As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 13 to June 27 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances, writing, and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.
The 24-hour news coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial turned assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden into a simple character: Baffled, moody, in over his head. But when our collective burnout from that case finally subsided about 20 years later, Ryan Murphy enlisted Sterling K. Brown to bring depth, humanity, and above all else, complications to someone whose reputation never allowed it.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was absolutely jam-packed with stellar actors, but special attention need be paid to Sterling K. Brown’s non-showy, incredibly compelling performance. In the above interview he cites first and foremost his working relationship with Sarah Paulson (as Marcia Clark) as one of the driving factors in his subtle, nuanced work. But make no mistake: Darden’s humanity is all Brown. Torn between his community and his job; his family and his integrity; his sense of duty and his heart… This version of Darden is a borderline tragic figure, a portrait only underscored by Brown’s quiet, soulful intensity.
Among the dozens of scenes elevated by Brown’s presence, a stand-out was the after-hours bonding session between Clark and Darden in which she bartended tequila from her desk drawer and he urged her to get up and dance with him. Though their real-life counterparts have long declined to admit whether there was ever anything romantic going on between them, viewers couldn’t help but immediately wish there had been. As viewers we knew things wouldn’t end well for Clark and Darden — neither in the courtroom nor between them — so the simple charm of their flirtation had an almost Shakespearean portent. But it was also a much-needed source of levity, a release from the pressure cooker that had been this fraught, tense scenario.
It’s to the series’ credit that after a season of even-handed treatment it still gave Darden the final moral victory over Johnnie Cochran. In a stunning, almost angry final diatribe, he seethed that O.J.’s acquittal “isn’t some civil-rights milestone. Police in this country will keep arresting us and beating us, keep killing us.” Brown’s simmering, even tone was nothing less than chilling and effectively negated whatever flashy righteousness the Cochran character had accrued all season. Like Darden’s quiet but effective strength, it’s Brown’s subtlety that sets him apart from the rest. Let’s just hope Emmy viewers are smart enough to recognize a truly human character when they see one.
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FX will marathon the 10-episode limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story on Saturday, June 11 starting at 2 p.m ET.