Fantastic Lies (Zenovich, 2016)

Fantastic Lies is a timely and important documentary.

Even though it is has been a decade since false allegations of rape and sexual assault rocked one of North Carolina’s elite universities, the glimpse into how media feeds rushes to judgment and how police and prosecutors sometimes subordinate seeking truth to serving political constituencies continue to be ones we struggle with as a nation.

First the downside: none of the accused Duke Lacrosse players, police, or prosecutors agreed to be interviewed for the documentary. (We are told in an epilogue that the accuser did agree to new interviews but that the film crew was refused access to her.)

What we get are comments from parents, attorneys, some of the media involved with (or who followed) the case, and lots of archival footage. That cast of commentators is likely to raise some cries of bias, though, honestly, the ease with which the case against the players is refuted makes it hard to imagine anyone from the prosecution being able to explain how their actions were in good faith. Given that the accuser recanted, district attorney Michael Nifong went to jail (albeit for one day) for entering into a conspiracy to withhold exculpatory evidence, and a police investigator later committed suicide, counters that the boys really shouldn’t have hired a pair of strippers off the Internet to begin with would sound a bit like blaming the victim.

Still, it’s hard to overstate just how deeply resentment of Duke runs in North Carolina, how much class, race, and gender divisions made people not just want to believe the accusations were true but assume they must be. As with most cases where assumed guilt gives way to exoneration, the scary thing here is not so much that a policeman apparently rewrote his notes or that a prosecutor made false statements to the media, it is how nobody who wasn’t paid by the accused even bothered to check the most obviously verifiable (or falsifiable) elements of the accusation. (One of the players was literally on camera blocks away from the house at the time the accuser said she was being raped.)

A postscript to the film states that all three of the players who were charged now work with The Innocence Project. The captain is shown giving a statement that his experience has made him question how willing the police might be to railroad those who don’t have the resources to fight back.

It is tragic that it sometimes takes a personal experience within a broken system to make us aware of its inequities. If revisiting this sordid tale can convince just a few viewers to pay attention to municipal as well as federal elections, to communicate to our leaders that we want justice to be fair and impartial, not just swift and severe, the time making and viewing it will have been well spent.


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