Scheduled on the 10th anniversary of the incident that triggered the Duke lacrosse case, “Fantastic Lies” is an especially powerful ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, one more peripherally connected to sports than most. In her detailed re-creation of what happened, director Marina Zenovich (“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”) explores the “Molotov cocktail” of societal factors that made the story a media sensation, as well as a searing example of journalistic malpractice and prosecutorial abuse. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, the project walks a delicate line in a spare, thought-provoking manner.
Coming in the wake of Rolling Stone’s discredited rape story about the University of Virginia, “Fantastic Lies” (a phrase uttered by one of the accused) and the other high-profile cases of false allegations that have emerged create mixed feelings, inasmuch as they risk heightening the mistaken sense that unfounded complaints are frequent. Yet as the film makes clear, understandable concern about victims has to be balanced against the rights of the accused.
In methodical fashion, Zenovich lays out the issues of race, class and political opportunism that surrounded the case, with Duke – dubbed “the Harvard of the South” – representing a bastion of privilege on par with the Ivy League schools, juxtaposed with the city of Durham. It was, as author Don Yaeger notes, “ready-made for the kind of controversy that happened,” one so tantalizing that press outlets pounced on it, throwing caution to the wind in a way that former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent dubs a “journalistic tragedy.”
Perhaps foremost, it’s hard to ignore the parallels to the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” at least in terms of how perceptions were largely shaped and fed by an ambitious prosecutor, Mike Nifong, who became so wedded to the idea that the lacrosse players were guilty as to downplay, dismiss and ignore exculpatory evidence. Throw in questionable police behavior; the eventual fate of Crystal Mangum, the troubled woman who leveled the accusations; and Nifong’s eventual disbarment, and the story contains elements of tragedy and hubris that would be difficult to convincingly script.
Certainly, the situation looked grim at first for the players, about 40 of whom had held a party and hired two strippers, one being Mangum. As Zenovich illustrates, Mangum’s contention that three of the men had raped her yielded across-the-spectrum outrage, from Jesse Jackson to Nancy Grace to Duke students and faculty, stoked not only by Nifong’s statements to the press but by the slowness of the university’s administration to respond.
Many of the most emotional interviews come from the parents of those accused, at first unsure about what had transpired, only to become increasingly agitated as the evidence appeared to be unraveling. Zenovich also elicits striking mea culpas from some of those who covered the story, conceding that the mix of factors at play caused many to race to conclusions.
At its best, “30 for 30” prods fans to look beyond the often myopic preoccupation with wins and losses and see sports through a larger cultural prism. And the network will give this entry a helpful push by scheduling its telecast to follow coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament pairings.
Given that lacrosse doesn’t possess quite the same heft as the big-money college sports such as basketball or football, that link between the games people watch and society at large might be a bit more tenuous. But that doesn’t make “Fantastic Lies” any less significant – or compelling.