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The link between 2021’s ‘Stillwater’ and 1979’s ‘Norma Rae’

Both Crystal Lee Sutton and Amanda Knox fought Hollywood over the right to tell their stories

Amanda Knox speaks during the 2019 Criminal Justice Festival in Italy. Knox claims the new Matt Damon movie “Stillwater,” a drama about a young American jailed in Europe for a killing she insists she did not commit, profits off her ordeal. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)
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Amanda Knox has no intention of seeing the movie “Stillwater,” but she continues to level her critique of it. The film stars Matt Damon as the father of a daughter charged with the murder of her roommate while studying abroad in Europe. After director Tom McCarthy suggested she watch it, Knox tweeted, “Exposing myself to a stranger’s rehashed vision of my trauma over a bucket of popcorn is not my ideal date-night.”

McCarthy has said “Stillwater” was directly inspired by Knox and her murder case in Italy following the killing of her roommate, Meredith Kercher. Despite her acquittal and the conviction of Rudy Guede, however, the plot follows the sensationalized saga that played out in tabloid media, with its insinuations about Knox’s sexuality and guilt. The movie ends with the young female character implicated in the killing. McCarthy has emphasized that the film is fictionalized, but Knox has rejected that claim, highlighting and questioning the immense power of pop culture professionals to profit from her life and exploit her in the process.

This is not the only time such a conflict has emerged between an individual and Hollywood filmmakers over ownership of a life story and how it appears on the silver screen. In 1979, Crystal Lee Sutton criticized the movie “Norma Rae” and its director, Martin Ritt, for similar reasons. She wasn’t concerned with artistic differences, but with the movie’s representation of union activism and its use of her life story — despite her efforts to retain control of it during the previous three years. Sutton couldn’t get the movie she wanted or any of its revenue, but she could upset its promotion, use the spotlight to tell her own story and sue for part of the studio’s profits. Hollywood professionals had the legal and financial wherewithal to win the day, but that didn’t stop Sutton — and now Knox — from wielding her critique to disrupt the movie’s distribution.

Sutton grew up in North Carolina during the 1940s and 1950s. Her family worked in mills, and she took her first job loading yarn when she was in high school. As a Southern working-class woman, Sutton had limited options. She didn’t like the work, the treatment of mill hands in town or staying at home as a wife and mother, so she pursued multiple jobs and trainings to improve her situation. When a solid union campaign came along, she was interested.

In 1973, while folding towels at the J.P. Stevens Delta #4 plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., she noticed a flier for a Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) meeting at a Black church. She’d never seen such a flier allowed on a bulletin board. Beginning in 1963, however, the TWUA had launched another effort to organize mills in the anti-union South, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act had forced the factories open to Black workers. They tended to be more willing to sign membership cards because they had the lowest-paid jobs and more faith in collective action. These workers had fueled successful National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) grievances, as well as Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints.

After attending this 1973 meeting, Sutton became an active and vocal TWUA member. When the company posted a memo to antagonize racial divisions and undermine the union, several workers tried copying it to register a grievance with the NLRB. Only Sutton finished doing so after the bosses said to stop, and she was fired. Before leaving the mill, she returned to her towel-folding table, wrote “UNION” on some cardboard and held it up for co-workers to see. The termination didn’t eliminate Sutton. It only spurred more activity with the TWUA.

When a journalist called the lead organizer for North Carolina about the TWUA’s 10-year Southern union drive, the organizer referred him to Sutton. To win a union certification vote, he needed more White mill hands to sign cards because they constituted a majority of the workforce. As a young, pretty wife and mother from a family of mill hands, she would appeal to other White workers. As an outspoken woman, she would share solid material.

That interview led to a 1973 New York Times Magazine piece, which earned the journalist a contract to write a 1975 biography of Sutton. Staff at Ms. magazine read the Times piece and decided to focus on Sutton for a segment of its PBS show, “Woman Alive!” The lead organizer encouraged Sutton to do these projects to boost the TWUA’s Southern drive. She also enjoyed participating and had ongoing communication with the journalist and producers.

Alexandra Rose and Tamara Asseyev, who formed one of the first woman-owned Hollywood production companies, read the Times piece and held on to it. In 1976, after the success of “Rocky,” an independent film about a working-class underdog, they launched their company with the “Crystal Lee” movie. They signed Ritt as the director, with his preferred screenwriters, and got a $5 million contract from Twentieth Century-Fox.

Rose, Asseyev and Ritt then reached out to Sutton. They didn’t offer her money or approval of the “Crystal Lee” script, but they sought her feedback. Sutton expressed concern about exposing herself and her family to more scrutiny. She was blacklisted from the mills for her labor activism, and she didn’t want that to extend to her family.

She also criticized the script: that it made her the focus when hundreds of workers were involved over many years, and that it created a false sexualized flirtation between her and the lead organizer. She didn’t think this represented TWUA women well and fed into anti-union tactics of intimidating female activists by calling them “whores.”

Over six months in 1977, Sutton told Rose, Asseyev and Ritt multiple times that she didn’t want them to use her life this way. But since the movie was based on a true story, Ritt needed her compliance to get errors and omissions (E&O) insurance. Twentieth Century-Fox would not release the $5 million without it. Ritt tried offering her $25,000, but Sutton refused and hired an attorney to reiterate the message.

Rose and Asseyev, who had film rights to the biography, tracked down every release Sutton had signed. For added measure, Ritt fictionalized the script, which entailed changing the name to “Norma Rae,” renaming the company O.P. Henley, not mentioning Roanoke Rapids and adding a line in the credits that “events, characters, and firms depicted in this photoplay are fictitious.” These changes were enough to secure E&O insurance, and communication with Sutton ended. “Fictionalizing” the story wasn’t an intuitive creative choice, but a business power play.

When “Norma Rae” hit theaters in March 1979, Sutton decided to step into the spotlight it offered, using it as a platform for her own point of view. She started with the Los Angeles Times and People. Her criticisms were not about the accuracy of details, but about the depiction of the union campaign, the flirting between Norma and the organizer and the appropriation of her life story. She also sued Twentieth Century-Fox for invasion of privacy and received $52,000.

When the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), formed by a merger in 1976, offered Sutton a paid speaking tour to promote its ongoing Southern drive, she took the deal. It hoped to exploit her association with the film and hired a publicist to keep her on specific talking points. Sutton told her own story anyway, while advocating for the ACTWU.

After the tour, Sutton presented herself as “the real Norma Rae” to talk about union organizing at colleges and labor events. She did so for the rest of her life. Even three decades later, in the summer of 2009 when she was dying of a brain tumor, Sutton posed for a photo wearing a T-shirt that supported workers on strike at Coca-Cola factories. She knew such images helped boost workers’ morale and garner media attention.

Big movies depend on capitalist mechanisms, including legal and financial instruments, to manage and direct money and content while deflecting obligation and liability. Producers and directors have asymmetrical power in the industry, but they aren’t removed from the struggle over who owns, controls and benefits from this mega-storytelling and the economic and social capital it generates.

Today, Knox is also challenging the power of Hollywood professionals by contesting “Stillwater” and interfering with its promotion. She’s not simply commenting on differences over creative choices, she’s jamming the means of cultural production by disrupting the film’s distribution. Her critique is her power in an industry dependent on ticket sales, reviews and awards.