Depp plays Eugene Smith, a famed photojournalist who has disconnected from the world but takes a final assignment from his Life magazine editor (Bill Nighy) in 1971 to travel to Japan and expose decades of horrific corporate malfeasance by a big chemical company. It’s an important issue movie propelled by a big star whose image took a tumble amid the ugly shrapnel of his “wife-beater” libel suit, dooming the film to a much delayed release and small opening run.
It’s playing New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Houston, Seattle, Tampa, Miami, Denver, Cleveland, Orlando, Sacramento, Portland, Raleigh, Charlotte, Knoxville, Austin, Albuquerque and Cincinnati. Distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films said expansion is to be determined.
SGF with Iervolino and Lady Bacardi Entertainment (ILBE) announced in early December that they had acquired North American rights, which previously belonged to MGM. Minamata premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2020 and MGM had initially slated a U.S. release in Feb. of 2021. That came and went. It was released in international markets.
By July, Levitas was publicly protesting that MGM was “burying” Minamata due to Depp’s well publicized off-screen issues. In August, Depp also decried the non-release, saying the film deserved to be seen but was shelved because he was being “boycotted” by Hollywood.
Depp has been embroiled in a long legal battle with ex-wife Amber Heard. Last spring, the actor lost his attempt to overturn a U.K. court ruling that concluded he had assaulted his ex-wife. (A judge ruled against Depp in his libel case against Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun tabloid for calling him a “wife beater.”) Warner Bros dropped the actor from its Fantastic Beasts franchise following the failed appeal.
Last August, a Virginia judge ruled that Depp could proceed in a separate $50 million defamation lawsuit against Heard.
In an interview with Deadline, Levitas reiterated his disappointment that the film wasn’t out sooner given the import of its subject matter.
“In this instance, you have the opportunity to make change, to really help and support people, like the Minamata victims,” he said. “It’s 50 years later, and [they] are still fighting to be recognized in Japan.” Others around the world are waging similar “parts-per-million” battles (the number of units of mass of a contaminant per million units of total mass.). “Everything you drink or eat, how it is determined whether it’s allowed or not, is parts per million – of arsenic in water, of mercury in water, of whatever.”
When Smith arrived in the coastal city of Minamata, Chisso Corp.’s factory had been dumping mercury-poisoned wastewater into the bay for three decades, ravaging locals through the fish they ate. One of Smith’s many images, Tomoko In Her Bath, of a mother cradling her severely deformed daughter, is considered iconic in photojournalism.
Smith died in 1978. Levitas found his way into the film through the extensive W. Eugene Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona. For every photo published, he said, “there are a hundred photos in front of and behind that. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get inside the artist’s mind and see what he saw and follow his story in real time.”