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'People v. O.J. Simpson' at Emmy Awards: A new verdict on the case

It was Sarah Paulson’s moment — but it belonged just as much to Marcia Clark.

Paulson had just won the Emmy for lead actress in a limited series or movie for her portrayal of the former L.A. County prosecutor in FX's "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and she used her time onstage to both thank and apologize to Clark, who failed to win a conviction in the case.

More than two decades ago, the Simpson trial provided a flashpoint on race, criminal justice, domestic violence and celebrity while offering punchlines galore.

On Sunday night at the Emmys, all those elements were again on display — along with a rare moment of public vindication.

“The more I learned about the real Marcia Clark‎ — not the two-dimensional cardboard cutout I saw on the news but the complicated, whip-smart giant-hearted mother of two who woke up every day, put both feet on the floor and dedicated herself to ‎righting an unconscionable wrong,” Paulson said. She noted that “I, along with the rest of the world, had been superficial and careless in my judgment.”

“I’m sorry,” she added.

As Clark offered a smile and serene nod from her seat — she had come as Paulson’s guest — the moment crystallized just one of the several new perspectives that a belated Hollywood arrival has been able to shine on the case.

“People” won five awards at the Jimmy Kimmel-hosted Emmys, including limited series, on top of the four Creative Arts Emmys it had previously taken home.

But the statuettes were in a way beside the point. At the fore in the Microsoft Theater on Sunday was how the program — along with the ESPN docuseries “O.J.: Made in America,” which will be eligible for Oscars and Emmys in 2017 — furnished a chance to view the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman through a 21st century lens, a rare do-over of sorts in American culture. Together the two series had helped people re-examine the case from the vantage point of a different, if hardly simpler, racial moment.

 

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It was a Hollywood confection to the core. "People" was developed and executive-produced by industry veterans Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; “Glee” creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and “The Hunger Games” backers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson also as executive producers. But it demonstrated how fictional creators in this age of the fact-based film can not only turn history into pop-cultural phenomenon, but give it new rigor and context.

The Clark moment on Sunday highlighted the case’s feminist side. It was an aspect that was not heavily discussed during the trial but that emerged more clearly in the series, with Clark portrayed as a crusader for domestic-violence justice and a victim, sometimes, of an anti-feminist agenda.

Backstage Paulson told reporters that she was hoping for a chance to “stand up there with many, many eyeballs on me and say something that I wish the world could hear.”

Race was also thrust to the fore anew. On a night when "Game of Thrones" and "Veep" took the top two prizes, the constant stream of faces of color, from both sides of the Simpson aisle, highlighted race's linchpin role not only in the show's on-screen events but its off-screen popularity.

Courtney B. Vance won lead actor in a limited series or movie for playing defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, and Sterling K. Brown was a surprise winner for his portrayal of Cochran adversary Christopher Darden. "Obama out. Hillary in," Vance said as he left the stage, subtly underscoring how far America had come, at least in one respect, since the days when the most prominent black man in America was famous for very different reasons. 

There were, however, other respects. Though Black Lives Matter was not front and center at the Emmys on Sunday, it ran under the show and entwined with its real-life events. The first episode of "People" aired less than three months after controversial video of the Laquan McDonald shooting by Chicago police was revealed, and its finale aired less than three months before the shooting death of Alton Sterling by white police officers in Baton Rouge, La. That made the processing of the O.J. case different, and arguably deeper, than in the 1990’s, when the debate about criminal justice had yet to reach this level of awareness, particularly among whites.

Backstage, Jacobson told reporters that "we saw this trial through the prism of race and class and gender. That conversation, as it pertains to criminal justice system, has only become louder and louder. "

But for all the seriousness it was also inevitable that Simpson would enter a more frivolous realm Sunday.

Kimmel, who was not on the air when the trial happened, went to the comedy well early and often, beginning with a pre-recorded parody of the Ford Bronco chase and continuing with a visual gag. "Juice, Juice, Juice," he said to David Schwimmer, who plays Simpson confidant Robert Kardashian in the show, referring to the character's frequent use of Simpson's nickname and the social-media phenomenon that has sprung from it.

He also asked whether John Travolta, who played Robert Shapiro, would thank Simpson if he won, and wondered whether Simpson was watching from his jail cell, where he is serving time because of a different crime.

And addressing Clark, Kimmel said, “This must be very weird for you. Are you rooting for O.J. to win this time?”

The collision of big moments with late-night shtick, though, was in a sense its own encapsulation of the Simpson affair.

“The O.J. trial has always been the perfect embodiment of high and low,” said Jeffrey Toobin, the author on whose 1997 book the “People” series was based, shortly before the Emmys began. . “You could look at it from a tawdry celebrity angle and it was fascinating, but you could also look at it from a high-minded historical perspective and it was fascinating. I think that’s why it has endured so much.”

The re-living of the trial through a television season — and the chance to marinate in its various elements at a Hollywood awards show — would seem to afford a historical perspective a more immediacy-minded pop culture these days rarely offers.

Some experts, however, were quick to caution that the return to the case was not as much a revisiting of history as it was a chance to air out current views.

"People watching these contemporary representations are looking at something different than what people lived through back in the '90s.  'The People v. O.J. Simpson' is fictional and the documentary has a rather overt political slant to its interpretation of the events and the people responsible," Todd Boyd, a USC professor who specializes in race and popular culture, wrote in an email.

"So I would disagree that these representations have bridged a divide because you can't relive that time," he wrote, adding, "What we have seen this year isow some people have interpreted these events, but the events have been filtered through a contemporary perspective that really tells us more about our present than it does our past."

Times staff writers Yvonne Villarreal and Jessica Gelt contributed to this report.

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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