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Netflix’s Amanda Knox documentary traces how a murder case became a cultural witch hunt

Amanda Knox kissed her boyfriend at the worst possible moment. The aftermath is a dark tale of sexism, slut shaming, and tabloid mythmaking.

Amanda Knox Awaits Murder Verdict Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

She had too much sex. She did too many drugs. She kissed her boyfriend at the worst possible moment and laughed at the worst possible times.

The story of Amanda Knox has been thoroughly canvassed in the media as a dark mystery — a sordid tale of murder, sex, and a wild stay in scenic Italy gone wrong.

But as the new Netflix documentary Amanda Knox, released September 30, reveals, the reality is both simpler and much harsher: a classic case of clashing cultures, a rigid moral structure threatened by subversion, and a hapless individual in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Amanda Knox was just 20 when she became the focus of a murder case that would last nearly a decade

Accused and tried for the brutal sexual assault and murder of her flatmate Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox has been known to the public until now primarily as one half in a series of opposites: Meredith was a studious brunette; Amanda was a cute blonde. Meredith was a homebody; Amanda did drugs and liked to party. Meredith was the chaste "good girl"; Amanda was the slut who’d slept with seven people by the time Kercher had her throat cut in their idyllic cottage in Perugia, Italy, on November 1, 2007.

The cliffside house in Perugia, Italy, where Meredith Kercher and Amanda Knox lived as overseas students in the fall of 2007.

This is how the narrative around Italy's "trial of the century" went, fueled simultaneously by a media frenzy and a parochial prosecutor who was convinced that Knox was the mastermind behind a group sex orgy. The media has rarely been so gleefully vicious as it was during its coverage of the Amanda Knox case; that Knox was barely out of her teens when the murder occurred only seemed to add to the general rush to demonize her.

Knox was convicted under Italian law, then acquitted and released, then convicted again, and finally, in 2015, ultimately exonerated by the Italian Supreme Court, after an eight-year ordeal that saw headlines on both sides of the Atlantic and massive public outcry arguing Knox’s guilt or innocence.

Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, the new documentary Amanda Knox leans heavily toward the view that the Italian Supreme Court’s decision to exonerate Knox was the correct one. Rather than meticulously rehashing the minutiae of evidence for and against Knox, however, Amanda Knox follows in the footsteps of well-known crime documentaries like The Staircase, allowing its subject to tell her side of the story as the narrative unfolds the major developments in the case.

Knox, who has a book, a blog, and a regular opinion column, is articulate about the public’s reaction to her, insisting that there’s no true black-and-white way to view the events of November 2007. "If I’m guilty," she says, calmly facing the camera, "it means that I am the ultimate figure to fear because I’m not the obvious one. But on the other hand, if I’m innocent it means that everyone's vulnerable. ... Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you."

The new documentary has a clear antagonist in the Italian prosecutor convinced Knox was behind a bizarre sex crime

Amanda Knox opens with fairly disturbing video footage of the initial walkthrough of the blood-soaked crime scene — in which we can, incidentally, see swarming Italian police casually contaminating the scene. We also see a now-famous clip of Knox, standing outside with her brand-new boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. Her expression is grim, but in the moment captured on film, she is focused on kissing him — not on the proceedings around her.

This moment was Knox’s undoing.

The overwhelming physical evidence from the crime scene indicated that Rudy Guede, a West African immigrant and lifelong resident of the city, had assaulted and murdered Kercher. But despite this, and despite Knox and Sollecito providing alibis for each other as being nowhere near the house that night, Italian police almost immediately suspected Knox and Sollecito because of their "inappropriate" behavior outside of the house following the discovery of Kercher’s body.

Prosecutors interviewed Knox for hours without a lawyer, allegedly hit her, and derived contradictory claims from both her and Sollecito about their whereabouts, accounts that both later claimed were false and extracted under duress. From there, the police spent months attempting to build their case against Knox and Sollecito, buoyed by the moral outrage of the Italian public and a wealth of circumstantial, largely shoddy evidence.

Amanda Knox spends most of its time transitioning through major case developments, frequently checking in with the chief prosecutor in the case, Giuliano Mignini. His version of events, and the process by which he comes to believe in Knox’s guilt, comes across in this narrative as chiefly self-serving, dreadfully sexist, and often wildly delusional. Mignini’s statements are so fanciful that it’s easy to wonder if nuance has gotten lost in translation; however, perhaps as its nod to objectivity, the documentary politely omits that Mignini has not only a history of abuse of power but also an obsession with the occult and a history of fantasizing imaginary crimes based on faulty assumptions.

For instance, Mignini tells the camera that after observing Knox kissing her boyfriend, he decided immediately that a woman must have been involved in the crime because someone had wrapped Kercher’s body with a bed sheet. His reasoning: "A man would never think to do that."

Again and again, Mignini seems to make drastic leaps from one fantastical conclusion to the next: that the break-in was staged; that Knox was first not emotional enough, then suspiciously too emotional; that she was the sinister mastermind of a "drug-fueled sex game," a phrase repeated over and over during the first trial; and that Kercher was somehow a pure soul offended by Knox’s slutty ways.

"She was very uninhibited," he says of Knox at one point. "She would bring boys home." Meredith is "a girl different from Amanda in every way" — except for the fact that they were both living in the same house, drawn to the same loosely constructed overseas-study program in Perugia.

"[Kercher] must have scolded Amanda for her lack of morals," he says at another point, attempting to justify what he believed was a fight (never substantiated) between the girls that led to his proposed dastardly sex orgy. "I am convinced that Sollecito and Rudy were trying to indulge Amanda in every possible way that night." But Guede was a stranger to Knox and Sollecito; they had no connection at all.

The antiquated but deeply held sexism forming the basis of Mignini’s beliefs would almost be comical, if the results of his biases hadn’t proven so disastrous. Possessed of a quiet dignity, a deep earnestness, and the support of his entire country, Mignini spent years persecuting Knox without any substantial proof. (Though Mignini was sentenced for abuse of power in 2010 in an unrelated case, his conviction was overturned and he was later promoted.)

Again and again, Knox received harsher treatment than her fellow suspects. Guede, whose DNA was all over the bedroom, had his sentence reduced to 16 years on appeal while Knox was initially sentenced to 26 years, one year more than Sollecito, despite the complete lack of physical evidence placing them anywhere near the crime. And while Knox continues to be demonized following her exoneration, Sollecito has gone on to become a minor celebrity in Italian media, serving as the host of a true crime show.

The international tabloid media had a field day with the moral outrage behind the trial of Amanda Knox

The double standard Knox faced isn’t purely due to her gender but also because of the turbulence and change afflicting international print journalism in 2007. Tabloid journalists who were anxious over the rise of social media, and its subsequent impact on their livelihoods, salivated over the endless number of juicy scoops coming out of Perugia.

Nick Pisa, then a tabloid reporter for the Daily Mail who had a direct hand in painting some of the worst portraits of Knox — including nicknaming her "Foxy Knoxy" — presents himself, in his Amanda Knox interviews, as the worst stereotype of a bygone tabloid hound hungry to race his way to the front page, regardless of whom his sensationalism hurts.

The police investigation enabled the media, which enabled the investigation. "Lucifer-like, Satanic, demonic, diabolical, a witch of deception" — this quote is an actual headline (since changed) from British tabloid the Mirror; the quotes are all salacious quips used by lawyers during the first trial of Knox and Sollecito. The belief that Knox was somehow involved in the occult, first proposed by Mignini and bandied about at trial without any supporting evidence, doesn’t make it into the documentary, but the subtext around the public’s belief in her guilt makes it clear.

Journalists invested in the alleged mystery around Knox’s guilt or innocence continued to insist upon "the elusiveness of the truth" even years after many new details about the case had come out — like the falseness of the DNA evidence on which the prosecution had pinned its investigation, and the unreliability of the one witness (a heroin addict who’d been high the night of the murder) who had vaguely placed Knox and Sollecito at the crime scene.

Amanda Knox takes aim not at the technical details of the case but at the reason the case existed to begin with

After a second trial convicted Knox and Sollecito on purely circumstantial evidence, the Italian Supreme Court ultimately exonerated the pair on the basis of "stunning flaws" in the investigation. The documentary envelops the cultural differences and clashes that result in two very different sets of screaming crowds awaiting Knox after her appeal — an angry mob in Italy, a celebratory throng in Seattle.

Because of the documentary’s clear bias in favor of Knox’s exoneration, die-hards convinced of Knox’s guilt may find its omissions frustrating. For instance, the documentary takes pains to show her father repudiating the idea, floated by a journalist, that Knox would publish her story for money, while failing to mention that Knox reportedly received $4 million for her memoir. And the vast majority of the circumstantial evidence against Knox and Sollecito, which led the Italian appellate court to not only re-convict them but issue a detailed 300-page defense of its decision, is never really addressed.

What Blackhurst and McGinn do instead is make abundantly clear that Knox was never really on trial for the murder of her roommate to begin with, but rather for being sexually active and immodest in a country not her own — the ultimate injustice not just to Knox, but to the murder victim herself.

For anyone unfamiliar with the case, or anyone who thought they knew the truth, Amanda Knox is a gripping exercise in checking personal biases and assumptions — not to mention presumptions of guilt — before they spiral out of control.