By ignoring the black lives involved, the new Netflix documentary Amanda Knox (premiering on Netflix on September 30) is not only a very white film, it ends up producing its own miscarriage of justice.
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The rising popularity of documentaries, particularly during the last two decades, likely has a lot to do with the commonly held view that “images don’t lie”: in a world where visual culture so dominates our lives, images and films, much more than written or spoken words, are seen as better reflecting “social reality” and capturing “the truth.” Amanda Knox, Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst’s new documentary film, which premiered in August at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be aired on Netflix starting September 30, puts paid to this view: images do lie, in this case, not so much by what they say as by what they ignore or marginalize.
Paradoxically, Amanda Knox centers on the miscarriage of justice and, on the face of it, has nothing at all to do with race. Yet, by focusing on four central protagonists – all of whom happen to be “white” – while marginalizing two others – both of whom not only happen to be black but are equally central to the Amanda Knox story – the film makes race a crucial but unspoken subject.
The film chronicles the events surrounding the gruesome murder of Knox’s 21-year-old British housemate, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia, Italy, for which Knox and her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, are initially accused in 2007. The case has all the ingredients of a sensational story – death, sex games, femme fatale, a controversial police investigation – and so becomes the subject of international headlines. “Foxy Knoxy,” as the British tabloid press dubs Knox, spends four years in prison. But the media frenzy surrounding her is kept alive much longer because she and Sollecito end up being convicted, and acquitted, twice. Only in 2015 are their convictions finally quashed by Italy’s highest court, in large part due to a botched police investigation and shoddy DNA evidence.
McGinn and Blackhurst construct their film based partly on archival and news footage, but mainly on exclusive interviews with four key figures, carried out in the aftermath of Knox’s first acquittal in 2011. There is Knox herself, a quirky yet steely personality, who reflects on her fate thoughtfully and articulately. At the outset of the film, she declares that if she is guilty, she is “the ultimate figure to fear,” but if she is innocent, “it means everyone’s vulnerable . . . [and my nightmare becomes] everyone’s nightmare.” Then there is Raffaele Sollecito, who plays the stereotypical young, passionate Italian lover and comes across as naive but well-meaning. Next, Giuliano Mignini, the main Italian public prosecutor: he helps shed light on the murder investigation, but also betrays a small-minded smugness that one surmises contributed to his erroneous prosecution. Finally, we have Nick Pisa, one of the main British tabloid journalists who reported on the case. His unbridled cockiness provides the film with moments of comic relief, while confirming once again why the tabloid press can so easily engage in trashy sensationalism.
Although central to the story, the murder victim, Meredith Kercher, gets comparatively less airtime in the film. She is represented by a recurring, ghostly cell phone video clip of her, taken just a few days before her murder, as well as by a short interview with her mother and media appearances by her sister.
Yet there are two figures central to the Knox debacle that the film notably elides. And revealingly, both are black men. First, there is Patrick Lumumba, who appears in the documentary only in the form of silent images. He is the Congolese bar owner in Perugia who employs Knox as a part-time worker, and whom she initially falsely blames for the murder. In the film, Knox declares that her false accusation was extracted by the police under duress, yet what is not revealed is that the final 2015 Italian court ruling, despite finding her innocent of the murder charges, upholds her conviction of slander against Lumumba. What is also not revealed is that, after Knox’s false allegations, Lumumba loses his bar in Perugia and, unable to find work, moves to Krakow, Poland, where he now lives.
The second key marginalized figure is Rudy Guede, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast who is eventually convicted of the murder of Kercher in a fast-track trial. Like Lumumba, he too appears only as a series of silent images and, toward the end of the documentary, is represented only fleetingly by his lawyer. He is reported to have fled Italy after Kercher’s slaying, but was apprehended after his fingerprints and DNA were found at the murder scene and on Kercher’s body. We are also told that he initially admits only to having had sex with Kercher, but then sees his sentence reduced when he changes his story to fit the prosecution’s, alleging that Knox and Sollecito had engaged in a sex game gone awry (an allegation later disproved). He is currently halfway through a 16-year sentence and will be eligible for parole in the next two years.
Seen in this light, Amanda Knox appears as a contemporary example of “whitewashing.” Produced for a primarily US market with Netflix backing, the film successfully makes a case for the miscarriage of justice, but it does so by illuminating white protagonists while sidelining important black ones. It is hard to see the film’s omission of Knox’s calumny conviction, as well as of the dire consequences her slander had on Lumumba’s life, as anything but an attempt to produce a more pure and redemptive white American heroine. By helping exonerate Amanda, the documentary allows America to feel good about itself and its own (white) daughter.
It is also hard to understand the filmmakers’ choice to interview only the four white protagonists as anything but racism by default. This decision certainly helps humanize the white characters, giving them depth and history, but it thereby relegates the black characters to the background. By failing to give voice to Lumumba and Guede, by speaking for them, the film reinforces racist stereotypes about black/African men as dangerous, inarticulate, sexually depraved, etc. It also misses the important opportunity to better understand these men’s lives (without excusing Guede’s culpability; he was convicted, after all) or the broader context of inequality and racism that are integral to the world of immigrants and refugees in Europe today.
Allowing these black men’s lives to matter in the film would not have taken away from Knox’s story about the miscarriage of justice; it would have complicated and enriched it, throwing light on broader miscarriages of social justice. But by eliding their lives, Amanda Knox not only becomes a very white film, it ends up producing its own miscarriage of justice.
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Sources for facts mentioned in the article: