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Johnny Depp, Amber Heard and the circus of public opinion

The fact that Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are both actors made the airing of their dirtiest laundry even more of a show

US actress Amber Heard at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse. Photo via AFP
US actress Amber Heard at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse. Photo via AFP

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You know “the court of public opinion”. That’s where people claim not to think highly of J.K. Rowling or Elon Musk, even as (presumably other) people keep buying their books and cars. Up until now this phrase has, naturally, been an abstract idea—one that for the most part can be made to vanish by turning off your smartphone. Yet these days the world appears to be on jury duty. By televising the entirety of the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard, we have brought the court of public opinion to life.

The verdict is now out. The Fairfax County court has ruled unanimously — and contentiously — in favour of Depp, but that does not exonerate our behaviour as a people. More than incontrovertible truths about the actors, this trial has shown how unqualified we are to judge them.

With every day and every session of the proceedings available live on YouTube, the trial turned into a grotesque theatrical performance. Reaction shots, verbal slip-ups, cross-examination are all being turned, with frightening rapidity, into memes. This allows the viewing public to react (and retweet) without first having to consume and process. They can opine instantly, blissfully ignorant of context.

The fact that Depp and Heard are both actors made the airing of their dirtiest laundry even more of a show, and Depp—a three-time Academy Award nominee widely recognised as one of the best actors of his generation—is playing to the galleries with élan. He is delivering a meticulously calibrated performance of raised eyebrows and smirks, painting a picture of a wounded superstar, and doing so with considerable charm. “You would sometimes drink whisky in the mornings too, right?” the lawyer asks. Depp looks surprised, then deadpans, solemn as a nail: “Isn’t happy hour any time?”

It is the most effective acting he has done in years. Depp hasn’t been in a worthy film in some time and he’s milking these proceedings desperately, knowing that the public is his only refuge after being unable to win over other courtrooms. He previously paid Heard a heavy divorce settlement, then lost a high-profile libel case against The Sun, among the UK’s most rapacious tabloids, for calling him “a wife-beater”. His career has been in tatters ever since Heard called him out for abusing her physically, and this case is an all-out attempt to discredit her and claw his way back to the spotlight.

Alarmingly, this is working. Supporters of the actor—or even standard-issue misogynists with no specific love for the whimsical films of Tim Burton (which have often starred Depp)—are swarming the internet with cries of #justiceforJohnnyDepp and petitioning for Warner Bros to drop Heard from the forthcoming Aquaman 2, a film where the actor claims her role has already been truncated considerably. Depp’s foulest allegation—that Heard defecated in his bed—will undoubtedly damage her career, while he tries to mount a comeback.

The memes are savage and relentless. By definition, a meme is a snapshot from something that outgrows its original meaning, something that divorces subject from context, and at a time where most analytical articles are tagged TL; DR (too long; didn’t read), these memes are, precariously enough, turning into placeholders for the truth. They have been a victim-blaming assault against one party, and since we have cast ourselves as the jurors, the memes have made this a kangaroo court.

With everyone competing to cast the first stone, there is no place for due process, no room—or time—for nuance or understanding. “It looks bad” should not decide a verdict. In another day and age, there would 100% have been a sizeable #TeamOJ.

The hastily assembled documentary Johnny Vs Amber (Discovery+) reminded me of HBO’s Allen V. Farrow, where documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering explored child-abuse claims made against Woody Allen and rejected by a court of law decades ago. Taking a stand against Allen is their decision, yet, instead of making their case journalistically, they choose not to bother with Allen’s side of the story. Behaving as if his narrative does not matter discredits their own. This is symptomatic of a huge problem plaguing our culture, the same one now reducing Depp and Heard to a one-sided massacre: There is only room for one popular opinion.

It is shameful for us to be watching this trial—and shameful that we even can. In the Seinfeld episode ‘The Junior Mint’ (season 4, episode 20, Netflix), Kramer goes to a hospital theatre to observe a surgery and ends up throwing candy inside the cut-up patient. We are throwing malice instead. TikTokers and YouTubers focusing on other subjects have pivoted to making Depp-Heard content purely for the eyeballs, and it has become hard to go online without encountering distasteful compilation videos painting Depp as some sort of defiant champion of the people.

Jurors witness each other’s biases. Ripping into Heard for crying without enough tears and applauding Depp for a drily delivered answer is showing where we stand as a people. Like it or not, this trial is holding up a mirror to us all and the sight is not pretty. We are a mob, voyeurs incapable of sitting in judgement. By transferring our anger on Heard—and those we judge without knowing better—we are venting. Sanity is outnumbered. On the internet, there are far more than 12 angry men.

Streaming tip of the week:

“I’m not a hypochondriac,” says Norm Macdonald. “I just think I am.” Before the beloved comedian passed away last year, he recorded a stand-up gig at home. Ironically titled Nothing Special, this last Netflix special gives us one final go-around with the one and only Norm. Inimitable beyond the end.

Also read: Suniti Namjoshi: In the wonderland of history, fiction and myth

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