On August 16th, Netflix will debut Depp v. Heard, a three-part docuseries about the infamous Virginia defamation trial between actor-exes Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Though the seven-week trial wrapped on June 1, 2022, with the court finding Heard liable on three counts of defamation (awarding Depp $10.35 million in damages) and Depp liable on one count of defamation (awarding Heard $2 million in damages), its reverberations continue to this day — including how Team Depp managed to rally a number of opportunistic online content creators to the Pirates of the Caribbean actor’s defense and weaponize social media against Heard.
This trial-turned-public spectacle concerned an op-ed Heard had published in The Washington Post with the help of the ACLU referring to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse” who “spoke up against sexual violence.” And, even though neither party lives in Virginia, and The Washington Post is not headquartered in Virginia, Depp’s team was allowed to choose Virginia as their venue because the paper had servers there. It was also likely a strategy on the part of Team Depp, since Virginia has some of the weakest anti-SLAPP laws in the country — laws protecting people from defamation suits — and also allows its trials to be livestreamed with a judge’s approval.
While I fully expected Depp v. Heard to be an exploitative and empty affair, similar to Max’s recent documentary Kim Vs. Kanye: The Divorce, it instead serves as a valuable cultural corrective of sorts that recontextualizes the trial by analyzing the ways social media were employed to twist Heard’s testimony and damage her reputation, and the significant amount of pre-trial evidence backing Heard that was somehow deemed inadmissible.
Directed by Emma Cooper, and presented in three 45-minute episodes, the docuseries — which previously aired on Channel 4 in the U.K. — opens with a disclaimer: “The footage of the trial has been edited together for clarity, allowing their accounts to be shown side by side for the first time.” Heard and Depp’s testimonies are intercut with commentary from a number of YouTube and TikTok creators who used the trial to generate content and millions in profits. Among these odious characters is DARTHN3WS, a YouTuber and self-confessed Depp superfan/men’s rights activist who broadcasts in a Deadpool costume; ThatUmbrellaGuy, a Depp apologist who was found to have been fed information by Depp attorney/consigliere Adam Waldman, who was kicked off the Virginia trial for leaking confidential, sealed information to the media; Andy Signore, a YouTuber and Depp defender who was himself fired from Screen Junkies over numerous sexual misconduct allegations; and Emily D. Baker, a former deputy DA turned YouTuber and podcaster.
“I struggle to find the words for how painful this is,” Amber Heard began her testimony. “This is horrible.”
A number of the major episodes in the trial are revisited, including how Heard and Depp met while making 2011’s The Rum Diary and fell in love. They later married in February 2015 and Heard filed for divorce in May of 2016, obtaining a temporary restraining order against him and later alleging abuse. The divorce was finalized in January 2017, with Heard receiving a settlement of $7 million, which she subsequently pledged to the ACLU and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Heard testified that during a shower kissing scene in The Rum Diary, instead of pulling back his kisses and not using his tongue (which is customary behavior in kissing scenes), Depp grabbed her face and really kissed her, using his tongue. Then, later that night, she said he called her to his trailer where he playfully threw her down on his couch and said, “Yum.” Depp v. Heard makes the cringeworthy creative choice of showing a number of lovey-dovey scenes from The Rum Diary featuring Depp and Heard at various points throughout.
He called her “Slim” and she called him “Steve,” after Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not, who met when Bogie was 45 and Bacall was 19. It was a way, Depp testified, for him to justify (or perhaps even glamorize) their age gap.
There is the 2014 incident about a Boston flight where Heard alleges that Depp drunkenly berated her before kicking her in the back. (Depp denied this occurred.) Strangely enough, the judge did not allow texts from Depp’s assistant Stephen Deuters sent to Heard following the Boston flight to be admitted in the Virginia trial even though they were presented in the U.K. trial. Deuters texted Heard: “If someone was truly honest with him about how bad it really was, he would be appalled… I’m sad he does not have a better way to really know the severity of his actions yesterday. Unfortunately for me, I remember them in full, in full detail, everything that happened. He was appalled, when I told him he kicked you, he cried.” Depp then texted Heard: “Once again, I find myself in a place of shame and regret. Of course I am sorry…I will never do it again…My illness somehow crept up and grabbed me…I feel so bad for letting you down.” Depp further called himself a “fucking savage” and a “lunatic.”
Or “The Staircase Incident” of 2015 in L.A. Heard and her sister, Whitney Henriquez, both claim that Depp attacked Heard after she confronted him about seeing texts on Depp’s iPad revealing that he’d likely cheated on her with an ex. According to both Heard and Whitney, Depp called Heard ugly names and even punched Whitney when she tried to get in between the two of them, prompting Heard to strike Depp. Then, according to Heard and Whitney, Depp grabbed Heard by the hair with one hand and was striking her repeatedly in the face with the other.
During her testimony, Heard made the mistake of mentioning that she’d heard a rather public rumor that Depp had thrown Kate Moss down the stairs — which backfired when Depp’s team called on Moss to testify in his defense. The pro-Depp online crowd cheered on Moss’s testimony because they believed that this proved Heard was unreliable.
The most harrowing testimony concerned a March 2015 fight in a rental property in Australia while Depp was filming the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film. Depp testified that Heard became angry when she caught him taking a series of vodka shots and threw a vodka bottle at him that shattered and somehow cut the tip of his finger off. Heard testified that Depp taunted her, ripped her nightgown off so she was naked, and was on top of her, grabbing her by the neck before sexually assaulting her with a glass bottle.
“He had me by the neck, and I’m looking in his eyes, and I don’t see him anymore. I don’t see him anymore. It wasn’t him. It was black,” testified Heard, through tears. “I’ve never been so scared in my life. It was black. I couldn’t see him. And my head was bashing against the back of the bar, and I couldn’t breathe.”
An April 2016 altercation at Depp’s Downtown L.A. penthouse attracted the most online chatter. Depp showed up late to Heard’s birthday party, and each testified that they were physically attacked by the other. Heard left for Coachella the next day, and Depp said that he was informed by his team that there was “human fecal matter” on the bed — and Depp accused Heard in court of being responsible for it. The pro-Depp internet lost its mind over the allegation, memeing it to oblivion and seeing it as confirmation that Heard was the unstable one in the relationship. Heard, for her part, testified that it was Depp’s dog, Boo, that shat the bed, pointing to how Boo had eaten a bunch of Depp’s weed by accident and had serious bowel issues. Depp laughed this explanation off in the Virginia trial, even though he had testified during the U.K. trial that Boo had eaten his weed and had bowel issues, and had even shat the bed before.
A text from Depp to a friend admitted as evidence in the U.K. trial read, “Will you squat in front of the door of the master bedroom and leave a giant coil of dookie so that Amber steps in it and thinks it’s one of the dogs, primarily Boo [who] has a major problem. It’ll be funny.”
In May of 2016, shortly before Heard filed for divorce, Depp visited the L.A. penthouse with two security guards to talk. The two hadn’t seen each other in a month. Heard testified that Depp became angry with her over the poop-in-bed incident, and made her call her friend IO Tillett Wright, accusing him of doing the deed. Heard then alleges that Depp threw the phone at her face, causing bruising. IO echoed Heard’s claim in court, saying he overheard Depp on the phone yelling, “‘You think I hit you? You think I fucking hit you? What if I peel your fucking hair back?’” adding, “And then I heard the phone drop again and then I heard her scream.” Depp testified that the screaming was merely Heard acting, and Depp’s security guard who entered the room said he didn’t observe bruising on her face at the time.
Heard is also on tape admitting to hitting Depp — though not punching him — leading Depp to testify that he was the victim of domestic violence during the course of their relationship, not her. Depp’s supporters, including podcasters like former Bachelor star Nick Viall and the YouTube and TikTok crowd, saw this as incontrovertible evidence of her guilt. Depp v. Heard curiously excludes audio presented at trial of Depp admitting “I headbutted you in the fucking forehead,” and “I chopped off my finger.”
Following the verdict, Depp fans raised money to unseal over 6,000 pre-trial documents in the case, though the docs proved damning to Depp. In addition to the aforementioned text messages in the Boston and poop incidents that weren’t deemed admissible in court, the docs also contained a number of other eye-opening details that weren’t included in Depp v. Heard: an allegation from Heard’s team that Depp’s was trying to submit her nude photos into evidence; that Depp’s team tried to baselessly blame the death of one of Heard’s closest friends on her; that during her divorce proceedings, Heard allegedly walked away from “tens of millions of dollars” more she could have received; that Heard’s team alleged metadata proved that audio Depp’s team submitted as evidence was manipulated; that Depp’s team fought to “exclude evidence of negative social media traffic and [a] purported Russian ‘bot’ campaign regarding Ms. Heard”; that Depp’s team fought to exclude “references to and evidence regarding Marilyn Manson”; and that Depp’s team argued that he should not be subjected to an independent medical evaluation “Because Mr. Depp Is Not Alleging Harm Based On A Specific Physical or Mental Injury,” and that “Mr. Depp does not allege a specific cause of action for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress; does not assert that Ms. Heard’s actions caused him a specific psychiatric injury; and does not claim that Ms. Heard’s actions caused him to experience unusually severe emotional distress.”
Heard filed a number of post-trial motions that were dismissed, and the two settled the case in December 2022, with Heard agreeing to pay Depp $1 million. Not in Depp v. Heard is that, in July 2022, Bot Sentinel released a 17-page report titled, “Targeted Trolling and Trend Manipulation: How Organized Attacks on Amber Heard and Other Women Thrive on Twitter.” The report concluded that Heard’s was “one of the worst cases of cyberbullying and cyberstalking by a group of Twitter accounts that we’ve ever seen,” and that much of the activity was artificial, with “over 24% of the accounts tweeting anti-Amber Heard hashtags were created within the past seven months.”
Depp v. Heard will provide some valuable context for those trial-watchers who were swayed by social media, though it’s far from the definitive docuseries on the case of John C. Depp, II v. Amber Laura Heard. It features side-by-side footage of their testimonies and offers scrutiny regarding social media activity surrounding the trial, but doesn’t contain interviews with any of the players involved — ensuring that this story is far from over.
From Rolling Stone US.
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