White vs. black. Rich vs. poor. Educated vs. uneducated. An ambitious, and unscrupulous, district attorney up for re-election, and heavy national and local media coverage.
The 2006 Duke lacrosse rape case was, according to “Fantastic Lies,” a “30 for 30” documentary that will be broadcast on ESPN Sunday at 9 p.m., a perfect storm just waiting to happen.
Directed with a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it passion by Marina Zenovich, the film, airing on the 10th anniversary of the party that jump-started the affair, charts how what looked like an open-and-shut case – a bunch of privileged white lacrosse players raping a black stripper – was shot through with erroneous assumptions, poor police work, prosecutorial misconduct, and class and race prejudices.
It all began when Crystal Mangum, hired to strip at an off-campus party hosted by the lacrosse team, claimed she had been raped and racially abused. The team was already notorious for its almost cult-like solidarity and raucous parties, and given that these were mostly a bunch of entitled white kids from the Northeast – and that men had been abusing women of all races since time immemorial – what was not to believe?
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Certainly The News & Observer pounced on it, with former columnist Ruth Sheehan accusing the team of closing ranks and covering up for the rapists. She later publicly apologized when the truth came out. (N&O reporter Joseph Neff also appears in the documentary and served as a consultant on the film.) Then the national media got hold of the story, and all of a sudden it was front-page and prime-time news.
Except that none of it was true.
Mangum turned out to be a sad person with previous mental health issues, who lied possibly to cover up behavior – stripping and drug use – that could have caused her children to be taken away by child services. Durham DA Mike Nifong, desperate to be re-elected in a city where blacks accounted for 40 percent of the voters, was found to have withheld exculpatory DNA evidence that would have proven the innocence of three indicted players (he was later disbarred). And nearly everyone else – Duke students, faculty, administration, the media and the public at large – bought into the stereotype that these athletic white boys were racist misogynists.
Given that key actors – Duke administrators, the Durham Police Department, Nifong, the three accused – declined to be interviewed for this feature-length film, Zenovich has done a superior job piecing this story together from news and talk show footage, as well as assorted talking heads that include Duke faculty, defense attorneys, some non-indicted team members and parents of the accused. (Mangum agreed to be interviewed, but prison officials where she is serving time for murdering her boyfriend wouldn’t allow it.)
In fact, some of the most shattering moments in the film come from the parents, who describe their raw emotions during the year-long hell they and their children went through. “It was a runaway train that just kept running,” says one mother, leading you to wonder how these people survived emotionally.
Ultimately, Daniel Okrent of the New York Times describes the affair as “a journalistic tragedy,” an acknowledgment of how the 24-hour news cycle helped create this mess.
Yet something good may have come out of it after all. Speaking to the press after they were finally exonerated, Reade Seligmann, one of the indicted players, says he fully realizes that their privileged status allowed them to hire the kind of top lawyers few others in their position could afford. As this mesmerizing, must-see film notes at the end, all three of the accused have now become advocates for The Innocence Project, which exonerates wrongly convicted people through DNA testing.
“Fantastic Lies” airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.