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In ‘Minamata,’ Johnny Depp Revives the Legacy of W. Eugene Smith, the Talented But Troubled Photojournalist

Minamata Johnny Depp as W Eugene Smith
Minamata Johnny Depp as W Eugene Smith

Johnny Depp re-entered the news cycle last week with the sudden theatrical release of his long-shelved 2018 film “City of Lies.” The film is the first step of many that Depp will undertake to get his career back on track, though his role of a retired LAPD detective re-examining the murders of Biggie and Tupac is far less righteous than his usual fare.

The same won’t be said for his next performance, that of the late great photojournalist W. Eugene Smith in the forthcoming film “Minamata.”

Depp suffered a temporary distancing from Hollywood after his former wife, Amber Heard, made numerous salacious allegations of mental and physical abuse against the actor, charges that have since been litigated and largely debunked in court. Though the legal proceedings are still ongoing, Depp is looking to return to form as one of the busiest actors in the business.

To put Depp’s recent career into perspective, the actor starred in 4 feature films in 2016 and 2017, respectively. In 2018, he appeared in a staggering 6 productions. In 2019, after the allegations were made, he appeared in just one film, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” And his only 2020 film is “Minamata,” though the movie is not actually being released to theaters until sometime in 2021, meaning 2020 represents the first time Depp hadn’t been part of a wide theatrical release since he took a year off in 2008.

Minamata” details the true events of war photographer and photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who travels back to Japan where he documents the devastating effects of mercury poisoning in coastal communities. Smith has been described as “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay.”

The reasons why Depp would gravitate to such a role as part of his career comeback are readily apparent. W. Eugene Smith was obsessive in the pursuit of his artistic vision, widely considered one of the greatest to ever ply his trade. But as talented as the acclaimed photographer was, he remained equally troubled throughout his life, fueled by alcohol and a long-term amphetamine addiction–attributes and vices that one would presume Depp closely relates.

“Critics have argued that [Smith’s] photography was motivated by his huge ego and, to a degree, that’s not wrong,” says biographer Sam Stephenson, citing the photographer’s fractious departures from Life and Newsweek, the publications that helped establish his reputation as a first-rate humanist documentarian. “It is one of the great ironies of his life that he alienated the people – editors, assistants – who would have helped him the most.”

Depp, it would seem, largely mirrors the sentiment, with the actor’s well-known penchant for fierce individualism and bouts of self-destruction.

A little over a year before his death, in 1977, Smith provided his vast archive to the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona. It included several hundred thousand photographic prints and negatives, hundreds of notebooks filled with his writings, boxes of camera gear, and more than 25,000 LPs and 8,000 books. His entire archive filled a high-school gymnasium and weighed some 22 tons.

Smith’s death on October 15, 1978, as a result of a stroke, marked the end of an unmatched artist’s career. With Depp looking to give his own career a second life, it’s fitting that the two should find one another on the silver screen, with each giving the other a longstanding sense of renewal.

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