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Johnny Depp, Amber Heard and the deeply unsatisfying matter of re-litigating their trial

The series was panned by critics

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Amber Heard (Screen capture/YouTube-Netflix)

On Aug. 16, Netflix released a three-part docuseries revisiting last summer’s televised civil litigation over allegations that Amber Heard had defamed ex-husband Johnny Depp by claiming to have survived sexual violence and domestic abuse during their four-year relationship.

Rather than offering anything new by way of insight or analysis from anyone with relevant qualifications or experience, each episode features clips from some of the online “creators” who turned their hot takes on the trial into a veritable cottage industry of amateur legal commentary and courtroom conspiracy theories, feeding the rapacious demand for anti-Heard and pro-Depp content. (As if to underscore the project’s unseriousness, these included a men’s rights YouTuber who wore a Deadpool mask and was surrounded by Spider-Man costumes.)

Worse still, “Depp v. Heard” director Emma Cooper fails not only to answer but also to even ask the obvious questions that have lingered since a verdict was returned more than 14 months ago by seven jurors in northern Virginia who were not sequestered as the case became, by far, the most popular topic on social media and online platforms.

At the same time, however, the episodes include footage of courtroom testimony that offer a glimpse, though incomplete, into some of the trial’s more salient and dispositive moments that I otherwise would never have seen (with neither the time nor the inclination, either last year or now, to follow 120+ hours of argument by the parties presented over the course of a seven-week trial.)

Do these scenes redeem the series? Hardly. But that does not mean they offer nothing of value, especially considering that while this was not the retelling of last summer’s events that we deserve, it remains the only one we’ve got. At least, for now.

Susan Sontag, in her 1977 collection of essays “On Photography,” proclaimed “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”

In “Depp v. Heard,” the cameras facilitate a very specific kind of tourism that feels both exploitative and voyeuristic, because the reality in which we find ourselves trespassing is dark: the unraveling of a relationship between movie stars through patterns of dysfunction and abuse both familiar and alien, knowable and unknowable, like a city you have visited but never called home.

Especially when coupled with the more outrageous moments from trial that made headlines at the time – such as the debate over whether Heard defecated on Depp’s bed and blamed his teacup Yorkshire Terrier – there is a temptation to treat footage of testimony concerning the smashing of liquor bottles and hurling of wine glasses, the shoving and taunting and threats, even the physical and sexual violence, as though it were pure spectacle.

However, this would suggest, wrongly, that the painful realities of the actors’ relationship are so far removed from our lived experiences that we do not, cannot, or should not relate to them. As if a seven-week trial adjudicating the conflicts in our own intimate relationships or those involving the people we love would not turn up evidence of trouble and dysfunction, or worse.

Considering that we are primed to pick winners and losers and heroes and villains, perhaps it was unsurprising that incomplete and selectively edited footage from the case provided ample fodder for Instagram reels and TikTok videos that were created in the service of narratives that, most often, favored Depp and vilified Heard.

For me, witnessing these scenes in their proper context revealed a picture so much more complicated and, frankly, ugly that the prospect of framing the case in this manner seemed as preposterous as the idea that audiences leaving a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” should find themselves allied with either Martha or George.

To take just one example: From the witness stand, Heard recounted how she would often return home to their shared Los Angeles penthouse to find Depp nodding off in a chair because he had washed Roxicodone down with whiskey, or lying supine on the sofa fully unconscious with melted ice cream pooled in his lap. Worried about her husband’s apparent substance use disorder and unsure how best to help, the actress admitted she would sometimes take photos of him and share the pictures with a trusted friend.

Or, Depp’s attorney asked, was she just trying to humiliate him? Or, online commentators asked (often rhetorically), was this a calculated and premeditated move to collect evidence she would use against Depp in litigation or for purposes of extorting him?

As if these motives are mutually exclusive.  

Having experienced the pain of watching loved ones spiraling in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction, I can tell you why I suspect Heard took the photos, but of course the reality is neither I nor anyone else – perhaps not even she – has any clue.  

Last year, so much of the online noise about the trial came from content creators who made specious arguments to poke holes in the credibility of Heard’s testimony or alleged ulterior, sinister hidden motives based on the actress’s countenance, demeanor, speech, and other behavior.

For example, in clips that were often selectively edited or presented outside of their proper context, Heard might have seemed to cry more hysterically upon realizing the cameras were trained on her, which were used as supposed proof that her claims of suffering abuse at the hands of her ex-husband must therefore be fabricated.

Watching the footage in the manner presented on screen in “Depp v. Heard,” it becomes even more obvious how silly these interpretations were. In reality, of course, no one – not even police officers, trial court judges, F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents, trial lawyers or forensic psychiatrists – can reliably spot when someone is lying to them.

However convincing some YouTuber may have been, and however comforting the idea that we are able to see through the lies of others, I’m sorry to tell you the research on this is overwhelming and uncontested.

As Malcolm Gladwell observes in “Talking to Strangers,” Amanda Knox was falsely convicted for a murder she did not commit because “much of the prosecution’s case…rested on the allegedly strange, guilty behavior she exhibited,” which “the public deemed not in line with typical responses to grief and trauma.”

The cameras did not tell the complete story.

Well before 2022, private details about Depp and Heard’s troubled relationship had spilled onto the pages of tabloids like The Sun, which called Depp a “wife beater” in a 2018 story alleging that “overwhelming evidence was filed to show Johnny Depp engaged in domestic violence against his wife.” After he sued the paper for defamation, London’s High Court of Justice ruled against the actor in 2020, concluding the claims at issue were “substantially true.”

Still, last summer’s litigation between the actors earned far more public attention and unearthed far more (and far more titillating) private information, causing, therefore, far more damage than the supermarket rags and gossip blogs – as well as, ironically, the financial and reputational damage resulting from the very defamation claims that were adjudicated at trial.

As a reminder, Depp sued his ex-wife for a 2018 opinion article in the Washington Post in which she had written, “two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” Heard was referencing the backlash against, essentially, identical claims she made in a statement after securing a restraining order against Depp following their divorce in 2016. (“During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me,” she wrote.)

In so many cases including this one, intimate partner abuse is messy. An audio recording of one of the couple’s arguments shows Heard acknowledging she had struck her ex-husband but denying that she punched him. Her testimony, meanwhile, detailed serious violent crimes, including that Depp had thrown her into a ping pong table and repeatedly hit her in the face before sexually assaulting her with a liquor bottle that may have been broken.

Of course, assuming their sworn testimony to be true, it must also be said, domestic violence is a gendered crime. And the imbalanced power dynamics within their relationship put Heard at a disadvantage, including in this respect. While both are famous actors, the wealth, power, and fame wielded by Depp was then (and remains, now) much greater.

The disparity was evident from the outset. In the Netflix series, throngs of fans are shown cheering the Pirates of the Caribbean star and booing Heard on the first day they were sighted arriving separately to the Fairfax County Circuit Court. Meanwhile, online, evidence of a sustained and coordinated character assassination of Heard had just begun to emerge.

The smear campaign would persist through the trial and beyond. The actress was called a manipulative liar, a gold digger, an abuser, a violent psychopath, a drug addict, and worse. Some of the most outrageous claims were among the most widely circulated: She snorted cocaine on the witness stand, killed her own mother to conceal testimony that would have exonerated Depp, plagiarized lines from the film The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Creators mocked Heard by lip-synching over audio of her testimony about suffering violent abuse in videos that went viral on TikTok along with hashtags like #JusticeForJohnnyDepp, which was seen nearly 3 billion times on the platform. (#justiceforamberheard earned just 25 million views.) One-sided articles and videos, many containing false and misleading claims, were promoted by Ben Shapiro’s conservative media outlet The Daily Wire through its estimated $35,000 and $47,000 purchase of Facebook and Instagram ads.

“Depp v. Heard” was panned by critics.

“If ever a true-crime documentary needed the usual collection of talking-head interviews with esteemed journalists, law enforcement veterans and legal experts to put things in perspective,” Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote, “this is it — but that never happens.”

Others, like CNN’s Brian Lowry, agreed: “How much is gained from listening to a guy in a Deadpool mask offering extensive trial takes is a question ‘Depp v. Heard’ should have contemplated and apparently didn’t,” he wrote.

Several reviews added that part of the problem was that not nearly enough time had elapsed between the events and their retelling. Bustle’s Scaachi Koul pointed to other recent projects involving the private lives of public figures (especially women) that, with sufficient space and distance, found new and interesting things to say about their subjects and opportunities to tell their stories anew.

Ryan White’s excellent documentary “Pamela: A Love Story,” which was released by Netflix in January, manages to find plenty of material about actress and model Pamela Anderson along with the broader sociocultural forces of the 90s and early aughts that helped shape – and were shaped by – the era’s most enduring sex symbol.  

The film would have been nothing, however, without Anderson. Listening to her tell her own story, one realizes how poorly suited everyone else was to the task – particularly the leering talk show hosts and journalists who treated her as nothing more than a sex object.

And maybe that, above all else, is the lesson to be gleaned from “Depp v. Heard”: Let’s come back to this story, sure, when we’re ready to cut through the bullshit, reframe the conversation away from the “him vs. her” framing, stop relying on provably unreliable evidence, and consider the broader context of their relationship and the impact of the trial that happened on TikTok and YouTube. And let’s definitely listen to Heard if and when she’s ready to talk about this again.

Until we get that docuseries (or documentary, scripted series, film, book, whatever), I fear everything else will be deeply unsatisfactory and unsatisfying.

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Is Nigeria’s anti-LGBTQ crackdown only meant for the poor?

Wealth and fame can shield one from prosecution in the country

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(Bigstock photo)

The Nigeria Police Force in Delta State a few weeks ago arrested more than 67 suspected gay men for attending an alleged gay wedding. Authorities received a tip, they interrogated those arrested and suspicions were cemented on the basis that some of these young men crossed-dressed. 

“We’re bringing this out to the world to note, especially Nigerians, that we’re in Africa and Nigeria. We cannot copy the Western world,” Deputy Police Supt. Bright Edafe said. “We’re in Nigeria, and I can guarantee that the suspects will be charged to court.” 

Although these young men have since been released, this situation in Nigeria underscores a glaring paradox: A country that boasts a growing number of queer celebrities — many of whom have embraced crossdressing as part of their persona — maintains harsh legal actions against less privileged queer youths who express their identities. This unequal treatment sends a damaging message to the broader queer community; perpetuating a cycle of discrimination, fear and inequality.

In a nation marked by its vibrant culture and diversity, Nigeria’s anti-gay laws stand as a stark contradiction to the principles of tolerance and inclusivity. These laws not only criminalize same-sex relationships, but have also given rise to a troubling disparity in their enforcement. It has disproportionately targeted the poor, transgender individuals and crossdressers, while seemingly ignoring high-profile celebrities who freely express their identities.

Bobrisky, one of Nigeria’s most popular crossdressers who built a large following off of this lifestyle, went on their social media to probe the arrested crossdressers for openly presenting that way. 

“I strongly believe you guys can learn from those A-list,” they wrote. “Firstly, there’s a law passed against you guys that you can’t marry yourselves in this country, why the hell did you call yourselves together to organize a wedding?”

“That is the dumbest news I have ever read this week. You all deserve how you all were treated, sad truth. If you feel you are in love with your partner and you want to be together, why not relocate to where you are welcome,” they continued. 

One would think that they were able to make comments like this because they didn’t crossdress; but when you have enough financial and social privilege to wriggle your way out of situations for which your counterparts would otherwise be prosecuted, you would think that the law doesn’t apply to you. 

Then-President Goodluck Jonathan in February 2014 passed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which legalized the prosecution of anyone who shows sexual relations with the same sex. Nigerian MPs in April 2022 pushed to update the SSMPA with a bill that would essentially criminalize crossdressers and force them to face six months in prison, or pay a fine of $1,200. 

The measure has yet to become law.

This targeting of transgender people and crossdressers by the Nigerian government is a distressing reality. These individuals often find themselves marginalized, not just socially, but also legally. Raids, arrests and harassment are commonplace for them, making it a daily struggle to live authentically. In a nation where gender expression should be celebrated as a testament to its cultural diversity, it is disheartening to witness these citizens ostracized and penalized for embracing their true selves.

On the other hand, the celebrities who have made crossdressing a part of their public image appear to exist in a different realm. They enjoy a level of visibility and fame that grants them an element of protection. Whether it’s due to their financial resources or their connections, they often escape the legal consequences that ordinary queer Nigerians face. This glaring contrast between the treatment of high-profile celebrities and everyday individuals exposes the systemic inequalities that persist in Nigeria’s legal system.

The implications of this disparity are profound. It sends a troubling message that wealth and fame can shield one from persecution, while those without such privileges bear the brunt of discriminatory laws. This perpetuates a culture of fear and silence among the less privileged queer community, preventing them from fully expressing their identities and participating in society without the constant threat of persecution.

Nigeria must engage in a profound societal dialogue surrounding the unequal treatment of its queer citizens to address this issue. It is crucial to question the legitimacy of laws that infringe upon the fundamental human rights of individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. By sparking these meaningful conversations, we can begin to dismantle the harmful stereotypes and prejudices that fuel this disparity in treatment.

Nigeria’s anti-gay laws not only defy the principles of tolerance and inclusivity, but also expose a disconcerting imbalance in their enforcement. The stark contrast between the leniency shown to high-profile celebrities who embrace crossdressing and the harsh legal actions taken against less privileged queer youths sends a damaging message to the broader queer community. It is time for Nigeria to address this injustice, fostering a more inclusive and equitable society where all its citizens can embrace their identities without fear of persecution.

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Medicaid cuts will lead to an uptick in STIs

Move threatens progress to end HIV epidemic

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We have come a long way from the days when HIV was an almost certain death sentence. But our work is far from over. The COVID-19 pandemic led to an uptick in rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, and low-income communities, LGBTQ+ communities, and communities of color continue to be impacted at alarming and disproportionately high rates.

These communities are also more likely to be served by Medicaid. Medicaid is the largest source of insurance coverage for people living with HIV in the United States, covering an estimated 40 percent of nonelderly adults with HIV, and Medicaid accounted for 45 percent of all federal HIV spending in 2022. During September, Sexual Health Awareness Month, it is worth examining the crucial ways Medicaid works to keep people healthy — and what threatens our progress today.

In recent weeks, we have seen a troubling trend develop. Five million Americans have been removed from Medicaid rolls, and many millions more are on the verge of losing coverage as a result of the Medicaid enrollment cuts. This represents the single greatest threat to our progress toward ending the HIV epidemic in years.   

During the pandemic, Medicaid enrollment grew by an estimated 20 million people, contributing to the uninsured rate dropping to the lowest level on record in early 2022. But, after a three-year period during which states provided continuous enrollment in exchange for enhanced federal funding, some states resumed dis-enrolling people from Medicaid on April 1. A recent KFF survey found that 17 million people could lose Medicaid coverage as a result of this process, referred to as the Medicaid “unwinding.”

Many states are not doing enough to ensure that Medicaid-eligible residents don’t lose their coverage. While some have been removed from the rolls because they are newly ineligible, procedural issues account for 74 percent of people losing coverage. An unacceptably high number of FloridaTexas, and Virginia residents who are still eligible for Medicaid are losing coverage because of procedural reasons, such as failing to confirm proof of income or household size.

Our goal should be to ensure that no one who qualifies for Medicaid loses their coverage. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) gave states the option to use a 12-month grace period, along with other flexibilities, to prepare for the unwinding and make sure residents had what they needed to recertify. So why are some states so eager to remove their residents from Medicaid rolls?

New York, on the other hand, has made equity a cornerstone of recertification work and provides a template for what states can do to help their residents remain covered. The state maximizes the flexibilities offered by CMS and works directly with providers, health plans, and recipients to minimize procedural disenrollments and ensure that people retain health care coverage, either through Medicaid, the state’s health exchange, or private insurance. New York is among the nation’s top-performing states in terms of call center wait times, call drop rates, and average time it takes to make an eligibility determination, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. New York’s call center is also able to produce materials in 26 languages. In June 2023 alone, New York State certified renewals for more than 400,000 residents.

At Amida Care in New York, we know firsthand that gaps in care for people living with or placed at elevated risk of contracting HIV can be especially devastating. When people lose access to PrEP medication to prevent HIV, they are left vulnerable to contracting HIV, and when people living with HIV lose access to antiretroviral therapy, they risk becoming seriously ill and transmitting HIV to others. We support and guide our members through the recertification process with dedicated outreach efforts that include phone calls, mailings, text messages, and home visits to limit loss of coverage and interruptions in life-saving treatments. 

We cannot begin to address health inequity or end the HIV epidemic without strengthening Medicaid. The recent moves by some states to strip their residents of Medicaid coverage will undermine the progress we’ve made.

Doug Wirth is president and CEO of Amida Care, a Medicaid Special Needs Health Plan for people affected by HIV.

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Jann Wenner’s racist, sexist take on musicians isn’t surprising

New book ‘The Masters’ excludes Black, women pioneers

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Jann Wenner (Screen capture via CBS Mornings YouTube)

I enjoyed sharing my birthday with Bruce Springsteen, until I read the bigoted remarks made by his friend Jann Wenner in a recent New York Times interview.

Then I wasn’t so glad to have the same b-day as Bruce.

Springsteen didn’t make the comments. I’m a fan of his music. But, as I write this, Springsteen, as well as some of Wenner’s other friends, hasn’t spoken out against Wenner’s hurtful comments.

As the saying goes: Some gifts keep on giving. Wenner, who was removed from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation board after making sexist and racist remarks in a Sept. 15 interview with the Times, keeps on giving. But what’s he’s giving isn’t a gift. Not to Black people, women, music lovers, or queer folk.

Wenner’s one of us. He’s gay. 

I’m fine with his sexuality, but you’d hope that Wenner, for decades a gatekeeper of music and culture, would be a source of queer pride. But, that’s not the case with Wenner, a co-founder of the Rock the Roll Hall of Fame.

The fallout from Wenner’s Times interview is a needed wake-up call for queers.

Too often, we give ourselves a pass. We believe that because we live with homophobia, bi-erasure and transphobia, we know the score. That we’re not sexist, racist, ageist, ableist – we’re free of prejudice. Paragons of virtue.

Wenner, with his demeaning comments, is, I hope, getting us (especially, we who are Boomers) to look in the mirror. To check ourselves (as we examine our dogs for ticks) for our own prejudices, and for our virtue-signaling.

The controversy around Wenner began when he sat for the interview with David Marchese of the Times on Sept. 15 to promote his new book “The Masters,” released by Little Brown and Company on Sept. 26.

“The Masters” is a compilation of seven interviews that Wenner conducted with acclaimed musicians who are (or were before their death) his friends: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia, Bono, and Springsteen. All of the interviewees are white, male and Boomers.

“That there are no women or Black musicians in this collection is obvious,” Wenner writes, according to Kirkus Reviews, in “The Masters.” “This is reflective of the prejudices and practices of the times.”

It’s hard to describe how bigoted and absurd this is. As many have noted, rock ‘n’ roll was invented by Black people.

You have to wonder what Wenner was thinking. Had he never heard of Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin? Stevie Wonder? Joni Mitchell? Madonna?

Though too much racism and sexism exist today, the culture has gotten somewhat better. Attitudes have evolved. We’ve become more aware of our biases. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t so for Wenner. Marchese asked Wenner why every musician he talked with in “The Masters” is white and male. “Insofar as the women,” Wenner responded, “just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.”

When pressed by Marchese, who wondered how he could say Joni Mitchell wasn’t “articulate enough,” Wenner said, “Joni was not a philosopher of rock ‘n’ roll.”

“I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level,” Wenner said of Black musicians.

Reading the interview, I wondered if he’d read Rolling Stone, the magazine he edited for decades. Had he missed the covers with Melissa Etheridge, Joplin, and Tina Turner (to name a few of the women and Black artists featured on the magazine’s cover)?

Sadly, Wenner’s condescending, racist and sexist take on Black and women musicians isn’t surprising. Often, people with power (rich white men) believe they’re smarter, more talented, and more entitled to be cultural gatekeepers than those from marginalized groups. They’re convinced they’re more talented and “articulate” than those who don’t have power. 

Forget “The Masters.” Check out Etheridge’s new memoir “Talking to My Angels.” That’s a good read.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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