It’s the little things.
Season one of the new FX true-crime anthology, American Crime Story, attempts to recreate the O. J. Simpson murder case for the big (television) screen. Winning nine Emmy awards and earning nominations for another thirteen, The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story is clearly judicious in stroking the curiosity of a society still asking questions about Simpson’s innocence.
To their credit, the producers take an interesting course, and I think this is why the season’s ten episodes resonate far more than a documentary ever could. Rather than appreciating the evidence itself, attention is directed to the nuances of the 1995 double murder trial, allowing viewers to witness how the evidence was presented and how instrumental the public grew to become in shaping the case both inside and outside the courtroom. It is a courtroom drama in every sense of the term, but also a remarkably accurate one. When Court Clerk Deirdre Robertson read the verdict in 1995, she stumbled on O. J.’s real first name, Orenthal. The blip is cleverly reenacted in the show.
But deep within the closing lines of the final episode, we are reminded once again that there are still some limits to the truth, to honest reenactments and genuine portrayals. In a way similar to how racism is outwardly condemned but still readily welcomed under the radar, censorship flies the same route.
A morose lead prosecutor Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, and her co-prosecutor Christopher Darden, played by Sterling K. Brown, find themselves in the office soon after the verdict is announced. Having lost the case, Darden announces plans to resign. The two share a moment as they discuss what brought them to practice law in the first place.
For Clark, it was her rape at age 17 that inspired her to become an attorney. As discussed in her 1997 book, “Without a Doubt”, Clark describes her rape as having been committed by a waiter while visiting a resort in Eilat in southern Israel. She repressed her emotions for as long as she could, decided she wanted to advocate for and defend victims, and revealed in an interview that the traumatic experience came back to her in 1981 in her early years as a prosecutor. It was a terrible yet formative experience for her.
In the show, however, the crime purportedly took place in Italy. The line, heard from minute 46:19 to 46:22, is: “I was raped in Italy by a waiter.”
Ironically, the show does a terrific job of highlighting the legal battles that ensued whenever evidence, data, or information deemed irrelevant or immaterial found its way into court. As much as it is supposed to be a source of entertainment, the show’s portrayal is also an exercise in responsibility, in leading audiences — a jury from long ago, for example, and viewers today — towards the truth.
What, then, is the purpose of this fact-change? It serves no other purpose, it seems, other than to disassociate Israel from anything criminal or violent. It detracts from Clark’s personal experiences and it dupes viewers.
In thinking deeply about this line in the grand context of the show, the albeit brief mention of Clark’s rape is both a major detail and a very minor one. It is major in that it reveals Clark’s very real and deeply personal motivation to practice law. The perpetrator was never held accountable for his actions, a circumstance Clark fought to prevent from happening to other women. Changing a detail, even as subtly as this, cheaply undermines her traumatic story. Sure, it still gets the point across, but if details did not matter, why produce a ten-episode critically-acclaimed hit show about details and their consequences when distorted?
On the other hand, it is minor in that it is a detail viewers could have gone without. Roughly twenty minutes remained in the series, the trial had been played out, a verdict had been reached and announced, and there would be no more mention of Clark’s rape. Any viewer who watched the series and decided to skip the conversation will have still understood the outcome and will have still walked away as entertained or thoughtfully provoked as any other viewer. But as minor of a detail as it is, the producers deemed it necessary to include in the script. It not only shapes Clark’s character but it also reminds viewers that trial was not just about O. J. Simpson himself but also about the victims, their families, the jurors, and the court personnel who dedicated themselves to the case. Such a seemingly minor detail carries a great deal of significance, so it is both odd and troubling to me that the details are adulterated.
My questions are directed to the executives responsible for producing and airing the show. My focus is on one word, just one word, at the tail end of long and dramatic series of monologues and dialogues and the shouting matches in between. It almost seems silly, but even the smallest forms of censorship can be as damaging as anything else. So, why? Why is the mere mention of Israel in a not-so-friendly context, in a show that holds nothing back in its use of the “N” word, so off-putting that it is not allowed to air? Why does honesty in character portrayal and trial coverage stop short of Israel? Why does something so seemingly insignificant to the course of a show warrant a script change? Under what pressure are you so unnerved that you think you can pull a fast one on your viewers? And what does this say about the present-day state of censorship in mainstream media and the entertainment industry?
It’s always the little things.