Simpson (played in the series by Cuba Gooding Jr.) was supposed to surrender to police that morning for a scheduled arraignment downtown on charges of murdering his ex-wife and a male acquaintance on the night of June 12. Instead, after writing what appeared to be suicide notes to his family, friends and fans ("Who the hell signs a suicide note with a happy face?" asks Robert Shapiro, the Simpson defense attorney played by John Travolta), Simpson and his friend Al "A.C." Cowlings fled in a white 1993 Ford Bronco.
You know the rest – or should. As many as 95 million people watched the live news reports as L.A.'s TV news helicopter pilots and camera crews, who had by then perfected the aerial art of following breaking stories, kept up with the white Bronco as it traversed Southern California's iconic freeway system with a fleet of police vehicles in pursuit. O.J. Simpson's arrest and trial are firmly bookended by two profound and culturally shared events: the chase and the October 1995 verdict (watched live by an estimated 103 million people – a level of common viewership that is no longer achievable in the digital era, except during the Super Bowl).
Where were you? I was 25 years old, on a treadmill at the gym, transfixed to such a degree that I kept huffing along for at least another hour, maybe more, until it was over. My present-day boss remembers hurling obscenities at the screen when NBC preempted game 5 of the NBA Finals to switch to the live chase (a decision that was also briefly revisited in Tuesday's episode). "The People v. O.J. Simpson" conveyed the chase's gripping and immediate hold – everyone who was near a TV set remembers it, and we remember it mostly because we couldn't believe our eyes. As Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote in the next morning's paper:
"The whole definition of news is stretched to the breaking point during such stories because naked information goes out unedited and without the normal fact-checking procedures. The question arises whether such cliffhanger coverage is a service or disservice to the public's right to know and the rights of the accused to due process of law."
Indeed, this sort of media mania still caused us to fret and fuss about such things as fact and due process and "naked information going out unedited." Six days had passed since the gruesome discovery of the slashed and stabbed bodies Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman; media attention steadily built all week while some of us remained relatively uninterested in what appeared to be an open-shut murder case involving a somewhat faded sports celebrity. The story was coming together at a relative snail's pace compared to the way news breaks now.
But the Bronco chase was the moment everyone fully arrived to the drama and began a conversation that continues to this day about justice, race and perception.
At one point in its re-creation of the chase, "The People v. O.J. Simpson" cranked up the Beastie Boys' contemporaneous 1994 hit "Sabotage," which has always been a perfect freeway song, depending on traffic flow. Freeways remain the single most powerful image and experience of L.A. life. As Joan Didion wrote in a memorable 1976 essay, "Bureaucrats," about the California Department of Transportation, freeways are:
"[T]he only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can 'drive' on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over."
That's what we were doing, in a sense: Watching O.J.'s mind go clean. Watching (and listening) as a rhythm definitely took over that night – something you could sense in the air, something bigger than the murder charges.
Just a week before all this, Americans had flocked to the multiplexes to see a sensational new action movie directed by Jan de Bont called "Speed," in which an L.A. SWAT Officer Jack Traven, played by a beefed-up Keanu Reeves (the actor had told his trainer he wanted to acquire "cop arms" for the part), must thwart a psychopathic terrorist's plan to blow up a municipal bus filled with passengers.
To catch up to the bus, Jack, with his cop arms, pulls over an African American man in a convertible, who is clearly fed up with being detained for Driving While Black – a scene that both intuits and then exploits the mood of an L.A. that was still nursing wounds from the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers charged in the Rodney King beating. Jack commandeers the man's car and catches up to the bus, where he informs the driver that if he slows below 50 mph, the bus will explode. As everyone knows, a passenger named Annie, played by a fairly unknown actress named Sandra Bullock, winds up driving the bus through a series of daunting obstacles, which includes jumping the gap in an unfinished merge ramp. Finally, to avert the attention of the news helicopters overhead, Jack has Annie pull the bus toward the cargo-plane runways at LAX, where airspace is restricted.
"Speed" may look a little inane to us now (it's been diluted by its near-constant presence on cable TV), but it came to us subliminally bundled with conversations we were already having about violent crimes, law enforcement, racial profiling, urban manners and the rules of an increasingly frantic road. It was also a terrifically fun summertime movie, the kind that leaves you sweaty before it's finished.
Though they were several days apart, it seemed like only five minutes elapsed between leaving the theater after seeing "Speed" and jogging on that treadmill while a sort of instant sequel played on the TV overhead, in which people stood along the freeway and cheered O.J. on toward his fate. Who were the bad guys? (The cops?) Who was the good guy? (O.J.?) In that moment you could feel old assumptions coming apart, resorting themselves. In that moment you could see that this was a blockbuster that would consume us all.