PG note: IRL = In Real Life
Contemporary entertainment is a hall of mirrors, an endless flow of simulacra: reality shows, biopics, documentaries, Instagram posts, Youtube vlogs. Podcasts and docuseries and movies process the same real-life events (Tonya Harding, the O.J. trial, Theranos), responding to one another, building on one another, until the metanarrative is part of the entertainment. I guess it is no surprise, then, that our fictionalized characters have starting launching protests about how we’ve used them. A woman named Alexis Nowicki recently wrote a Slate essay outing herself as the inspiration for the viral short story “Cat Person,” and Amanda Knox, who was falsely accused of murder by Italian authorities, wrote an Atlantic article about a movie that (very) loosely transposes her story. Tom McCarthy, the director of Stillwater, did acknowledge in a Vanity Fair interview that his movie was “directly inspired” by Knox’s case. I still can’t decide if this was all marketing — McCarthy trying to stir up the true-crime audience and situate his film amid the flow of Amanda Knox content — or naiveté, an artist assuming that people will understand that inspiration is about the spark of an idea, not the act of appropriation.
It must first be noted that Stillwater bears little resemblance to Knox’s nightmarish story. She was a 20-year-old American exchange student in Italy when her roommate, a British student named Meredith Kercher, was gruesomely murdered. The police immediately focused on Amanda and her Italian boyfriend, despite virtually no evidence pointing to them. Another man was eventually arrested and convicted of the crime, but Knox was still churned through the Italian legal system for eight years. She was definitively cleared of murder charges in 2015, but not before she spent four years in an Italian prison, where she was sexually harassed and subject to psychological abuse. Her diary was stolen and pored over by the rabid press, which portrayed her as a nymphomaniac femme fatale who had convinced two men to murder Kercher as part of a demented sex game.
Stillwater takes place not in Italy but in France, and the American exchange student, Allison Baker (played by Abigail Breslin), is not from a nice, working-class family in Seattle, like Knox, but a poor and chaotic home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she was raised by her grandmother because her father was a drug addict and her mother died by suicide. Allison is convicted of murdering her ex-girlfriend, a French Muslim girl, but insists that a mysterious man named Hakim committed the crime. The film takes place five years after her conviction, as her father, Bill (played by Matt Damon), who has cleaned up and is trying, belatedly and disastrously, to be in his daughter’s life, takes on the task of tracking down Hakim.
Knox was understandably angry that McCarthy used her case as shorthand to sell a movie that has little to do with her. She wrote a series of tweets that she spun into an essay for The Atlantic, venting her frustration at the way her name is used without her consent: the “Amanda Knox saga” or, worse, “the sordid Amanda Knox saga.” “I never asked to become a public person,” Knox writes, but she acknowledges, “My name, my face, my story have effectively entered the public imagination. I am legally considered a public figure, and that leaves me little recourse to combat depictions of me that are harmful and untrue.” After years of Italian authorities and the tabloid media creating fanciful and grotesque stories about her, Knox is weary of being made a subject of fiction.
Knox’s public vendetta against Stillwater may also be a matter of practical survival. As a best-selling author and true-crime podcaster, she is eager to maintain her hold on her story for both her dignity and her brand, which is her only source of income. The Vanity Fair article in which McCarthy discusses Stillwater ends, for some reason, with a rundown of the personal and legal debts that Knox and her family incurred during her trials, which reportedly ate up all of her nearly $4 million book deal. In a vast and lucrative true-crime media landscape on podcasts and streaming TV, big cases may appear like proprietary brands, but they are in fact public property. The “Amanda Knox case” does not belong to Amanda Knox, which seems to be the major source of her frustration: that she has neither the sole right to tell her story nor the exclusive right to profit off of it.
Link to the rest at Vulture
PG will spare long-suffering visitors to TPV yet another rant, but he doesn’t agree with the whole “appropriation” argument as it is used in a variety of settings.
He takes a very legal approach to his thinking. If something newsworthy happens that the newspapers and other news outlets can write and feature, its in the public sphere. At that point, anybody can pretty much do whatever they want with the story, particularly if they create a work of fiction that doesn’ t use a victim’s or key participant’s real name.
For PG, the key sentence in the OP (if it is correct), encapsulates the legal justification, “It must first be noted that Stillwater bears little resemblance to Knox’s nightmarish story.”