The intentions of Fantastic Lies, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary look at the Duke University lacrosse scandal, aren’t explicitly clear from its opening moments, when the mother of one of the three white student-athletes accused of raping a young black woman at a 2006 house party declares that this will be the last time she talks about the case that captured national attention and devastated more than a few lives a decade ago.
It may be the last time she and others involved want to rehash the eyebrow-raising circumstances that begat the Duke scandal—which yielded no evidence of said rape, but certainly exposed revealing outbursts of racism and misogyny among Duke’s BMOC lacrosse stars. Fantastic Lies, paced like a true crime thriller and directed by Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired), has other designs.
The 103-minute documentary makes its broadcast debut March 13th on ESPN—exactly ten years after the night in question—following its premiere Friday at SXSW. It wants to keep us talking about the case, the thorny legal inconsistencies that ensued, and the rushes to judgment that had those three Duke players all but convicted in the court of public opinion before they even went to trial. (Which, incidentally, they never did.)
Fantastic Lies chronicles how the controversy exploded into a national firestorm as Durham’s prosecutor, its police, Duke’s campus community, and sympathetic journalists took the accuser’s distressing claims to heart. She had been assaulted by three Duke players in a bathroom, she claimed. Later, when investigators had her review photos of the team’s 46 players, she identified two of them. How sure was she, they asked? “100 percent.”
The case, of course, eventually imploded, implicating an overeager media and K.O.-ing the career of an ambitious D.A. in its wake. But Fantastic Lies’ resounding message is not that America should reflect even more deeply now on the sharp race and class divides that yielded such incendiary circumstances in Durham, N.C., a decade ago. Its message is that the world owes an apology to these resilient young athletes and their families—the real victims.
That, unfortunately, is an irksome underlying stance for the objective lens of any documentary to adopt. Some will compare it to Netflix’s docuseries Making a Murderer, which similarly painted its protagonist’s guilt as a sure thing before rubbing the viewers’ noses in their own prejudgments.
Both recap the utterly complicated circumstances of a criminal case patched together on dubious evidence and transformed into a Full Blown National Issue thanks to a media machine fueled by sensational headlines. There’s even a District Attorney with a shit-eating smirk who seemed to bask in the limelight, until that limelight made him a fool. Strangely enough, Durham County D.A. Mike Nifong—who was in the middle of a reelection campaign when the Duke case came along—bears an uncanny resemblance to Making a Murderer’s Ken Kratz, though the two men look nothing alike.
Both also cast a searing eye upon those who rushed to judge the accused before the evidence bore itself out—which, in this case, was just about everyone, from the horrified public to journalists covering the case to the irate campus community to Duke University’s own administration.
Nifong bears the brunt of the blame, an easy target seeing as his dubious conduct through the investigation, in which he deliberately ignored evidence exonerating the Duke players, got him disbarred. Adding insult to injury, the film even gets his former campaign manager to go on record slamming him.
“I knew in my heart that day that all of this was a lie,” says Nifong’s ex staffer Jackie Brown of the moment she says she realized the case was bunk. When Nifong won his reelection, she was horrified and quit shortly thereafter. “I said to him, do you have any idea what you’re doing? He said, ‘Yeah but it’s worth a million bucks in advertisements!’”
Other than the three accused players and their families, the film lavishes sympathy upon the next most lamentable casualty of the whole mess. No, not alleged victim Crystal Mangum, the North Carolina Central University student and mother of two with a record and her own troubled history. The doc allows that she was already emotionally unstable as the world bore down its laser focus on her and her claims, but just barely notes that she could not participate in the film because she’s currently in prison, serving 14 to 18 years for the second-degree murder of her boyfriend.
Playing to the sports-loving ESPN audience, the film bends over backwards to celebrate Mike Pressler, the former Duke lacrosse coach who resigned in the midst of what otherwise looked to be a promising season. Duke President Richard Brodhead, who forced Pressler’s departure because of the scandal, unsurprisingly gets little love here. He’s not interviewed, either. Instead, Zenovich interviews various Duke University professors, including those who criticized the school over its lack of accountability during the PR crisis.
Fantastic Lies is titled after the impassioned speech that Duke lacrosse co-captain David Evans gave to the press upon being charged with first-degree rape, sexual offense, and kidnapping alongside teammates Reade Seligmann and Colin Finnerty. None of the three appear directly in the film, but Zenovich makes effective use of interviews with their teammates and with their parents, who recall the disbelief, despair, agony, and eventual outrage they felt watching their sons falsely accused, their futures tarnished.
But in desiring to vindicate the accused, their coach, and the asterisk forever emblazoned on the reputation of Duke’s lacrosse team, Zenovich leans too far into the kind of hero worship that makes bona fide churches out of institutionalized sports. It’s disconcerting to see how easily it turns the panel of lawyers defending the three players into a “team,” indulging in sports metaphors to describe their exploits in the courtroom. You can imagine the producers high fiving the day they got one father of an accused player to describe his son’s ordeal as “the most serious lacrosse game of his life.”
The most provocative interviews in Making a Rapist: The Game Of Their Lives aren’t the ones with emotional players or family members, or the legal eagles who won freedom for their clients. They’re the ones in which Zenovich probes the journalists who covered the case back in 2006, who look back on their reportage in hindsight with sheepish regret.
Jay Bilas, ESPN commentator and a Duke alum himself, recalls how he resisted the urge to jump to conclusions, suspecting there was more to the story. He describes a letter he penned to the editor of Duke’s school magazine at the time, in which he openly criticized Brodhead and called for his dismissal. The letter was received by the mag’s editor, who never ran it. “I asked, were you given instructions? He told me yes,” says Bilas. “They didn’t print it.”
Dan Okrent, the former Public Editor of the New York Times, calls the debacle “a journalistic tragedy. To see how the best journalists in America could be so wrong about something…” One parent slams the entire press corps: “They didn’t really care what the truth was.”
In an article titled “Remembering (and Misremembering) the Duke Lacrosse Case” over at Vanity Fair, author William D. Cohan suggests that even the comprehensive outlining of events in Fantastic Lies still does not offer a complete and balanced chronicle. He might know; he wrote a 2014 book on the subject and sat for his own extensive interviews with the filmmakers, which did not make it into the final movie.
“Instead of grappling with why there never was a trial and how the North Carolina State Bar was used to subvert justice, the film once again spews the defense version that justice was served,” he writes, “even though it was not, and that no amount of money, not even $20 million, could ever compensate the three players for what Mangum and Nifong did to them.”
But it’s ex-newspaper columnist Ruth Sheehan who eats the most crow for her coverage. After penning a column calling out the Duke lacrosse team for not coming forward to name names and reveal the rapists in their ranks (“You know. We know you know,” it began), Sheehan did a 180 in print when the accused were cleared of wrongdoing. The filmmakers have her read out loud the apology she published back in 2007, before she quit journalism to teach at UNC. In this way, the Duke players get the satisfaction of seeing at least one journalist repenting, on film, for posterity, for her part in making their lives a waking nightmare.