ESPN 30 for 30: Fantastic Lies (2016)

Directed by Marina Zenovich

I hate Duke University. And I think a lot of people would likely agree with me, and it all hinges on their success in athletics, in particular Men’s Basketball. But the hatred runs a little deeper than that, of course. The success of their basketball team is certainly a hatred which comes from jealousy, but the idea of Duke being successful in athletics is more the root of the hatred rather than simply their success. The topic was explored in another ESPN 30 for 30 film, I Hate Christian Laettner, which discusses the white privilege often associated with the institution. When a prestigious university, which is predominately white, in an area, Durham, North Carolina, which is predominately under-privileged, lower class, tensions arise, and their success in basketball only makes it a national tension. But when on fateful evening, the Duke Lacrosse team had a party that would make all this tension boil over.

I can remember the Duke Lacrosse story pretty well, but what scares me, and I think is the whole premise of Marina Zenovich’s powerful, extremely well thought out documentary, is that I didn’t remember they were innocent. That is an indictment on not only myself, which I feel ashamed about, but also the media coverage and popular opinion at the time. On March 13, 2006, ten years before the premier of this film, the Duke lacrosse team threw a party and hired exotic dancers. One of the dancers, Crystal Mangum, accused three of the players of rape. The story broke first in Durham, but soon exploded onto the national scene, with countless national news outlets convicting the whole culture of the team in an outrage which allowed numerous groups to speak their peace on a variety of injustices. The problem was, they were innocent.

Zenovich does such a tremendous job at building this story throughout her film, inserting pertinent information when it is needed, but sort of following the story as it broke as opposed to giving all the facts up front. I think what makes this film and story so powerful is how quickly it broke, how quickly conclusions were made, and how few facts were relied upon to make these conclusions. Even as I was watching the film, I was astonished at how the facts were either ignored or in most cases, not even referenced or sought out. Not only is the Durham police and it’s wicked District Attorney, Mike Nifong, at fault for this, but the media too. As a result, Zenovich presents us with two scary conclusions. One is that the justice department is twisted, unfair, and unbalanced at times, which is extremely disturbing, but also that the national media is out to get a great story, as opposed to what their job is, which is to get the story right.

In the age of social media and technology, even ten years ago, we have to ask ourselves as citizens how to react to the news, whether to trust it, what are the sources, and what are the facts. It would be nice to tune into the news and trust Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, or even Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, but those days are gone, perhaps never to be heard from again. News has become entertainment, and we must be weary of the “fantastic lies” it might be telling us. We must think of the kids on that lacrosse team, we must think of Crystal Mangum, who herself is not innocent in this whole story. But at the same time, as Zenovich presents this story, I kept wondering about Mangum, and why the media wasn’t more interested in her story. She turns out to be a pawn in their explosive story. The shame is that, while it turns out she was lying about being raped, or at least it is far from being able to be proved, she is still one of the victims of this story.

Mangum was not only used by the police and Nifong, but she had serious mental issues, came from a poor, lower class background, and received no help at all. She was ignored and that is sad, and part of the problem. Fantastic Lies is a cautionary tale, speaking to the slippery slope of explosive news reporting, and ignoring the process to finding the truth, which can sometimes be buried beneath the agenda of any or all parties involved. As the nation erupted, numerous groups took advantage of this sad story to provoke their own thoughts and messages, whether or not it ever happened or not. The police should do better, the district attorney should do better, the news should do better, but most importantly, we as individuals need to do better. Like I said in the opening, I had forgotten they were innocent, and what a shame that is. There is a difference between doing something they shouldn’t and committing a heinous crime.

***1/2 – Great

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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