The HBO documentary may forever change the legacy of the pop icon.
Nobody wants Leaving Neverland to exist. That much is clear.
In HBO’s two-part, four-hour documentary, which airs on March 3 and 4, Wade Robson and James Safechuck discuss in painful detail the molestation they say they experienced at the hands of pop superstar Michael Jackson when they were boys. The film is not the first time Jackson has been accused of molesting young boys — in 1993, a lawsuit against him was settled out of court. And in 2005, he was acquitted of similar accusations in a criminal trial that was prompted in part by the 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson, in which the singer held hands with 12-year-old Gavin Arvizo and talked about sharing his bed with children.
In both court cases, Robson testified in court on Jackson’s behalf, while Safechuck defended him to investigators. But now, both men say that Jackson molested them as children (and both have tried to sue Jackson’s estate before, in cases that are under appeal).
This is the first time the allegations have been so detailed and presented in such an unrelenting fashion. And the response has been deafening from those who would defend the deceased singer. Leaving Neverland prompted swift backlash from Jackson’s estate and fans after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The estate is now suing HBO for $100 million, presumably hoping to prevent it from airing.
It’s clear from the film itself, though, that Robson and Safechuck don’t want it to exist either. Neither do their mothers, their wives, or other family members (including Robson’s siblings and grandmother), who all appear onscreen to speak at length about their families’ entanglement with Jackson. Everyone involved is clearly horrified by what Robson and Safechuck say happened. Everyone involved feels betrayed by Jackson, whom they considered a friend, a hero, a member of the family.
And that extends far beyond the participants; everyone wishes there were no cause to listen to allegations against a cultural figure as beloved and important as Jackson. Everyone wishes that we could live in a world where such things never happen. That we didn’t have to hear these stories at all.
But Leaving Neverland does exist — and it is a slow, methodical, measured, and devastating rebuttal to claims that victims of sexual assault in general and Robson and Safechuck in particular are just “in it” for the fame and the money. Together with other recent films that focus on victims rather than the accused (such as Surviving R. Kelly and Untouchable, the Sundance documentary about Harvey Weinstein), it’s an indictment of a culture too enamored of celebrity to care about the dignity of ordinary people. It demands to be watched and taken seriously by anyone who wishes to speak about Jackson — either in defense or condemnation — in the future.
I, too, wish this film didn’t exist.
Jackson’s side of the story was accepted as fact for decades. Leaving Neverland is the other side.
With Leaving Neverland, director Dan Reed has not made a journalistic documentary — or, at least, not the kind that hews to the fiction that you have to present “both sides” in order to say something true. Jackson first told his side of the story — that he was a gentle soul who just liked to have sleepovers with young boys but didn’t do anything untoward with them — more than 25 years ago, and then again during his testimony in the 2005 criminal case. Since then, it’s been repeated by fans and by the media for years. And Leaving Neverland exists in the real world, where that case and those versions of events have been given plenty of airtime.
But documentaries are not, definitionally, works of journalism. They are nonfiction films. And Leaving Neverland supplies something bigger and more important than a straightforward reported piece would. It’s an intricate recentering of the Jackson narrative, a reorientation of past stories that have already been written and told. Jackson himself is present throughout, in photographs and video clips, but this is not his story. We do not hear about his childhood, his rise to fame, or even his career trajectory, except as it intersects with Robson and Safechuck’s stories.
Both men first encountered Jackson when they were young, in the early 1990s. Robson was 7 years old; Safechuck was 11. Both were obsessed with Jackson’s music. Both became part of Jackson’s life, and he quickly became part of their families’ lives. Each boy made trips to Jackson’s palatial California estate, Neverland Ranch, with his family, and eventually would sleep in Jackson’s room, with family nearby. Both say that Jackson eventually initiated intimate and then sexual contact with them.
The process that each man describes — which fills most of the first two-hour episode — is one of intense, methodical grooming. In both Robson and Safechuck’s tellings, Jackson would court the family with gifts and fun trips and constant communication, then gradually wedge himself between the boys and their families, by spending more and more time with them, inviting them to accompany him on tour (sometimes with family members in tow, sometimes not), and molesting them in his bed at night. And about every year, Robson’s sister says in the film with the horror of hindsight, Jackson would seem to choose a new “favorite” boy, while still keeping the others in his orbit.
Why any parent would consent to leave their young child alone with a man they don’t really know — let alone let them sleep in the same room, unsupervised, over and over again — is a question that everyone interviewed in Leaving Neverland, including Robson and Safechuck, raises over and over again. So many years later, everyone is visibly horrified. But the answer seems to simply be that Jackson seemed childlike and good-hearted and generous, and, of course, he wasn’t just anyone; he was Michael Jackson.
For Robson and Safechuck’s mothers in particular, Jackson’s celebrity, coupled with the fact that everybody seemed to trust him, blurred the now-obvious red flags. Both women are aghast and angry with themselves for having been fine with it back then.
But though their family members figure prominently in the film, this is primarily Robson and Safechuck’s story to tell. Each man speaks of hero worship that evolved into feeling like he was Jackson’s special friend, then into confidence that Jackson loved him, and, eventually, confidence that he was in love with Jackson. And then each speaks of the confusion, anger, and devastation that followed when he was replaced in the center of Jackson’s attention by another boy, and the years of psychological and emotional fallout from the alleged abuse.
What may be most jarring to watch is Robson and Safechuck’s internal struggles to verbalize, even all these years later, what was really going on during that time. A boy of 7 or 11 is not old enough to consent to a sexual relationship with a grown man, or to truly be in love, and both men know this.
But the feelings they experienced weren’t fake, and even after decades of trying to come to grips with what happened to them — something both the men and their wives and families talk about in the last hour of Leaving Neverland — it’s hard for them to feel, as children eager to please and be valued, that they were being used. (The difficulty of reorienting oneself as an adult to a relationship you considered to be equal when you were younger is a theme that was echoed in last year’s devastating film The Tale, also on HBO.)
Both men speak at length about how they felt when molestation allegations first surfaced against Jackson in the early 1990s, when they were still children and still in intimate, ongoing contact with the singer. Robson in particular speaks in devastating detail about the conflicting emotions that seem to have torn him apart, and the reasons he denied having sexual contact with Jackson in Jackson’s 1993 trial (alongside actor Macaulay Culkin, another of Jackson’s close child friends, who, as the film notes, continues to categorically deny he was abused).
The one event in Jackson’s life that gets plenty of airtime in Leaving Neverland is his death in 2009, which occurs about three hours into the four-hour film. The remaining hour is spent on how the boys, now grown to men, felt the effects of Jackson’s death and of their history with Jackson in their own lives, and how wide the fallout radius was — on their romantic lives with their spouses, their children, and their careers. (Robson is known to many as one of the world’s top choreographers, having worked with artists like Britney Spears and N’Sync, and on So You Think You Can Dance, for which he won an Emmy in 2007.) By the end, it’s hard not to be shocked that they’ve been able to finally tell the story, so great is the mental and emotional trauma they describe.
Leaving Neverland is a work of extraordinary restraint and moral urgency
It may seem preposterous to call a four-hour film “restrained,” but that’s what Leaving Neverland is: a work of extraordinary restraint. It is not salacious or leering or opportunistic. There aren’t any twists. You know where it’s going from the start. At many points, the camera just quietly waits for the subject to formulate his thoughts and find a way to keep speaking.
But the power is undeniable. It is easy — far, far too easy — to dismiss the testimony of survivors of assault as “looking for attention” when you read about it in the newspaper, or just catch a short segment about it on the news, or see a headline on Facebook. Indeed, Jackson’s estate’s lawsuit against HBO alleges that the film and its subjects are “out to profit from [Jackson’s] enormous worldwide success and take advantage of his eccentricities,” and that he is “an easy target because he is not here to defend himself.”
Never mind that false reports of sexual assault are rare, or that the reasons survivors often do not come forward right away are well-known and documented. Assuming that survivors are speaking out in pursuit of their own fame and fortune is still an incredibly common response to those who allege sexual harassment or assault, particularly if it happened many years prior. And it’s especially prevalent when, in retrospect, it seems as if everyone must have known what was going on, or likely going on, but were willing to ignore it because a powerful, famous man denied it and offered proximity to glamour, fame, and opportunity in return.
So it is important, even vital, that filmmakers have taken up the work not of chronicling the “scandals” but of creating documents of testimony. Actually seeing Robson, Safechuck, and their families speak, watching and listening as they fill in the stories about what was happening in the space between the photographs and the videos, is at least as important as the words they are speaking. Humans need more than just text to understand difficult truths; we need faces, emotion, expression, time to process. Leaving Neverland gives us that, with steady and sober urgency.
Untouchable, a documentary that has Harvey Weinstein’s accusers at its center, takes a similar tack, as does Lifetime’s explosive Surviving R. Kelly. Both films focus on the victims of alleged serial abusers, rather than the “scandal” or the abusers themselves. That approach is much rarer than you might expect.
As Vox’s Constance Grady wrote about Surviving R. Kelly, there’s something “uniquely unsettling” about watching victims and their families speak, something that prompts belief and action. And writing about Untouchable, I noted that “cinema, an image- and time-based medium, can do what print cannot. It can make us sit with victims and serve as witnesses while they recount their experiences.”
It is easy, and often desirable, to believe otherwise. You could watch Leaving Neverland and still choose to believe that Robson and Safechuck’s stories are elaborate webs of baldfaced lies designed so that they can benefit, in some way, from a brilliant, troubled dead man. Many doubtless will. But you’d better pause to take a long, hard, unsparing look inside first.