“Jurors go with the narrative that makes sense. We’re here to tell a story. Our job is to tell that story better than the other side tells theirs.”

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With an episode title like “The Race Card,” American Crime Story sure isn’t going for subtlety. Let’s be fair, this whole season so far has been about race—and for necessary, good reason—but this is where it all really ramps up as Darden and Cochran finally go to head-to-head in the courtroom. The result is pure electricity, the best episode of the series yet, and a real, visceral disappointment when the episode fades to black. All I want is more, more, more.

How about that brilliant cold open? It was positively superb, equally brutal and entertaining, and all acted perfectly by Courtney B. Vance (who isn’t just the M.V.P. of this series but of the entire television season, in my humble opinion). Cochran is driving his two adorable daughters to dinner when he’s pulled over by a white police officer. Cochran keeps his composure despite being obviously agitated, remaining polite and narrating his actions—following the rules we learn when dealing with officers. But when the cop addresses Cochran’s daughters, Cochran can’t help but react. “Look, I know the drill. I’m black. I’m driving in a fancy white neighborhood, nice car, you pull me over. So leave my children out of it. Thank you,” Cochran offers, only to get handcuffed on the hood of his car as his daughters worriedly crawl to the front seat to witness it. Fortunately, that’s the worst of it because once the cop looks up Cochran’s info, he lets Cochran go. Unfortunately, the damage is already done: Cochran’s daughters watched this happen (though I suspect it’s not the first time) and it’s imprinted on their brains forever. The kicker, however, which comes into play later is when Cochran informs his daughters to never use the word “nigger.”

As the trial begins, the opposing sides both find themselves dealing with internal conflicts within the teams. Shapiro refuses to be in the same room as F. Lee Bailey, citing the leak to the Daily News about Shapiro being incompetent. Meanwhile, thanks to one of Cochran’s press conferences (“Mr. Darden is being used as a tool by the DA’s office because he’s black”), Darden (who has been promoted now that Bill freaked out and collapsed in court) finds himself conflicted about his role on the bench, and doubly so when he learns that one of his witnesses will be Noted Racist Mark Fuhrman. He protests to Clark because Darden knows that Fuhrman shouldn’t be a witness because he’ll be torn apart by the defense. But Clark doesn’t listen, and it’s about to get really rough.

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Before all that Fuhrman stuff goes down—presumably next episode?—there’s another matter at hand: The N-word. But even before that, let’s look at the dynamics and conflicts that are getting increasingly more tense between Darden and Cochran. The two previously had a fairly civil relationship (only occasionally contemptuous) but now they’re pit against each other—Cochran because he’s the lead, and Darden because he’s the only black attorney on the prosecution. Darden wants to keep up mutual respect between the two men but Cochran isn’t having it. Darden speaks candidly about the press conference, telling Cochran it “was a cheap shot, beneath you. We’re both professionals.” Darden asks Cochran if they can agree to remain respectful but Cochran scoffs and shuts it down. “Brother, I ain’t trying to be respectful. I’m trying to win.” Can they both get Emmy awards now, please?

With that lingering tension between them, they’re up against each other in the courtroom as well. Darden (and the prosecution) doesn’t want anyone in court to utter the racial epithet because it’s a “dirty, filthy word” that is “prejudicial and inflammatory.” He’s not wrong. But then he goes to argue that using it in any situation will provoke a response because it’s a “word that blinds people” and “will blind [the jurors] to the truth.” It’s a tricky situation: On the one hand, Darden knows that if the defense can throw away the N-word and question Fuhrman about the officer’s past use of the slur, then that’s going to wreak hell on their case. But on the other hand, as Cochran puts it, who is Darden to say which words that black people can or cannot handle? Darden, though his intentions are OK, is basically in a lose/lose position here. It’s such a complicated and debated matter within the black community; some of us think it’s totally fine for us to say it, while others would prefer that no one say it all. (I don’t even feel comfortable writing it out half the time! The one thing we all agree on is that white people can not, and should not, say it under any circumstances.) It’s a word that can be triggering, that brings up awful memories and negative connotations, and yes, it does provoke a response. But in this case, when the defense is bringing it to everyone’s attention that a white, racist police officer is keen on using it? That’s a little necessary.

What ”The Race Card” really emphasizes is how morally ambigious Cochran is and how he is dead-set on winning this trial, even if it means switching up his beliefs a bit. The cold open told us that he doesn’t want anyone to ever utter the word; the trial has him switching sides, even muttering “Nigga, please,” at a stunned Darden. It’s such an emotionally-charged, “holy shit!” scene as the two each plead their sides. It’s also a scene that lingers on, such as when Darden later learns that 76% of black folks don’t think he’s doing a good job and that they keep referring to him as an “Uncle Tom” (an insult that actually made me smart and tense up upon hearing it), which couldn’t have been the first time Darden’s heard that.

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In fact, much of “The Race Card” puts Darden’s understandable insecurities on the table. In a candid conversation with Clark, he talks about how affirmative action was always in the back of his mind in school, even though he had great grades and busted his ass every day. It’s a natural but disgusting feeling to deal with, and it’s certainly not limited to the courtroom. As many black people—myself included—will tell you (or, really, any minority), sometimes it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re at a job not because of your qualifications but because your company needed a requisite diversity hire. This feeling happens when you’re the “only one” on a staff, in a writers room, or wherever. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christopher Darden being the only black person on his side or if you’re, say, a black writer wondering if your editor pitched an idea because you’re qualified to write it or because they want a “black take” on something. There’s never really a way to know for real, nor is there a way to quiet that voice in your head. And for Darden, it’s probably just going to get louder.

Stray observations

  • Ok, there is a lot I didn’t get to in this review, so let’s rush through it: that montage of the two opposing counsels readying their case! The church scene (“Great, now Jesus is on their side, too”)! Fuhrman’s over-politeness that’s making Darden very wary as they prep! Shapiro messing up and not submitting witnesses! Redoing O.J. Simpson’s house to make it look blacker, taking down pictures of white folks and hanging up African artwork! Cochran in THAT ROBE practicing his opening statements in what is the nerdiest and best foreplay on television! I love this show!!
  • That meeting between Cochran and Simpson in jail was also great, especially as Simpson struggles to defend himself against the nickname “Mayor of Brentwood,” which emphasizes that Simpson isn’t really hood anymore. “I did what I had to do,” Simpson says. “Manifested myself out of a messed up situation.”
  • Have we talked about Cuba Gooding Jr.’s performance yet? I go back and forth on it. Some of it seems a little … eh, like his weird robotic turn and delivery of “Get off my bench!” but I do like his reaction shots in the courtroom, mostly because it makes Simpson seem like a petulant child. You know he just wants to tug on the hem of Cochran’s shirt and ask, “Whyyy are they calling me an abuser? That’s so unfair! Make them stop!”
  • Sigh, Judge Ito.
  • “What do we say to the police?” “Nothing.” “And who talks to the police?” “Our lawyer.” Someone get Cochran a Father of the Year mug.
  • “Why don’t you blow it out your ass, Bob?”

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