SXSW Movie Review: Fantastic Lies

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Near the end of Fantastic Lies, a newspaper columnist in North Carolina reads on camera a piece she published apologizing to the Duke lacrosse team for her rush to judgment in their 2006 rape case.

As it turned out, she was among many in the Durham, N.C. community — and much further — who made the same knee-jerk mistake, perpetuating a false accusation that players on the team had violently assaulted two female strippers at a team party in March 2006.

This Sunday marks 10 years since Duke lacrosse became known less as a successful program in pursuit of a national championship and more for allegations against them of a heinous crime and cover-up by team members that forced the cancellation of their 2007 season and the resignation of their head coach. ESPN Films: 30 for 30 is remembering the anniversary with Fantastic Lies, a powerful and well-paced documentary that reminds everyone of the dangers of presuming one’s guilt before letting the legal process do its thing. ESPN will air it at 8 p.m. Sunday, but eager moviegoers can check it out at 9:15 p.m. Saturday at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.

Proving their innocence amid an avalanche of opponents was the toughest challenge the Duke lacrosse team had ever faced. Comprised of players who were predominantly white and privileged, they would be given no benefit of the doubt from the blue collar folks of Durham who had long butted heads with Duke, an elitist university that always seemed seemed misfitting in the south. That their accusers were black made the situation even messier.

Yet the biggest obstacle facing the team — and specifically the three players charged in the case, Collin Finnerty, David Evans and Reade Seligmann  — was a district attorney with motives that reached far beyond attempts to uncover the truth. Mike Nifong was trailing in his bid to be reelected as D.A. of Durham County, so it follows that by choosing to not pursue the case he would have alienated his constituents and ensured political defeat. Justly poetic, several instances of poor ethics Nifong used to get indictments in the case later were cause for his disbarring by the North Carolina Bar and his jailing for 24 hours. As Nifong’s credibility began to weaken, even his campaign manager turned on him.

Directed by Emmy Award winner Marina Zenovich, the documentary, at 103 minutes, plays more like a full-length feature than most of its predecessors from the 30 for 30 catalog. It took the filmmakers 18 months from start to completion, and if they at all came up short, it was in sourcing as they tried but failed to secure interviews with several players, police officials, and Nifong. One of the players’ accusers, Crystal Mangum, who is now incarcerated for murder, agreed to an interview but was denied by jail security.

Other screenings: 9:15 p.m. Saturday, Rollins Theatre at the Long Center; 2:15 Thursday, Alamo Slaughter; 7:15 p.m. Friday, Alamo Lamar.


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