Here’s more or less what we know about what happened in Durham, North Carolina on the night of March 13th, 2006. Some Duke University lacrosse players threw a party at their off-campus house, and pooled their money to hire two women from an escort service to put on a sexually explicit show. One of those women arrived intoxicated, and stopped performing after about five minutes, due to some hostile catcalling from the audience—during which one player suggested that he’d like to violate her with a broomstick. For the rest of the evening, partygoers complained that they weren’t getting what they paid for from the dancers. While the two sides drunkenly argued, another player hurled a racial epithet at the stripper who’d stopped the show. That woman—an African-American college student and single mother, with a history of emotional instability—was picked up by the police later that night because she was behaving erratically. Still shaken by her ugly encounter with the lacrosse team, and concerned about how the events of the evening would look to child protective services, she said that three players had locked her in a bathroom and gang-raped her.

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Here’s what else we know: The largely black, working-class citizens of Durham, North Carolina have often had a rocky relationship with the rich white students of Duke. And Duke’s elite athletes—like big-time college athletes everywhere—have a reputation for being entitled and arrogant, with a tendency to close ranks when threatened. Throw in an overzealous local prosecutor up for reelection, and a plethora of cable-news opinion shows in need of fresh outrages, and for a time in the mid-2000s, “the Duke lacrosse case” became a filter through which angry academics and the American media argued about race, class, gender, jock culture, university life, and sexual assault.

The way the story played-out, though—with the accused fully exonerated, and the prosecutor disbarred—was almost anticlimactic. At the least, it was dissatisfying to the many, many people who were hoping that this would be one time when a handful of privileged pricks got their comeuppance.

To put it mildly, none of this makes for an easy 30 For 30 subject. “Fantastic Lies” does what a lot of the documentaries in this series do, taking a clear-eyed look at a group of people who were “villains” to some even before they were accused of any crime. Yet rape is exponentially more serious than taking money from boosters, getting into off-field fights, or just generally being cocky. And it’s a little bit eyebrow-raising that this episode was directed by Marina Zenovich, who’s best-known for making two controversially non-judgmental documentaries about Roman Polanski. That’s an odd specialty for a filmmaker to have: making movies about accused rapists who’ve been hounded by the American legal system and by the court of public opinion.

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But again: According to all the available facts and evidence, nobody raped anybody that night in Durham. The Duke lacrosse players were hardly innocent little lambs. No one in “Fantastic Lies” disputes that vulgar, violent, racist comments were tossed around while the ladies were in that house. And it didn’t help the accused that, after the party was over, another player sent out an e-mail to various team-members quoting American Psycho, suggesting that he’d like to call up more strippers and then murder and flay them.

What’s so absorbing about “Fantastic Lies” though is that Zenovich spends as much time on the nationwide reaction to the case as she does on the procedural aspects of gathering and weighing evidence. She documents the frenzy that for a time made the actual legal process irrelevant. The prosecutor seemed determined to give the public the outcome they were literally screaming for—on cable TV shows and in noisy campus protests—regardless of the facts. That’s a chilling thing to contemplate, especially given that the past 10 years have seen an escalation in the number of platforms where angry mobs can gather.

As gripping as it is, “Fantastic Lies” has its flaws. Zenovich buys in a bit too much to one attorney’s comparison of his defense to an inspiring underdog sports movie. Though it appears that justice was ultimately done, the result was more “restoring the status quo” than “good triumphs over evil.” Zenovich also fails to give the Durham/Duke dynamic the in-depth analysis it deserves. And the number of key people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t be interviewed means that some aspects of the case remain under-explored. In particular, no one in this documentary says much about what did happen at that party. Instead, we mostly get hearsay and conjecture.

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For the most part though, Zenovich gets what’s so queasily compelling about this story. The activists and commentators who used this case to address larger issues weren’t wrong, exactly. If the Duke lacrosse players had been guilty, then the university’s athletic department would’ve had a lot to answer for, from creating an environment where their students felt this kind of party was okay, to presuming that merely forfeiting games in response to the controversy constituted “a severe penalty.” But in retrospect, the media’s demands that the players admit to something that didn’t happen—as well as the general lack of concern in some quarters over the many, many provable facts that didn’t fit into the larger narrative—should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who rushes to hammer alleged malefactors with hashtags, before anyone really knows what they actually did.

When the protests were at their height, some students and professors asked, “What if it was your daughter who’d been raped?” That’s a good question. But also: What if it was your son who were falsely accused? Persistently and persuasively, “Fantastic Lies” argues that we need to be a little more patient—and a lot less biased—when asking for justice.

Stray observations:

  • The names of all the people involved in this case—the three accused players, and their accuser—are widely known, and easy to look up. I’ve left them out of this review because they weren’t essential to what I had to say about the film, and because I didn’t want to contribute to future Google searches of their names pointing back to this whole unfortunate affair. That’s a futile cause, I know. And I certainly won’t flag any comments below that mention the various parties by name. Just letting you know the reasons for my own individual choice.

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