Can You Separate an Artist from His Art?: Johnny Depp in “Fantastic Beasts”
Update (February 4, 2020):
In retrospect, and upon introspection, I have concluded that I could have approached the allegations against Johnny Depp with more nuance. Admittedly, at the time of writing this article, I did not know enough about the details of the allegations to make any judgment on them. It has always been my modus operandi to treat allegations of abuse seriously, but that includes thinking about them critically.
The excitement that fans felt when Warner Bros. unveiled the title for the next Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald, was overshadowed by their disappointment that Johnny Depp will continue to play a pivotal role in this series. On the controversy surrounding Johnny Depp’s role in J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts film series, can you separate an artist whose personal life has been morally questioned from their art, and by doing so, are you endorsing them?
Many fans could not accept Depp as Grindelwald because his brief appearance in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was jarring in comparison to the film’s tone – he simply looked out of place. Depp’s performance as Grindelwald was a caricature of the ghoulish and comedic roles he has often taken on. My concern with Depp’s inclusion in Fantastic Beasts, however, has little to do with his ability to act and a lot to do with his personal life.
The question we must all ask ourselves is this: Can we separate a problematic artist from their art? It is a question that has arisen time immemorial and is more relevant now than ever. If your answer to this question is yes, then you must accept that you are endorsing these artists’ works and allowing their careers to prosper unfettered. As the screenwriter of the Fantastic Beasts film series, and the mastermind behind the entire wizarding world, Rowling could be described as the auteur of these films. Rowling’s ringing endorsement of Depp’s role as Grindelwald in the series could be seen as hypocritical given how active she is in voicing her sociopolitical opinions on Twitter.
This is a morally delicate subject, but the allegations of domestic and substance abuse attributed to Johnny Depp could pressure Warner Bros. to recast him in future installments of the Fantastic Beasts series. However, this is disappointingly unlikely at the present time due to Rowling’s endorsement of him and the fact that it’s been over a year since the first Fantastic Beasts film was released. There are two main sides to stories of this nature. Firstly, if you endorse actors like Depp, then you are not taking the allegations against him seriously. Secondly, if you recast Depp, then you are presuming guilt.
This situation is not without precedent. Recently, due to allegations of sexual assault against Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K., Netflix quickly divorced themselves from both of these men. There are two ways in which one can interpret Netflix’s rapid decision. Firstly, Netflix exists as a corporation and thus wants to distance itself from any negative PR. Given this scenario, there is a risk that Netflix moved quickly to save face, despite not ascertaining the extent of the legitimacy of these allegations. There’s a dilemma between not presuming guilt and taking alleged victims seriously. Secondly, Netflix’s swift decision to drop these men might suggest that the higher-ups had been aware of these allegations for a while and only cut ties with them when they reached the public consciousness. The longer that Johnny Depp’s role in the Fantastic Beasts film series is left unaddressed, the more that it becomes an elephant in the room, and the danger is that any future decision made by J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. will fall under this second interpretation.
Warner Bros. has placed a lot of faith in Rowling, with last year’s installment being the first of five planned films. Johnny Depp was cast I think in part to appeal to the mainstream audience by presenting them with a familiar face. However, from my experience, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them received mixed reviews from casual moviegoers. There’s a risk that moviegoers might boycott future Fantastic Beasts installments. In such a situation, Warner Bros.’ hand may be forced, and we could see Depp recast, not on a moral basis, but on a financial one. Such a case would not be cause for celebration because it would reaffirm the notion that, in the film industry at least, morality takes a backseat to money.