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TELEVISION REVIEW

10 years later, 'Frontline' puts O.J. verdict in sharp perspective

Only in America could a runaway nightmare like the O.J. Simpson trial occur, smothering better instinct and rational thought in a blanket of lurid, banal images beyond the bounds of the cineplex. No one looked good in this one.

Where else could you watch the surreal, slo-mo freeway cavalcade led by Simpson on a trip to nowhere pursued by a phalanx of Los Angeles police cruisers? Or the appalling media frenzy? Where else could Kato Kaelin exist?

One chapter of this tawdry mess came to an end 10 years ago yesterday, when an estimated 150 million people watched on television as an LA jury of nine African-Americans, two whites, and one Hispanic acquitted Simpson of double murder. Blacks were ecstatic, whites dismantled.

The case still bites. Tonight, ''Frontline" revisits the tawdry spectacle and plumbs its meaning in ''The O.J. Verdict." Written, produced, and directed by Ofra Bikel, the show explores what we've tried to forget and frames race where it should be -- front and center.

''The only reason that we will care about O.J. Simpson 10 years after, 20 years after, is what it told us about race in this country," says New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, who covered the trial.

We see footage of the immediate, explosive celebration in the black community reminiscent of a Super Bowl victory, after the incendiary verdict is announced. A black woman says, ''Thank you, father!" We see whites stricken. Speaking for many, a white woman snaps, ''He got away with murder. Period."

''O.J. was beyond his body," maintains University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson. '' 'O.J.' was a term that represented every black person that got beat up by the criminal justice system."

While this speaks to the abundant skills of defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, who played the race card masterfully, the theory provides small comfort to those naifs who still believe a case should be decided on the facts, and it trumpets the legal reality that reasonable doubt is culturally dependent.

But what else was Cochran supposed to do, argues Columbia Law School professor Kimberle Crenshaw. ''It would be malpractice not to introduce evidence to undermine the credibility of this officer," she says about disgraced LA police detective Mark Fuhrman.

While Bikel fields a strong roster of talking heads, both black and white, she more fully illuminates African-American emotion and thought on the subject than she does the white perspective. Fine. Most whites have yet to hear the black version, however troubling, articulately presented in the relative calm of a 10-year hiatus.

Whites never grasped this truth until Cochran was well into his strategy of impugning the prosecution case by destroying the credibility of the LA police department, notorious within the black community for its racism. ''It was about race from day one," says African-American Marc Watts, a former CNN correspondent who covered the trial and had been arrested by the LAPD as a young man.

The black reaction to the verdict appears more modulated today, according to Bikel. If African-Americans still revile the system, they are freer to acknowledge the probability of Simpson's involvement in the murders.

A black man reaches the same conclusion, in nearly identical language, about the verdict as a white Georgetown law school student, who says, ''I don't think it matters if you're white or whether you're black, but every reasonable juror would probably come to the same conclusion, which is that the LA police framed a guilty man."

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