“30 For 30: Fantastic Lies”

Paleo Retiree writes:

The accusees

The accused

Marina Zenovich’s new documentary about the 2006 Duke lacrosse case, which is currently available on Netflix Instant, is a perfectly adequate run-through of that fascinating, distressing episode. If you didn’t follow the story closely at the time, the film is a fine way to catch up with it, and even if you were reading beyond the era’s headlines the movie is still an easy and informative way to re-riff through the events and meet some of the personalities involved. Recommended, especially for those of us who are perplexed by our era’s mania for civil rights-inflected sexual witch hunts. Zenovich turns up amazing footage from the archives. She talks to a couple of Duke lacrosse team members, to the parents of the three boys who were almost brought to trial, to the lawyers who defended the boys, and to some journalists who were involved in the news stampede around the case. See the movie. Discuss and enjoy.

All that said, and hoping that I’m not being ungrateful, a few things about the movie struck me as unsatisfying and even a bit weird. Unjust bitch-fest incoming, in other words. Please keep in mind that, despite the misgivings I’m about to self-indulgently share, I’m still recommending the movie. Hey, if fair and even-handed is what you’re looking for, you’re visiting the wrong blog.

The movie’s tone was one thing that perplexed me. It’s very sensitive and nuanced, hyperaware of layers and ambiguities and feelings. Air and sunlight rustle and twinkle … Voices are hushed and thoughtful … Backgrounds are thrown artfully out of focus … People make tiny expressions of disbelief as they cast their minds a decade back to the case … Music of a trancey, hypersubtle kind morphs and swirls eerily in the background …

It’s all very somber and thoughtful and beautifully done, but I was left scratching my head. The filmmaking seems to be telling us that something of a painful, complex and significant kind happened, and that revisiting these events needs to be done in an appropriately grave and respectful way.

But is that true? What are the case’s ambiguities? Maybe I’m just a crude jerk with a simplistic mind, but the case strikes me as being about as clear as a case can be. The accusation was a lie. The accuser (a student, hooker and stripper with the memorable name Crystal Mangum) was a mentally disturbed addict. The rape never happened, period. The boys and their families were subjected to a lot of hostility, trouble and expense. The university, the D.A. (another great name: Mike Nifong), the press and much of the public rushed to judgment in a completely disgraceful way.

It doesn’t for an instant strike me as a case that’s hard to arrive at clearcut judgements about. So — to my Dirty Harry way of thinking — while I was watching the movie some very basic questions kept arising: Why all the trembly, fragile anxiety about feelings? Wouldn’t treating the case in a tabloid way — as an outrage or a fuckup — have been more appropriate? Raucous black-hearted comedy of a Strangeloveian sort might even have been suitable.

As for narrative and strategy choices, I wondered about a few in particular. For one, during the first quarter or third of the movie Zenovich presents her material as though it’s all plausible. She maintains the pretense that the rape might really have happened, in other words. Why? It’s a ploy without a payoff, at least as far as I was concerned. For one thing, in purely dramatic terms it doesn’t add up to much. There’s no awesome moment when everything that’s been carefully set up suddenly gives way beneath us. For another: Does Zenovich really think that her audience is coming to her movie without the knowledge that the Duke boys were innocent? She’s a good enough filmmaker to deepen what she presents in the early part of the movie. Early on, for instance, we see Crystal Mangum’s religious minister telling us about what a searching, touching soul Crystal was. Later in the film the same minister reappears and elaborates, informing us that, in her opinion, Crystal isn’t just sweet and disturbed, she’s completely delusional. (Crystal is currently in jail for murdering a boyfriend.) So we eventually come to see considerably more than we initially do — excellent. Still: Why bother with the maybe-it-really-happened pretense at all?

Another choice that puzzled me: Why didn’t Zenovich go much farther than she did into the question of why the country went berserk for the case? To me, that’s the movie’s real subject, as well as the main reason to revisit the events: What were the factors that made us so hungry to experience a witch hunt? (And, of course: Are we still in that state?) I know that I’m playing a shameful critical game here — I’m talking about the movie I’d have made instead of dealing with the one the filmmaker actually delivered. But — God help me — I can’t resist. Zenovich’s main focus instead is on the hell the boys and their families were put through. That’s certainly good, key, worthy stuff, but if we’re to get something from revisiting the material at feature-film length, shouldn’t we get into more than just that? Zenovich’s emphasis has the effect of reducing the case to a rather minor near-miscarriage of justice. And if the Duke lacrosse case wasn’t revealing of something larger going on in society, I don’t know what it was.

(Excuse a brief personal detour. The journalists who agreed to talk to Zenovich — one from a Durham newspaper and one from Newsweek, as well as the NY Times’ former “public editor” Daniel Okrent — do an admirable job of being frank about their failings, as well as about the herd-like, hysterical behavior the press was guilty of. One thing Okrent says, though, I’m going to have to take issue with. He says at one point that the cockup around the Duke lacrosse case showed that there are no tough-minded, old-fashioned journalists around any longer. Er, at the time of the case, I was working at one of the outlets that bought into the story and promoted the hell out of it, and the story always smelled fishy to me. Why? Well, for one thing, unlike a lot of journalists, I’m aware that white guys hardly ever rape black women these days. For another: Crystal Mangum seemed like anything but a trustworthy complainant. For a third: the early versions of the story were so congenial to the myths that the media love to peddle — to what some of us now refer to as The Narrative — that I just had to be suspicious. My “Bullshit!” alarms were going off loud and clear. Real life seldom comes so tailor-made, you know? Black woman = victim; white male jocks = evil? I don’t have a lot of room in my heart for prep-schoolers, frat boys and jocks, but: Seriously? It’s the same reason I was suspicious of Rolling Stone’s U. Va. rape-at-a-frat article. It catered to pre-existing biases ‘way too perfectly. But I wasn’t put on the Duke story, and no one else who was as skeptical as I was — and there were some around — was put on it either. We weren’t listened to at all, in fact. From this little experience, along with zillions of similar ones that I lived through during my years in the media biz, I conclude that the fault for failings like this one doesn’t lie with reporters per se. Skeptical and sharp people can be found on the staffs of newspapers, magazines and TV stations. They’re there, or at least we once were. We just weren’t being given opportunities. Instead, people who were eager to please their bosses — and whose worldviews jibed with whatever zeitgeist was current — were handed the important assignments. So to my mind the real failing is with the bosses who choose which news stories get covered, how they’re covered, and by whom. But you aren’t going to run into many boss-types who’ll agree with me that the problem with contempo journalism is mainly with the bosses, not the grunts.)

Zenovich’s own journalistic resourcefulness seems a little limited at times. She turns up a few people (including a Duke prof) who denounced the lacrosse players early on, but then she doesn’t grill them terribly hard about what they were thinking, or about how they feel now. She digs up plenty of 2006 footage of students and civil rights leaders working themselves into righteous frenzies about the case, but she tracks only a couple of these people down in the present. There’s some footage of what looks like students carrying a sign saying “Castrate them,” for example. Who were those students? What do they think about their 2006 demand now? Have they matured at all? In any case: Why didn’t someone urge Zenovich to find ’em and grill ’em?

Now, maybe someone did. I have no way of knowing. Zenovich may have been hamstrung by her sources. In a few interviews she’s revealed that a lot of the people who were involved in the case wouldn’t talk to her. She may simply have a searching, sensitive sort of temperament. She may also have been hired by producers who felt that the case — if it was going to be revisited at all — demanded pussyfooting, nuanced-seeming treatment. Shhh: sex, you know? Shhh: race!!! The movie’s shortcomings may not be entirely Zenovich’s fault, in other words. She was hired to do what it is she does as a filmmaker, and she did a fine job of it. And — small reminder — despite my kvetching here, she delivered a movie that really is worth watching. Still: how I wish it were more hard-hitting.

And let me urge everyone to dig up and watch “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” Zenovich’s 2008 doc about the notorious 1977 rape-in-a-Hollywood-hot-tub case. (It isn’t on Netflix or Amazon Instant, but DVDs are currently very cheap.) It really is good — now there’s a case with a lot of ambiguities! One major complexifying factor: Polanski’s victim has forgiven him, thinks he’s been adequately punished, would like to forget the event and move on, and feels she has been done more harm by the press and the courts than she ever was by Polanski. In that movie, Zenovich’s feminine sensitivity and Euro-sophistication about sex, politics, showbusiness and the era — the ‘70s really were a different world — adds a great deal to our thinking about the case. It’s an instance where muddying things up and looking at things gently from a distance has some point, and many payoffs.


  • A q&a with Marina Zenovich.
  • In Vanity Fair, William D. Cohan makes a lot of ominous, unspecific noises about what he thinks the film’s failings are. Fair warning: Cohan strikes me as a crackpot. In any case, he’s of the “something happened at the Duke lacrosse party, dammit” school, and he has written a huge book about the case.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Movies, Politics and Economics, Sex and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to “30 For 30: Fantastic Lies”

  1. The conclusion you reached rings true to me. This was a little moneymaker of an archetype common in the USA. So how do you see Krakauer’s MIssoula book?


    • Hey, Prairie Mary, always fun seeing you, thanks for dropping by. I haven’t let myself disappear far enough down the Missoula/Krakauer rabbit hole to have a worthwhile opinion about it. Do you have some good tips or hunches to share?


  2. Ozornik says:

    Now step back and look at your own text above – how much kabuki dance of excuses and don’t-get-me-wrong’s you are doing yourself!
    Such is the miserable nature of PC era’s public expression, that if you just speak your mind straight, even on your very own blog, you yourself feel like an extremist…


    • Can’t deny my love of slaloming my way through a blogposting. And I’m sort of flattered that you think I’m holding back on something. But what is it? I feel like I’ve had my own say (in my own way) very fully.


  3. Paul Zahl says:

    Outstanding and needed piece! But for me a question lingers: why do you not have room in your heart for prep-schoolers? Lloyd was one. I am one. There are nice ones.


    • Thanks for reading and very glad you enjoyed. I was a prep-schooler too — you’re definitely right, there are some nice ones. I found prep school and the prep school and the prep crowd generally pretty cold, though. Did you? I’m generally fonder of the public-school kids I grew up with than of the prep-school crowd I schooled with during my high school years. But maybe that was just my experience.


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