Fantastic Lies and Omissions

Duke University Campus

“I am innocent. Every member of the Duke lacrosse team is innocent. You have all been told some fantastic lies!” —David Evans

The new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary film, Fantastic Lies, marks the tenth anniversary of the Duke University lacrosse scandal by providing a step-by-step analysis of the scandal. At the conclusion of the two hour film, I walked away feeling like these young white males were the real victims and the villains were an overzealous district attorney and a crazy black stripper who shouted rape.

What if I told you…..I was not impressed with the film!

On March 13, 2006, two young black women were hired to strip at a party for the lacrosse team. Duke, known as the Harvard of the South, has a reputation of elitism and distancing themselves from the local black community in Durham, NC. The women were paid nearly $800 to dance, but refused to dance after five minutes of racially charged exchanges with the predominately white male partygoers. Two hours after the party a player on the team sent out an email inviting his teammates to another party the following night. In the email he quoted the film American
Pyscho, stating that he planned to “kill the bitches” and ejaculate in his Duke spandex once they arrived. This second party never took place due to unforeseen tragic circumstances.

One of the dancers was Crystal Magnum, a 26-year-old single mother of three and an
undergraduate student at nearby HBCU, North Carolina Central University. Crystal accused three Duke players – Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans – of raping her in the bathroom during the party. Durham district attorney Mike Nifong, seeking reelection, pushed the case into the national spotlight. The case led to an ongoing debate on class, race, rape, and white male privilege. Ultimately, DNA evidence and telephone records proved that the Duke players were innocent.

Magnum, who had a history of arrests before this incident, came across horribly in the film. Here are a few quotes used to describe her:

“She’s a single mother working for an escort service.”

“I’m out here in a skimpy outfit in the middle of the night. This is going to be an issue with the social services.”

“Where are your children?”

“She had mental health issues and those contributed to her allegations.”

“I don’t think she was stable enough in her mind.”

“She lived in a fantasy world. Reality was something she made up as she went along.”

There was a photo of her passed out drunk, face down on the steps, wearing a white stiletto with her skirt pulled completely up revealing her panties. This demeaning photo is shown three different times in the film. Another party photo shows her legs spread open and the other dancer hovering over her. The message that comes across is that this black woman, who suffers from mental health issues, is an irresponsible mother who tarnished the reputation of these innocent boys with her reckless behavior. The film ends by stating Crystal is serving a 14-18 year
sentence for the murder of her boyfriend.

The message that comes across is that this black woman is a crazy jezebel and irresponsible mother who tarnished the reputation of these innocent boys.

I am not excusing Crystal’s actions, but I was offended by the film’s respectability politics and shaming of her. It reminded me of numerous negative stereotypes associated with black women. The other glaring problem in the film was its lack of historical context surrounding the issue of rape and black women. The film’s agenda was to exonerate the Duke players of public guilt. Thus the title, Fantastic Lies.

The film is lacking the necessary context to fully understand all angles of the story. A former lacrosse player interviewed in the film said that many of Crystal’s supporters were simply pushing “agendas” that had nothing to do with the case. This statement grossly oversimplified the issue. A major reason that so many blacks initially sided with Crystal was due to the history of black female bodies being violated. The film fails to clearly explain this history in detail. The fact that Crystal lied should not make us ignore this problem.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) tells the heart-wrenching story of Harriet Jacobs, a slave from North Carolina who was routinely harassed by her master from her early teens. The master’s wife blamed Harriet for her husband’s promiscuity. Twelve Years a Slave’s rape scene involving Patsey and the plantation owner is one of its most unforgettable scenes. The plantation mistress blames Patsey for her husband’s lustful thoughts. Historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese documents this demonization of black female assault victims by white women in Within the plantation household: Black and White women of the Old South (1988).

According to Danielle McGuire’s book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- – A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power!, (2011) black girls as young as seven were raped with “alarming regularity” throughout the Jim Crow South. Additionally, from 1940-65 only ten Mississippi white men were convicted for raping a black female. University of Maryland College Park professor Sheri Parks remembers growing up in North Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s being afraid of getting raped by white men. She and her sister were instructed to only speak to white men who visited their home through a locked screen door. And, long before the Montgomery bus boycott made her famous, Rosa Parks was involved in a movement for the rights of black rape victims.

As a result, you get a film void of necessary context to fully understand all angles of the story.

Sadly, this is not just a problem of past decades. In 2015, Daniel Holtzclaw, a white police officer from Oklahoma, was found guilty of raping eight black women over a seven month period. Since the women tended to be poor, drug addicts, or prostitutes, the case did not receive much attention in the national media. Perhaps these women were viewed as not respectable.

Back in 2008, Temple University adjunct professor Aishah Shahidah Simmons was struggling to find distribution for her film No! The Rape Documentary. At the time Melissa Harris-Perry wrote that Hollywood and the mainstream public was uninterested in hearing about the sexual victimization of black women. A 2015 documentary, The Hunting Ground, a film about rape on American college campuses, aired on CNN and received critical acclaim in the press. Vice-President Joe Biden introduced pop star Lady Gaga when she performed the film’s theme song,
“Til It Happens to You” at the 2016 Academy Award ceremony. Gaga’s performance received the biggest standing ovation of the night. Ironically, all but four of the victims depicted in The Hunting Ground are white female and male undergraduate students. One black female law student at Harvard gets a five-minute segment dedicated to her case at the beginning of the film. The other three black women each make five second cameos.

Black women at college get raped, too. Studies show black women report incidents at lower rates than white female students. The Bureau of Justice reported only 1 out of 15 black women report being raped. At HBCUs, seven percent of women admitted in a National Institute of Justice report that they did not report their assaults because they doubted the police would take them seriously. A 2015 forum on campus rape at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD, detoured into a discussion on “respectable”
attire for black women. In 2014, NPR published an article detailing examples of rape at Morgan and nearby HBCU Howard University in Washington, DC.

I am NOT calling ESPN racist. I am just saying that the best documentaries tell the ENTIRE story. Black lives matter too!

There’s an interesting racial dichotomy at play when comparing the discussion of rape in The Hunting Ground with Fantastic Lies. While the white Duke lacrosse players are portrayed as “innocent “victims defamed by a “ratchet” black woman, Jameis Winston, the black starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is accused of raping a blond white sorority sister during his freshmen year at Florida State University. Even though Winston was cleared of all the charges in 2014, The Hunting Ground portrays him as a sexual predator and even accuses him of raping another unnamed woman on campus. His accuser graphically details her encounter with the black QB in a fifteen-minute segment just before the film’s final chapter. Interviewees suggest that Winston was found innocent because he was the favorite to win the Heisman trophy and had Florida State on track to win the national championship that season.

The young woman says that she was slut shamed and received death threats from fellow students. In the film Winston not only becomes the face of sexually deviant student-athletes; he ends up fitting into a description of the hyper-sexed violent black male that is as old as the Scottsboro Boys and Willie Horton. Ironically, the Duke lacrosse scandal was not mentioned during the overall twenty minute discussion of college sports and rape in The Hunting Ground.

I am not blaming the Duke players for crimes that they did not commit. Nor am I blaming Marina Zenovich, the director of Fantastic Lies, for not being a historian. I am certainly NOT calling ESPN racist. I am just saying that the best documentaries tell the ENTIRE story. Black lives matter too! At the end of Fantastic Lies Tony McDevitt, one of the former lacrosse players, says that the lasting legacy of the case is that Crystal’s lie only hurts the real victims of sexual assault.

Unfortunately, it is often not that simple when black bodies are involved.

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.