A ‘Staircase’; A Lacrosse Case; and Durham (Gilead?)

  1. Conversation between Annie Savoy and Crash Davis:

Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?
Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul. The cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pause] Goodnight’ (From ‘Bull Durham,’ (film), 1988).

2. Description of Gilead:

The lawns are tidy, the façades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children.

This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. (From The Handmaid’s Tale (Book), Margaret Atwood, 1985).

**

Last year, I wrote about the myths of the ‘New South’; the buried ghosts of race, class, and history that lie just under the freshly-paved surface of places like my hometown of Durham, North Carolina. The contradictions and juxtapositions where it is possible to accidentally stumble across a slave graveyard while playing frisbee-golf, artisan coffee and bagel in the other hand. Where the rustic decay of tobacco curing barns shares space with the upturned red clay of a luxury subdivision construction site; where you might, if jogging through the woods, come across the remains of a stock-car speedway: the ‘Cheerwine’ and ‘Pepsi Cola’ signs still visible through the thick loblolly pine trees. And we could digress into the tropes of the Southern writer: air so heavy with humidity that you can’t breathe; grandma smoking a cigarette on the back screened-in porch; the way cicadas sound in July; the roll of thunder in an afternoon storm. I remember how that air smelled like tobacco on some days, or how it smelled right before the rain. The way you could hear at the same time the “crack” of a baseball bat hitting a ball and a passing train.

Ok, enough nostalgia.

Amazon.com and Apple Computers – two of the world’s largest and wealthiest companies – are looking at my modest hometown for their East Coast headquarters locations; Durham was one of the NYTimes’ “41 Places to go in 2011”, and I hardly recognize the place. There are condos selling for millions and new ‘mid-century modern’ hotels with swanky pool decks where I can’t afford a cocktail. Damn, Durham. Damn.

But let’s wind the clock back to 2001-2011,  10 years that really shook the ‘Bull City’: one ‘Staircase’, one ‘Lacrosse Case’; two popular documentary films; corrupt district attorneys; and a whole lot of dredged up skeletons of race, class, sexuality, and just pure Southern-Gothic weirdness. An exotic dancer accusing rich white boys of racially-motivated rape. A mansion that is a movie set and a real-live crime scene. Even the image of a woman (possibly) getting attacked by a bard owl, and slowly bleeding to death as her bisexual husband drinks wine by the pool. ‘The Staircase’, and ‘The Lacrosse Case’, three years apart, and linked by a creepy, dystopian movie filmed on-location that features, in one scene, a man’s body torn to pieces by angry handmaids.

If that ain’t Southern Gothic, I don’t know what is. You got nothing on this, Harper Lee.

**

Durham, the little tobacco town that punches above its weight, has had a few representations in film. One of these films, ‘Bull Durham’ (1988) was actually written for, set in, and filmed on – location in Durham. For that movie, Durham’s (then-abandoned) tobacco warehouses, old-school minor league baseball stadium, and kudzu-covered telephone poles made for a cutesy, wholesome backdrop for the love story between Crash Davis, the veteran ball player (Kevin Costner), and Annie Savoy, the no-bullshit, superstitious, Southern belle (Susan Sarandon). This year (2018), Durham celebrated the 30th-anniversary of the film, with a local screening at the Carolina Theater and on a big screen in outfield of the original ballpark. The ‘Hit Bull, Win Steak’ sign in the outfield that was erected as part of the movie set, still graces the outfield in the new (larger) stadium for the Durham Bulls Triple-A baseball team.

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Scene from 1988’s ‘Bull Durham’, Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon (Pictured), Filmed in Durham

Some other movies were filmed locally (but set elsewhere) due to North Carolina’s film tax-credits, which, for a time, made the state one of the most popular filming locations outside of California. These tax credits are no longer, and film-making has moved to other (southern) states like Georgia and Louisiana. But Durham was the backdrop, strangely, for some pretty dystopian films (a sign of things to come, since life imitates art?)

For example, ‘Firestarter’, with Drew Barrymore, based on the Stephen King book, was filmed on-location in the Durham area in the early 1980s, taking advantage of the modern architecture of the ‘Research Triangle Park’.

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Shortly after ‘Bull Durham’, the original film adaption of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ was filmed in / around Durham, released in 1990.  Much of the story involves the relationship between the Handmaid known as ‘Offred’ (or ‘Of Fred’, played by Natasha Richardson), her ‘Commander’ (played by Robert Duvall), and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). The filming location for much of the story was the 1935 mansion at 1810 Cedar Street in Durham’s ‘Forest Hills’ neighborhood, a graceful area of mature trees and winding roads. The home was designed by noted local architect George Watts Carr for the prominent local Buchanan family (pictured below in a scene from the film).

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Scene from the 1990 ‘Handmaids Tale’, filmed at 1810 Cedar Street, Forest Hills, Durham (Pictured: Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway)

In the dystopian city for which Durham provides the backdrop in the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’, the mansion (pictured) is the home of a high-ranking officer (Duvall) in the post-apocalyptic ‘Gilead’, a monstrous theocracy that replaced the United States after religious extremists staged a coup. In the mansion, we see the ‘ceremony’ take place: a horrific monthly religious ritual where the handmaid (Richardson) has sex with the Commander (Duvall) while lying between the legs of the commander’s wife (Dunaway). In Gilead, Handmaids are able to bear children, while most women are not (because of an environmental-toxin related infertility pandemic).

Other scenes filmed around Durham include public hanging of traitors to Gilead (downtown), and a graphic and dramatic public execution scene filmed at Duke Chapel on Duke University’s campus, where the handmaids are urged to rip apart a man accused of rape. This, as it turned out, is ironic on many levels.

We will return to Duke in a moment.

***

In 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home, 1810 Cedar Street (the same mansion as used in Handmaid’s Tale filming). Life imitates art.

Peterson’s husband, Michael Peterson, a local author, newspaper columnist and once-mayoral candidate, was accused of murdering his wife, and after one of the longest murder trials in North Carolina history, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Peterson and his defense team maintain that Kathleen died as a result of an accidental fall, while prosecutors (and the jury) claimed she was murdered by Peterson by blows to the back of the head. Adding to further intrigue and controversy in the case was that the state presented as evidence both Michael Peterson’s bisexuality (sexual liaisons with local men), and the death of a family friend under similar circumstances in Germany in the 1980s. Michael Peterson served 8 years in prison before being released under house arrest. Later, the court determined that evidence had been mishandled and prejudicial, and Peterson was offered a re-trial. Rather than face the unknown outcome of a second jury trial, Peterson opted for an ‘Alford Plea’, in which he plead guilty, but maintained his innocence, having already served his time in prison and thus, walked away a free man. Questions remained about how, if not by murder, Kathleen Peterson died in such a bloody way. One local theory involves a possible owl attack, since the lacerations on Peterson’s head could match those of an owl’s talons, and micro-fibers were found on her corpse. The owl attack alone would make for a great Southern Gothic short story.

The case and surrounding publicity was gripping and macabre, generating much international press. It was also personal for those of us from Durham, since the Petersons were a well-known local family. I went to college, incidentally, with Kathleen Peterson’s biological daughter Caitlin, who initially maintained her stepfather’s innocence but later came to the personal belief that he was guilty of murder and sued her stepfather (Michael Peterson), successfully, for wrongful death.

In 2004, the French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade released ‘The Staircase’, a documentary about the Peterson trial and surrounding controversy. This was later followed up with a sequel, ‘Last Chance,’ in 2013, and the ‘Staircase III’, in 2017 – which followed the subsequent developments in the legal case and further trial proceedings. The whole series was picked up and released by Netflix in 2018, and has garnered critical acclaim and strong ratings.

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House of Michael and Kathleen Peterson, crime scene, 2001

I am not so interested in whether or not Michael Peterson is, or is not guilty; or whether or not Kathleen died as a result of accident or some other cause, including a possible owl attack. I am more interested in the Southern-Gothic tableau of the mansion itself, the scene of dystopian fiction (where Natasha Richardson’s character murders Robert Duvall’s character by cutting his throat) and also the scene of the bloody stairwell death of Kathleen Peterson. I am likewise fascinated by, and disturbed by, the undertones and fractures of race, class, power and privilege; homophobia and elitism; corruption and collusion that the case unearthed; Durham’s seedy and complex underbelly exposed for the whole world to see in the Netflix series.

But ‘the Staircase’ was only a precursor to another ‘case’ that also tore open Durham’s civic fabric, and has also been portrayed in film: the saga of the Duke Lacrosse case.

***

In 2006, just three years after the trial of Michael Peterson, scandal again erupted in the Bull City that again tore apart the fabric of the tobacco town and exposed some latent (and pretty ugly) simmering race, class, and cultural divides. This time, the focal point was the elite Duke University, one of the nation’s most prestigious (and also a filming location for The Handmaid’s Tale).

THE HANDMAID'S TALE, 1990, (c) Cinecon International

Handmaids Tale (1990) ‘Particulation’ execution scene, filmed at Duke University, Durham

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this: three white members of Duke’s lacrosse team, all from affluent suburbs in the Northeast / Mid-Atlantic USA, were accused by a local exotic dancer by the name of Crystal Mangum of violent rape and beating, along with racial insults and other detestable behavior. Mangum had been hired to dance at a party the lacrosse team was hosting on Buchanan Street, in Durham’s Trinity Park neighborhood (*incidentally, the neighborhood where I grew up). Trinity Park features historic houses and is across the street from Duke University’s Georgian-style East Campus, known as Trinity College. The neighborhood is a mix of student housing (in subdivided homes and apartment buildings) and single family homes, many of which are owned by Duke faculty.

In response to the allegations, the Duke Lacrosse season was cancelled by university president Richard Brodhead, and the team coach, Mike Pressler, resigned under pressure. Durham prosecutor Mike Nifong (who was also on the prosecution’s team in the Michael Peterson case, three years prior) suggested the alleged rape was a hate crime, due to the racial slurs (allegedly) overhead at the party and due to the racially-charged nature of several emails sent (about the party and the hiring of strippers, by other members of the team).

Once again, Durham was thrust into the national and international limelight, for all the wrong reasons.

duke lax53a06a2eacfd7_-_cos-02-duke-rape-scandal-xlEventually, it came to light that prosecutor Mike Nifong had withheld evidence that exonerated the three accused (pictured above); and further details emerged that the accuser, Crystal Mangum, had lied about being raped. Mike Nifong was subsequently disbarred; and state attorney general Roy Cooper (now North Carolina’s governor), dropped all charges. Still, the city, and the university, were tainted by the fact that the party did take place; that strippers were hired; that disgusting emails and misogynistic / racial slurs were indeed uttered. The fact remains that an elite university, full of (mostly) affluent students from (mostly) other places, can be an uneasy bedfellow to a Southern industrial city with a high African-American poverty rate and a city where nonwhite residents outnumber white residents.

Once again, the case was turned into a documentary feature-film that exposed Durham’s simmering race and class divides; poor town-gown relations; local mistrust of Duke’s elite students and administrators; and dysfunctional and incompetent (to a criminal degree) legal apparatus and court system.

The 2016 film ‘Fantastic Lies’, by Marina Zenovich, was the most recent of several other films and TV-documentaries about the scandal (including an episode of ESPN’s “30 for 30” devoted to the scandal.)

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Pictured: the legal analyst Nancy Grace with then-Duke student Stephen Miller, now special adviser to President Donald Trump, discussing the Duke Lacrosse case in 2006.

And the case had even bigger implications: it may have even helped to spawn the ‘Alt Right’ movement, which reared its ugly head in the election of Donald Trump and now has a place in the Oval Office. Stephen Miller (pictured above), one of the architects of the ‘Alt Right’ and some of Trump’s controversial nativist policies (such as the Muslim travel ban and the proposed wall on the US / Mexico border), was a Duke student at the time of the Lacrosse scandal and an outspoken campus conservative. He appeared on shows like Nancy Grace to decry the way the lacrosse players were being treated and what he thought was a culture of blame and antagonism on campuses like Duke and elsewhere. This, of course, is a conversation that is racking college campuses today, as angry white conservatives react to the proliferation of identity-based movements such as #metoo and #blacklives matter and have sought to bring conservative and controversial speakers like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos to speak.

**

Now: would you like a sweet tea with your biscuit?

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