HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — They were dramas that drilled into the most sensitive parts of the national psyche, searing and dividing us with lurid sexual images and racial grievances as old as the nation.
They both started out as narratives about the mistreatment of women but were swiftly twisted into parables about the mistreatment of black men.
Anita Hill went to the Senate in 1991 to testify about creepy sexual overtures by her former boss, Clarence Thomas, but Thomas made it to the Supreme Court by cowing the Democratic senators who were supposed to protect Hill. Thomas claimed that he, not she, was the victim. The senators were stunned and silenced when Thomas accused them of a "high-tech lynching." Four years later, O.J. Simpson's lawyers got him acquitted on charges of murdering the ex-wife he battered, Nicole, by turning it into what The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin called "a civil rights melodrama." The lawyers argued the football and movie star was framed by a racist LA detective, which made O.J., not Nicole, the victim — another high-tech lynching.
I wrote about both these explosive cases and, like the rest of the country, was disturbed and mesmerized. Still, I was surprised to see the two '90s scandals turned into TV dramas over two decades later. Ryan Murphy's "American Crime Story" series on FX, with Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J., kicked off this month with a 10-parter on his trial for the murder of Nicole and Ronald Goldman. And in mid-April, HBO will premiere "Confirmation," a dramatization of the Hill-Thomas hearings starring the appealing actors Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce, mining old news clips as it debuts in the midst of a new slam-down over the Supreme Court — this time with no nominee but still with Joe Biden in a kerfuffle.
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Neither show definitively paints the accused as guilty or provides new answers. "It wasn't about trying to litigate who was telling the truth, because at the time it was clearly unknowable and people have strong opinions about it to this day," Rick Famuyiwa, the director, told me.
Yet reliving those horrible, maddening events reveals how resonant our race and gender problems are, despite a black president and a Democratic woman running to succeed him. Things have changed but they haven't changed. The country still roils with gender and racial tensions. Black Lives Matter and OscarsSoWhite reflect the jarring dissonance in how blacks and whites see society.
Even Marcia Clark, the prosecutor who was outmaneuvered when O.J.'s legal team played the race card, wrote Thursday in Vox that the recent police shootings caught on camera had "given me a deeper understanding of why the African-American jurors viewed the Simpson case so differently than I did." You need only look at the presidential campaign to see the same emotional battle lines drawn: Hillary appeared at a Baptist church in Columbia, South Carolina, Tuesday with five black mothers who lost children to violence and the next night had to defend herself when a black activist confronted her about her use of the word "superpredator" back in 1996. Bernie Sanders featured Garner's daughter in an ad as well as Spike Lee, who proclaimed that "the system is rigged" and people have been "sold the okie-doke." Meanwhile, Donald Trump at his rallies rails about how "our police are being abused." Older feminists scolded young women for not supporting Hillary and taking for granted the post-Anita Hill struggle for gender equality. Hill can take some credit for the fact that colleges and workplaces — including the film set at the start of making "Confirmation" — now offer sexual harassment orientations. But women still have a long way to go. Things have changed but they haven't changed.
Courtney Vance, who skillfully plays the late Johnnie Cochran in the FX show, recalled how he was in Toronto making a TV movie with Tony Goldwyn when O.J. was acquitted.
"When the verdict came down, I screamed 'Yes!' and he screamed 'No!' and then we looked at each other in horror," Vance told The Hollywood Reporter. "And we began the dialogue — the entire country began the dialogue. Everybody went to their corners, and it kept coming up again, the same issue. Ferguson, what went down in Chicago, shooting that teen 16 times. It's crazy. Absolutely crazy." Just as the 2014 documentary on Hill, "Anita," made both the smearing Republican senators and sheepish Democratic senators look bad, so does "Confirmation." It was a time when the men's club of Congress viewed sexual harassment as droit du senateur, just a perk that came along with having ice delivered to your office.
Treat Williams plays Teddy Kennedy, as Dave Barry once wrote, with a bag over his head, shackled by his own transgressions and unwilling to roar on Hill's behalf.
In an uncanny impersonation of Biden, who led the committee, Greg Kinnear captures Biden's irresolution in dealing with Republicans who were determined to win at all costs — even if it meant destroying Hill's reputation. Jennifer Hudson steals the show as Angela Wright, Thomas' former employee at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which, ironically, was charged with investigating sexual harassment claims. She went to D.C. to testify to Thomas' predatory ways but was never called by Biden, who seemed more worried for the dignity of the Senate and his own reputation than putting a liar on the Supreme Court for life.
Simpson and Thomas have both been silenced. O.J. is in prison in Nevada for armed robbery and kidnapping, and Thomas is locked in his own muteness. But the rest of us are still arguing, stuck in a din of mistrust and discord.
Maureen Dowd writes for The New York Times.