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Depp v. Heard Takes Steps to Rectify the Wrongs of the Defamation Case

The Netflix docuseries emphasizes the targeted harassment campaign against Amber Heard and raises questions about its impact on the trial.
  • Johnny Depp and Amber Heard during their 2022 defamation trial. (Photos: Netflix)
    Johnny Depp and Amber Heard during their 2022 defamation trial. (Photos: Netflix)

    [Editor's Note: This story contains descriptions of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.]

    Much has been written about Judge Penny Azcarate's decision to allow cameras into the courtroom in the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, which dominated the headlines for six weeks from April to June 2022. At the time, critics, including Heard's lawyers who argued unsuccessfully against a televised trial, called it "the single worst decision" for victims of domestic and sexual violence, and advocates expressed concerns that the prospect of live-streamed proceedings would deter others from coming forward with allegations of abuse.

    Considering the resulting media frenzy, it stands to reason that this case would hardly benefit from any additional coverage, especially 14 months after the fact. However, Netflix's new docuseries Depp v. Heard takes steps to rectify the wrongs of the trial by emphasizing the way Heard was mistreated by the public. Director Emma Cooper (The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes) goes on to raise questions about whether the overwhelmingly pro-Depp sentiment that proliferated on TikTok and YouTube influenced jurors, who found Heard liable for defamation and awarded Depp more than $10 million in compensatory damages, while awarding Heard $2 million in relation to her countersuit.

    Depp v. Heard is by no means the first docuseries produced about the high-profile case and the 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which Heard referred to herself as "a public figure representing domestic abuse" without ever mentioning Depp by name. During the 2022 trial, Discovery+ released Johnny vs Amber, a two-parter about Depp's 2018 libel suit against British tabloid The Sun, followed by Johnny vs Amber: The U.S. Trial a few months later. (In September, Tubi also premiered a dramatized take on the Virginia trial starring Mark Hapka and Megan Davis as Depp and Heard, respectively.)

    But while Discovery's Johnny vs Amber projects took a bifurcated approach, detailing Depp's version of events in one episode and Heard's in the next, Depp v. Heard places their witness testimony side-by-side for the first time. Footage of Heard recalling an incident in which Depp allegedly struck her is followed by his claim that "it never happened." Episode 2, "Breaking the Internet," includes their conflicting recollections of a March 2015 encounter in their Australia home, with Depp alleging Heard severed the tip of his finger by throwing a glass bottle at him, and Heard testifying her ex-husband held her "by the neck," bashed her head against the counter, and sexually assaulted her with a bottle.

    By presenting their testimony in such an objective manner, Cooper underscores just how far the scope of the case strayed from the question of whether Heard had the right to call herself a victim of domestic abuse. Both Depp and Heard presented compelling evidence that they acted violently towards one another, but despite the fact that Heard's allegations were corroborated by multiple people, the trial became about her credibility as a witness. A juror who spoke with Good Morning America admitted as much: He criticized Heard's "crocodile tears," saying she "didn't come across as believable" on the stand.

    When compared to the spliced-together footage of Depp and Heard, which makes for a neutral but comprehensive overview of the trial, the cherry-picked social media coverage appears even more insidious. On TikTok, users lifted clips from the courtroom out of context, editing them in a way that diminished the allegations — the discussion around a video of Depp trashing their kitchen devolved into jokes about his "mega pint" of wine — or, even worse, spread misinformation to hundreds of millions. The vast majority of these videos were weaponized against Heard: NPR reported that by late May, TikTok posts tagged with #JusticeForJohnnyDepp had earned 1.5 billion views, while those tagged with #IStandWithAmberHeard received just 8.2 million.

    These videos, as well as the hundreds of live-streamed reactions on YouTube, feature prominently in Depp v. Heard, a docuseries that's as much about the trial itself as the public's response to it. Cooper often presents these TikToks (almost all of which were pro-Depp, a decision that reflects the overwhelming amount of content made by his fans) without comment, and she even allows the social media users to narrate the action and set the stage for big courtroom developments, including testimony regarding the Australia incident and the reading of the verdict.

    But the director's editorial voice comes through loud and clear as she digs into why so many anti-Heard videos were produced in such a short period of time. It's not just that Depp is the bigger star or that he cultivated a toxic, misogynistic fanbase (though both seem to be true), but that there was money to be made here. A title card explains that "millions of dollars were generated by content creators" during the trial: When users with small followings realized the public's interest in the case — and particularly their interest in Depp — they began pumping out content that reinforced that perspective. More views meant more money and clout, which, thanks to TikTok's and YouTube's algorithms, pushed their content to an even wider audience.

    As Depp v. Heard reaches its final episode, "The Viral Verdict," Cooper asks whether the outsized social media reaction may have played a role in the jury siding with Depp. She adopts a similar strategy as before, this time intercutting Savannah Guthrie's interviews with Heard's attorney Elaine Bredehoft, who said the pro-Depp content "absolutely" impacted the trial, and Depp's lawyers, who denied the implication that "the jurors violated their oath."

    The juror who spoke with GMA insisted the jury "didn't take into account anything outside" the courtroom, but they were never sequestered, and as Bredehoft mentioned in her interview, the trial was paused for 10 days in early May due to a scheduling conflict with Azcarate's judicial conference. Even if the jurors followed the judge's instructions and didn't seek out any information about the case, the pro-Depp sentiment was so prevalent on social media — and elsewhere, including non-news shows like Saturday Night Live — that it would have been difficult to avoid. As New York Times critic Amanda Hess wrote, "I did not follow the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard — it followed me."

    Cooper doesn't presume to offer any concrete answers about whether the public's reaction to the case impacted the outcome, but the Netflix docuseries leaves no doubt that Heard was the victim of a targeted harassment campaign by Depp's fans and opportunistic social media influencers. Acknowledging that fact isn't the same as delivering justice, but given the degree to which this case was litigated in the court of public opinion, it's an important first step.

    Depp v. Heard premieres Wednesday, August 16 on Netflix.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Depp v. Heard, Netflix, Amber Heard, Emma Cooper, Johnny Depp