Encore: Courtney B. Vance Brings Intensity Of Johnnie Cochran Back To Life NPR's Kelly McEvers talks with actor Courtney B. Vance about his role as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran in the FX series, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
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Encore: Courtney B. Vance Brings Intensity Of Johnnie Cochran Back To Life

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Encore: Courtney B. Vance Brings Intensity Of Johnnie Cochran Back To Life

Encore: Courtney B. Vance Brings Intensity Of Johnnie Cochran Back To Life

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The FX series "The People V. O.J. Simpson" won five Emmys last night. Three awards were for acting - one for Sarah Paulson who played prosecutor Marcia Clark, another for Sterling K. Brown as prosecutor Chris Darden and last for Courtney B. Vance, who brought the intensity of the late defense attorney Johnnie Cochran back to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN CRIME STORY")

COURTNEY B VANCE: (As Johnnie Cochran) This is the United States of America, and we are defending a black man who is fighting to prove his innocence. Now, I know I don't have to give anyone here a civics lesson about the historic injustices visited upon black men for no other reason other than they're black. It is a plain and simple fact, but we would not be doing our job if we did not at least talk about how race plays a part in this trial. Now, if that is playing the race card, so be it.

SHAPIRO: Courtney Vance spoke with our co-host Kelly McEvers earlier this year about that role and why the O.J. Simpson trial still resonates in this country two decades after the not guilty verdict.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

VANCE: Johnnie Cochran - we see him in the same light as we do Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King 'cause he struck a blow. Now, was it a blow for justice because there were two people who were killed. And if O.J. Simpson is innocent, who's guilty?

But that's what myself and probably a lot of African-Americans - what the yes was about - that finally, on the biggest stage, a black man worked the system and got another black man off. Now, was he guilty? We don't know. But that wasn't his job, Johnnie Cochran.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: You know it's funny 'cause O.J. Simpson himself famously said, I'm not black. I'm O.J. Simpson. There's this sense and the suggestion in the series that despite that, Johnnie Cochran sort of said, like, look. Right now we need you to be black.

VANCE: We need you to be black today.

MCEVERS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: You know, we need you to be black so we can win this because we've got a majority of black jurors, and they're going to believe that...

VANCE: Right.

MCEVERS: ...The police set you up because...

VANCE: Right.

MCEVERS: ...You're black. And there's a reluctance on the part of O.J. Simpson. And you have to kind of convince him. Did you feel squeamish about that at all?

VANCE: No, no squeamishness at all. Just - I didn't follow this, so I'm like a child coming to it. And I'm watching it, and I'm going, we are a complicated country. You got a black man married to a white woman, living the American dream lifestyle, celebrity down, but doesn't think he's black, does not want to be associated with black people but gets in trouble.

And with a black jury, Johnnie Cochran knew that in order for the black man who thought he wasn't black - in order for him to get off, he needed to all of a sudden be black so much so that he had to redo his house.

MCEVERS: Right. That's - I want to ask you about that scene. I mean there's this scene where the jury, before they go to tour his - O.J. Simpson's home, Johnnie Cochran and his staff go and redecorate the house and make it more black. They put African art in the house.

They put - Johnnie puts this huge portrait of O.J.'s momma up on the wall, takes down pictures of white people, puts up pictures of black people so much so that O.J. Simpson, when he walks in, says I don't even know who these people are.

VANCE: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Did that really happen?

VANCE: That really happened. And it's so frightening that someone could be so far away from where he came from. In his mind and in all of our minds, that's - he was living the American dream. And that's why I think this is such a watershed case and so important for the country because he said, I'm not black. I'm O.J.

And I mean we all look at him and go, are you out of your mind? I mean it is so deep. That's what Marcia Clark did not understand - the depth of the deepness.

MCEVERS: Of the racial divide.

VANCE: Of the racial divide. It is so deep that it's going to take everyone just putting their gloves aside and letting it be talked out. You're not going to all understand it today, not tomorrow, but let - that's why I said to myself - I said, please let the Ferguson - Grand Jury, please let them have a trial. Please let them talk it out. Let the year-long process go through. And let it not be like the O.J. trial where after the trial, people just go, no and to go back to their corners. It was a perfect opportunity to do what needed to be done...

MCEVERS: So you think...

VANCE: ...To talk it through.

MCEVERS: You think that's what this series is helping us do.

VANCE: I - that's why I'm here. It's a perfect opportunity for us to begin the process. It's not going to happen overnight. It's got to be talked through.

SHAPIRO: That's actor Courtney B. Vance talking with our co-host Kelly McEvers back in February. Last night Vance won his first Emmy for playing Johnnie Cochran in the FX limited series "The People V. O.J. Simpson."

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