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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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