct from a legal standpoint. Time was paid, attention was paid and the fruits of all of that labor are what we’re seeing. There is no guarantee that it will be received well, but we gave it our best shot and spent a lot of time and effort making sure that our story, our 10-part story was told well. And that’s all you can hope for.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.