MGM is the latest movie studio to come under fire after appearing to distance themselves from embattled actor Johnny Depp, this according to Minamata helmer Andrew Levitas. Following allegations made by ex-wife Amber Heard that Depp had been physically abusive during their brief marriage, the actor says he was fired by Disney from his role as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. More recently, he was asked by Warner Bros. to resign from his role as Grindelwald from Fantastic Beasts 3.
Johnny Depp has always maintained that he was never abusive to Heard. Over the course of his subsequent legal battles with Heard, Depp's lawyers have released evidence to the public that many fans believe support his side of the story. This includes audio recordings of Heard allegedly admitting to being violent toward Depp and police body cam footage from a night he had allegedly attacked her.
Believing in Depp, many fans have been supporting the actor with a #JusticeForJohnnyDepp campaign on social media. A popular petition on Change.org was launched for Warner Bros. to fire Heard from Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and while it topped 1.8 million signatures, it failed to convince the studio. As Warner Bros. had asked Depp to resign from Fantastic Beasts 3, this brought about more backlash from fans accusing the studio of a double standard.
MGM might be facing some of that fan backlash next, as Minamata director Andrew Levitas is calling the studio out for trying to "bury" the movie because of Depp's involvement. Based on true events, the harrowing drama stars Depp as an American photographer who documents the effects of mercury poisoning on the citizens of Minamata, Kumamoto, Japan. Ali Shams Noraei, Hiroyuki Sanada, Minami Hinase, Bill Nighy, Jun Kunimara, and Tadanobu Asano also star.
The logline for Minamata reads: "War photographer W. Eugene Smith (Depp) travels back to Japan where he documents the devastating effect of mercury poisoning in coastal communities."
Originally, Minamata was scheduled for a theatrical release in the United States and the United Kingdom in February. Because of the pandemic, its release was pulled from the schedule, though it's since been set to release in the U.K. on Aug. 6. Meanwhile, MGM is handling the movie's distribution in the U.S., and Levitas says he was told directly by acquisitions head Sam Wollman that "MGM had decided to 'bury the film'" by quietly releasing it with no promotion just to fulfill their contractual obligations.
Feeling that the wrong people are getting punished by MGM's decision, Levitas wrote a letter to MGM, which he also sent to Minamata' s backers The Eugene Smith Foundation and the Minamata Foundation. Stressing just how important it is for this story to be seen, Levitas also included actual photos of the pain, suffering, and deformities that came along with the mercury poisoning in Minamata that was exposed in the 1950s. We won't be showing the images here, but per Deadline, portions of the letter can be viewed below.
"Roughly a year ago MGM purchased the North American rights to the film Minamata after viewing it at the Berlinale," the letter begins. "MGM was intent on bringing to light the suffering of the thousands of victims of one of the most heinous industrial pollution incidents the world has ever seen. In re-exposing their pain in the sharing of their story, this long marginalized 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."
Clearly emotional, Levitas then goes on to add: "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."
The director compares MGM's decision to do the bare minimum with Minamata to The Chisso Corporation's actions in Minamata. He recalls the story of speaking with a man in Minamata whose child "suffered every single day of her life" because a "large faceless corporation didn't live up to their moral obligation to humanity, decency and righteousness." Levitas implores MGM to speak directly to the victim, Tomoko Uemura, for a better understanding of why this is so important.
"Yes, you are legally within your rights to bury their story as so many have done before, but you have a moral obligation to do better than that and at a minimum we implore you to speak directly to Mr. Uemura and the other victims and offer them the dignity of understanding first hand why you think an actor's personal life is more important than their dead children, their siblings, their parents, and all victims of industrial pollution and corporate malfeasance," the letter reads. "We remain steadfast that MGM will land on the right side of these issues and as such the filmmakers, the victims, their families, various NGOs and GOs, and more - all eagerly await the opportunity to work together."
Per Deadline, MGM offered this official response when asked about the letter from Levitas: "The film was acquired for release via American International Pictures (AIP), a division of MGM which handles day-and-date releases. Minamata continues to be among future AIP releases and at this time, the film's U.S. release date is TBA."
Closing out his letter, Levitas included a link to a video of another mercury poisoning victim, Shinobu Sakamoto, talking about her experience "in hopes that Mr. Wollman and MGM will be reminded of their humanity, their responsibilities, and how rare the opportunity they hold in their hands is." You can watch that video on YouTube, and you can read the full letter Levitas sent to MGM, along with photos taken at Minamata, by visiting Deadline.