By most accounts, Minamata is a pretty good movie. It’s a dramatization of the story of real-life photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who in 1971 was dispatched to the Japanese fishing village of Minamata to chronicle the impact of mercury poisoning by the Chisso Chemical Company.
What resulted was a shocking series of photographs that exposed the crime to the world, despite the company trying to block Smith at every turn. Ordinarily, this would be classic Oscar bait: a sober prestige picture about corporate greed with a heavyweight actor at the helm.
But, unfortunately for Minamata, that heavyweight actor is Johnny Depp. Depp’s reputation has crumbled over the last few years, particularly after the UK High Court ruled that it wasn’t libelous to call him a “wife-beater”, promptly followed by him losing his appeal against the decision.
Minamata was soon removed from festival schedules and director Andrew Levitas says MGM went out of their way to “bury” the movie in the US. Here’s his letter to the studio:
‘In re-exposing their pain in the sharing of their story, this long marginalised community hoped for only one thing – to lift history from the shadows so that other innocents would never be afflicted as they have… and it seemed in that moment, with MGM’s partnership, a decades-long wish was finally coming true. Now, imagine the devastation when they learned this past week, that despite an already successful global roll out, MGM had decided to “bury the film” (acquisitions head Mr. Sam Wollman’s words) because MGM was concerned about the possibility that the personal issues of an actor in the film could reflect negatively upon them and that from MGM’s perspective the victims and their families were secondary to this.”
Australian photojournalist Stephen Dupont feels it’s particularly insulting that this story won’t get the audience it deserves, saying that he enjoyed the movie, that the pain of the real-life victims of the poisoning has been ignored, and that MGM is engaged in censorship:
‘MGM is not just punishing Depp but everyone else, the other actors, the director, the cinematographer, writers, all those involved. Even if the allegations were true, I wouldn’t change my opinion. With Depp what we’re talking about is a marriage breakdown, something that lots of people go through all around the world, the only difference is that they’re not celebrities. It’s a sad state of censorship in a far too critical world where, god forbid, if you say or do anything the wrong way, or make a mistake, and you’re crucified every which way. Let’s get these things into perspective.’
It’s a fair point, though in my eyes there’s a difference between saying something “the wrong way” and beating the crap out of your wife.
Anyway, there’s a chance Minamata might one day get its moment in the spotlight. Depp is pinning his hopes on a titanic clash with ex-wife Amber Heard in 2022. Depp is suing Heard for $50M over a Washington Post op-ed she wrote about her experience as a victim of domestic violence. She’s filed a $100 million counterclaim, also alleging defamation and that Johnny was responsible for a social media effort to tarnish her career by getting her booted off Aquaman 2.
Perhaps if Depp is vindicated in a domestic court he can begin rebuilding his reputation and Minamata will be reappraised by audiences. Though, honestly, I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much.