Rumors and allegations about child molestation have tarnished the image of Michael Jackson for so long that the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland probably shouldn’t be shocking or even controversial at this point. That it’s being greeted that way actually serves the film’s underlying message about the power of the human capacity for denial.
Even a decade after his death, Michael Jackson is still so famous, so popular, and so beloved by millions (if not billions) of people across the world that the suggestion he could have been a monster seems almost inconceivable. Judging by the swift reaction against Leaving Neverland, many of the singer’s fans still adamantly refuse to believe the charges against him. According to the film, even his accusers felt such powerful love for the man that it took them decades to understand or accept that what he did to them constituted abuse.
The two-part, four-hour documentary focuses almost exclusively on two men, each now in their thirties. Both Wade Robson and James Safechuck entered Michael Jackson’s world at very young ages – Robson after winning a Michael Jackson dance contest and Safechuck as a child actor who starred with Jackson in a Pepsi commercial. Both tell chillingly similar stories about being swept into his entourage and his home, about Jackson ingratiating himself into their families, and about how he methodically seduced them into becoming his sexual partners, only to discard them later when the next pretty young thing came along to claim his attention.
As they both describe it, Jackson made the boys feel like his relationships with them were whirlwind romances. They felt a love for him even stronger than their love for their own families, and were too young to comprehend that the sexual acts he introduced them to were wrong. He treated them as confidantes and made them his accomplices. When the first public accusations of child molestation were brought against the singer, both Robson and Safechuck testified on his behalf, denying that he’d ever done anything inappropriate with them. Even into their adult years, neither one could admit to anyone what really happened.
Jackson’s defenders have called all of his accusers, including Safechuck and Robson, blackmailers trying to exploit a benevolent relationship for financial gain. Other than the men’s stories, Leaving Neverland presents no new evidence (physical or otherwise) to back up their claims. However, both come across as very credible victims. In many ways, the film is less investigative journalism than an outlet for two damaged men to work through their psychological traumas. Their accounts are detailed, graphic, sickening, and believable.
As a piece of filmmaking, the documentary is certainly compelling, but I do wish it had more to offer than just these interviews, some ambiguous home movie footage, and a lot of drone shots of the Neverland Ranch. In legal terms, it provides no proof of Jackson’s alleged actions. At four hours, it grows repetitive and makes its point early. There’s not much in the second half that couldn’t have been squeezed into the first two hours. The editing toward the end also gets kind of messy when Robson and Safechuck’s wives are interviewed, and the film leaves it very unclear whether either man is still married or not. Even a little bit of on-screen text might have helped smooth that over. Ultimately, however, issues like these are largely trivial.
Leaving Neverland is difficult viewing. Watching it could effectively destroy any lingering affection you may have for a legendary artist whose music and performances left a profound impact on popular culture that still resonates today. Michael Jackson’s songs still receive abundant radio airplay, and I’m left feeling greatly conflicted about whether it’s possible to divorce the art from its creator.