“You Feel It.” True Crime’s Advantage in Dramatization

Curator's Note

When FX released Ryan Murphy’s drama miniseries American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, especially on the heels of Ezra Edelman’s docuseries O.J.: Made in America, I wondered what Murphy thought he could uncover regarding the trial which had not been rehashed again and again during the event’s constant news coverage. But true crime, specifically when it dramatizes real events, does not rely on the same version of the truth that say, Edelman does in his documentary. This type of storytelling depends on an ambiguous relationship with the truth, meaning Murphy was not limited to recreating courtroom scenes using the original transcripts, but could take liberties with the facts in order to present a more complete interpretation of the trial. Take Marcia Clark’s portrayal by Sarah Paulson, for example. Greater than the limited experience of knowing Clark only through court footage and tabloid news, this dramatization offers a glimpse of the prosecutor’s humanity beyond the trial. Murphy’s drama allows audiences to see and feel the immense pain and frustration Clark felt as she balanced her personal and professional life in front of the media.

One such scene is between Clark and fellow prosecutor Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown). The episode, titled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” focuses on the harsh media treatment Clark endured throughout the trial, including commentary on her sense of style, her haircut, and the release of a nude photo taken years earlier. By the end of the episode, Clark’s spirit has clearly been broken, as Darden finds her crying on the floor of her office after a long day in court. “I’m not a public personality,” she exclaims, revealing an emotionality not seen in any of the courtroom footage, where she was determined to remain stone-faced. The resignation and defeat in Clark during this scene elicits a sympathetic response that the public and the media denied the real Clark in 1994. It’s an expression of truth that ironically relies on fiction to relay its message. This utility makes true crime a valuable tool for analyzing and interpreting cultural events beyond the scope of news media, making fresh the trial about which we thought we knew everything.

Comments

Staci Stutsman's picture

public/private

Interesting post, Leslie. I especially like that you gesture toward the complicated relationship between public and private in true crime. In many ways, true crime feels like it wants to push past the public facades and facts to get to a certain private truth about who people really are and what really happened. Often that truth is unattainable. Fictionalized accounts of true crime, then, attempt to fill that gap, as you put forth. I think, though, that whether or not what is offered is “true” is up for debate. As true crime teaches us: can we ever -really- know who someone is?

Geoffrey Henry's picture

True Crime's Advantage in Dramatization

Thank you for your post, Leslie. I really enjoyed it. I also agree with your comments concerning true crime stories in general and The People vs. O.J. Simpson in particular.

When watching movies or TV programs based on real-life crimes, I have noticed the same things about these texts as you. First, I have noticed these texts take some liberties with the facts of those cases. I have also felt these texts have greater leeway to take these liberties because of their status as dramatizations. Ironically, this issue came up during a discussion in one of my classes about The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Many people in the class argued that because the series was a dramatization, it did not have the expectations of truth as did the documentaries on the subject. Thus, your response reminds me of other thoughts I and others have had on the subject.

I also agree with your thoughts about the portrayal of Marcia Clark in the limited series. I avidly watched The People vs. O.J. Simpson during its run on F/X. I also remember the original media coverage of the trial and of its principles, including Marcia Clark. I too noticed that the limited series represented more facets to her than was apparent during the original coverage.

On a final note, I am glad someone wrote about The People vs. O.J. Simpson. I wrote one of my final term papers on this program, so I enjoy seeing another person’s thoughts on the text.

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