Glendale College's Student Magazine
Wednesday June 20th 2018

Film Review: ‘Fantastic Lies,’ a 30-for-30 Documentary

espn-30-for-30-fantastic-lies-tv-reviewTen years ago allegations that three Duke University lacrosse players raped a black exotic dancer at a team party scandalized America. Since then the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has reached a fever pitch with America scrambling for a way to combat “rape culture” and frequent denial and evasion by school administrations.

The 2016 ESPN documentary, “Fantastic Lies,” directed and co-produced by Emmy award-winner Marina Zenovich, presents a curious departure where Duke University quickly cowed to public opinion in announcing the players’ guilt before a trial had begun. The film largely sidesteps the larger issue of rape culture in order to portray the tumult of the 13-month ordeal from an unexamined perspective: the defense. Recollections by parents who watched their sons’ lives ruined humanizes a story once heralded as a polemic of American immorality, and later abandoned as legal aberration best forgotten.

The Duke lacrosse rape story was a media bonanza for promising a showdown of multiple social justice battles in one: men versus women, white versus black, rich versus poor, educated versus uneducated. Through artful storytelling, the film plunges into each issue forcing us to reexamine our basic views of American culture, how we treat societal scapegoats, and our collective commitment to the rule of law.

The opening scenes elegantly juxtapose the predominantly white and affluent Duke University with the largely African-American, crime-ridden neighboring town of Durham whose distrust and resentment of the school community seemed ready-made for a controversy.  Courtroom flashbacks introduce each new development in the story starting with a beefy, clean-cut lacrosse player answering initial inquiries about the night of March 13th.

The film is thin on footage of Crystal Mangum, the exotic dancer who accused three players of sexually assaulting her in the team house’s bathroom. Instead we see the city’s female rape examiner affirming that Mangum showed signs consistent with sexual assault, a statement sure to lead those unfamiliar with the case along the path of public opinion at the time, and those who know the outcome to forget how the players managed to stay out of jail.

We learn that Mangum agreed to be interviewed for the film but that her prison officials denied the request. Vanity Fair writer, William Cohen, who authored the book, “The Price of Secrecy” about the Duke rape case, claimed he provided the producers of “Fantastic Lies” with hours of taped interviews with Mangum that were omitted from the film. One can only speculate the producers wanted to avoid Mangum’s incoherence sabotaging the story’s drama, or to avoid making her an effigy of negative female stereotypes. Either way, quotes from Mangum’s parents and former minister allude to her being a “good person” but woefully misguided.

Interviews with non-accused players portray the team’s crushing confusion and terror of watching their routine party spinning into a national controversy with vast legal ramifications.  They watched women’s rights groups and minority organizations demonstrate on campus with bullhorns and posters, protests and drum circles in front of the lacrosse house demanding justice upon the accused.

Kevin Finnerty, the father of one of the accused, described the emotional toll the evening news took on him in 2006. “Watching your son in a squad car in handcuffs, being brought in to be processed…was horrific. It was a nightmare.”

An array of local journalists joined the fray in calling on the team to come clean and admit their guilt or identify the guilty parties. Ruth Sheehan was a local journalist who admitted to being one of the many who found it impossible to treat the case fairly. A victim of campus sexual assault herself, she rereads for the cameras her first scathing column demanding the players come clean.

An attorney for one of the players bluntly admits he had no problem believing that rich, white, elite young men would take advantage of a poor African-American woman. One of the two female defense attorneys claims she got pressure from “the community” that asked, “How could you defend rapists?”

We then meet the wolf in sheep’s clothing, district attorney Mike Nifong, a white, earnest steward of social justice who claimed in over 50 media interviews that the Duke Lacrosse team had not cooperated with the budding investigation. Later at a town hall meeting, Nifong assures the crowd his dedication to the case was more important than his campaign for re-election.

The viewer’s emotional journey then takes a sharp turn, from revulsion at a heinous crime against a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, to confusion as legal abnormalities emerge one by one: Nifong violates Durham police department regulations; a closed-door re-examination produces previously non-existent DNA evidence; the accuser’s late-term description of her assailants bears no resemblance to the one she provided the night of the “attack.”

At this point we learn the identity of the three accused players, Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans who, rather than testosterone-fueled hooligans, appear to be conscientious, dedicated students who are terrified, lost in a labyrinth of legal proceedings and facing decades in prison for being chosen almost at random by a woman with nothing to lose.

The film’s poignant and drawn-out climax starts with a dynamic courtroom admission: the prosecution’s DNA expert admits colluding with the district attorney to withhold evidence.  With that the prosecution’s case, which is supported by the University, the media, and the public, all begins to unravel.

The film smartly takes time to ponder how the media’s rush to judgment helped fuel a firestorm against the players and the university, and how Nifong identified that opportunity to be the city’s savior by putting players, any players, behind bars. Sheehan reminds viewers that the May 1st cover of Newsweek Magazine read, “Sex, Lies and Duke,” noting the only accurate word was “Duke.”

We then hear journalists and lawyers unanimously theorize why Mangum, who had a history of mental illness, invented the rape allegation she later recanted: she was heavily intoxicated on the night in question and wanted both an alibi for getting out of the job, and justice for hearing an ethnic slur. One journalist notes the team’s behavior at the party was likely not “moral,” but “we do not police morality.”  Mangum’s 2013 imprisonment for second-degree murder completes the swapping of positions between victim and perpetrator.

One of the non-accused players provides the film’s lone nod to the ongoing issue of campus sexual assault by saying the Duke scandal will only go on to hurt real rape victims who will be doubted based on the Duke case.

The film’s dramatic ending shows the lacrosse coach’s forced resignation, Nifong’s sentencing, the lead investigator’s suicide, and the accused players’ transfer away from Duke forever, all a testament to a legal truth that a criminal allegation, even absent a conviction, can be the thing that ruins lives. It was an ugly instance of when political agendas trumped our hallowed ideal of innocence until proven guilty.

“Fantastic Lies,” like the rest of the 30-for-30 films, is more than just a sports story. It aims to shine a light on some of our most prominent social issues and offers a sincere portrayal of how the most incendiary battles pitted between socio-economic classes are rarely ever just black and white.

  • “Fantastic Lies” will air on ESPNU on May 18 at 5:30pm and May 20 at 8:30pm and is available for order on Amazon.


About Brent Giannotta
Brent Giannotta is a continuing student at GCC who is fascinated by issues of gender, race and relationships. He previously worked as a political analyst in Washington DC and is slowly building a career as a writer.

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