Gender and race still lively drama in US politics

As per the OJ and Clarence Thomas cases, one theme dominates the US

Prof Anita Hill  Photograph:  Frank Miller

Prof Anita Hill Photograph: Frank Miller

 

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 US 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, OJ 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 OJ, 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 mesmerised. Still, I was surprised to see the two 1990s scandals turned into TV dramas over two decades later. Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story series on FX, with Cuba Gooding jnr as OJ, 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 dramatisation 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 slamdown over the Supreme Court – this time with no nominee but still with Joe Biden in a kerfuffle.

Black president vs woman

Even Marcia Clark, the prosecutor who was outmanoeuvred when OJ’s legal team played the race card, wrote on 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”.

Emotional battle lines

Bernie Sanders featured Eric Garner’s daughter in an ad as well as Spike Lee, who proclaimed “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 skilfully plays the late Johnnie Cochran in the FX show, recalled how he was in Toronto making a TV movie with Tony Goldwyn when OJ 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.”

Simpson and Thomas have both been silenced. OJ 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.

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