International headlines were made recently when actor and legend Johnny Depp was told he would receive two major European film awards—the San Sebastian Film Festival's Premio Donostia honourary prize, and the Czech Republic's Karlovy Vary Film Festival honorary award. In response, several women spoke up criticising the decision to honour the lifelong career of Depp. "It's not the right time to give him an award before we really know what happened," said Cristina Andreu, the president of the Spanish Association of Women in Cinema and Audiovisual. However, I would argue it is the perfect time to honour Depp—and here is why.
Where it began
It was back in May of 2016 when the world first heard the shattering accounts and allegations from actress Amber Heard about her ex-husband Johnny Depp. "During the entirety of our relationship," Heard had told the Associated Press, "Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me. I endured excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse from Johnny, which has included angry and threatening assaults to me whenever I questioned his authority or disagreed with him."
Their marriage, which had lasted 15 months, ended with Heard applying for a restraining order against Depp, and with her revealing a by-now famous photograph depicting bruises on her face (something, she alleges, Depp was responsible for). It wasn't long, with the drama unfolding in the public eye, that the media began swarming over the details, with Depp's name being dragged through the headlines with various negative stories in tow. Rumours abounded that Depp had possibly lost his beloved Pirates of the Caribbean role due to the bad press and allegations, and many social media users were quick to condemn Depp and were almost seen to "relish" the discovery of this alleged dark side of the veteran actor.
Maintaining his innocence, Depp attempted to sue British tabloid The Sun in 2020 for calling him a "wife beater." In the three week trial, a media circus (as expected) surrounded the case, which ended with the judge himself concluding that the allegations against Depp were "substantially true." However, it is important to note that this was a civil trial instigated by Depp, and not a criminal trial. At this time, Johnny Depp has not been convicted of any criminal offence in the eyes of the law—yet despite this, Depp has been dropped by movie studio Warner Bros. He has lost work. As is often the case, it is often the mainstream press and social media narrators who govern the outcome of these allegations—before a judge and jury are even involved.
In light of the #MeToo movement, the Amber Heard "victim seeking justice" story is a powerful one. Over time, though, audio has been released of Heard admitting to actually hitting Depp, as well as being verbally abusive—and many were shocked. This was not the story we had been sold—this was not the direction the followers of the troubling drama were expecting to go. In the eyes of many, Depp had already been judged as guilty. Heard's emotive story—and the media force behind it—had set the actor's public condemnation in motion. Moreover, a certain demographic of social media users had a strong core of "standing with victims" in full force—without first seeing proof that somebody actually was one.
The public, even today, still reels over that published audio—which indicates that Heard had, at times, physically struck Depp. With the actor experiencing what can only be viewed as a "boycott" in Hollywood, it is now time for the media and social media movements to examine the damage caused by their input... and to put under a microscope the idea of "standing with victims"—before we even establish if a person is one.
"I was as low as I believe I could have gotten," Depp had told Rolling Stone magazine in a 2018 interview. "The next step was, 'You're going to arrive somewhere with your eyes open and you're going to leave there with your eyes closed.' I couldn't take the pain every day," he added, sparking fears about the damage to his mental health. If the breakdown of his volatile marriage, followed by the onslaught of negative media attention had served Depp with dark, sombre days, it would not surprise anybody.
Whether there was truth to Depp losing his much-loved role as Captain Jack Sparrow due to Heard's allegations or not, there was certainly an emotional and mental impact on Depp as the negative headlines rolled on. His career and his reputation are in the hands of a world which has cast him in a sinister light. The damage, since the media ran with the story, has been immeasurable—and all of this before a criminal trial has even determined the truth.
What happened to innocent until proven guilty?
The idea that those who speak up as victims must automatically be believed is damaging. Especially when it can possibly cost somebody not only their career but make a great impact on their mental health.
Anybody can lie (or be motivated to lie—for example for press, attention, money or revenge) and this is why it is important for the press to be unbiased in regards to reporting such allegations, and why we, as a public, must wait for a court of law to make the right determinations.
To be accused is a scary place to be in—if you are innocent. In this age of mainstream media and online reporting, it seems that now more than ever it is vital that the media take more responsibility in their reporting (with efforts towards impartiality) and that they should be made accountable when they fail.
Equally important are the users of social media themselves, like us, who can have a name/allegation trending within minutes on various sites, spreading like a virus and shaping public opinion before the accused even has a chance to defend themselves.
At this point in time, Johnny Depp still deserves to be offered work, and he still deserves to be honoured for his accomplishments. To suggest otherwise hints at something altogether darker about our world—that a person must be punished even if they have not yet been found guilty of any crime.
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