Allegations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson first surfaced over two decades ago. This new documentary is focused on two men — Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck — who both knew and defended Jackson as children who've since come to a different, harrowing conclusion about their experiences. Jackson's estate is already suing HBO over Dan Reed's "Leaving Neverland," but the documentary is set to premiere in two parts over Sunday, March 3 and Monday, March 4. Here's why critics this latest angle on the case warrants serious examination.
Some of the articles excerpted below relay more disturbing details of Robson and Safechuck's allegations. The National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE ) operates 24/7, is 100% free and confidential.
First And Foremost, It Is Not A Jackson Documentary
It's important to note that this is not Michael's story. There's no biopic material about the Jackson 5 or extended concert footage. We don't seek to find who Michael was beyond his relationship with these two boys, one of whom he allegedly started having sexual relationship with at the age of 7.
The documentary slices very carefully as it excises this piece of the past. What's relevant to Leaving Neverland is not Jackson, but what these two men say happened to them.
It doesn't try to make cultural or political sense of the allegations. It's not a masterpiece saga about fame, race, gender, sexuality and the legal system; it's not "M.J.: Made in America." (For a long view, there's "On Michael Jackson," Margo Jefferson's pungent, essential critical X-ray from 2006.) "Leaving Neverland" is about one man's possible contribution to the ruin of two families and the anguish that still disturbs them and, in some way, how that ruin and anguish should disturb us.
It's A Film, Not A Trial Or A Journalistic Investigation
First things first, although I know this won't matter to the people mounting a campaign against this project: a film is not a trial. It is not a place where there's a legal requirement for cross-examination or demand for a burden of proof. Every documentary comes from a perspective, even the ones that don't make that perspective blatantly clear.
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.
While Robson And Safechuck's Stories Get Ample Space, More Context Could've Helped Explain How Abuse Works
When Jackson was put on trial for charges of sexual abuse against minors — he was acquitted in 2005 — both Robson and Safechuck denied Jackson had done anything to them as young boys. In Leaving Neverland, they change their stories — and explain why.
The most frequent criticisms made of Robson and Safechuck online is that they changed their stories—turning from supporters of Jackson's to victims who "suddenly remembered" abuse. The detail is discussed with some angst in Leaving Neverland; both men say that they never forgot what Jackson allegedly did to them, but did not understand the totality of it when they were children, and tried not to think about it as adults. The documentary never sits down with a psychologist who specializes in cases like these—an expert who might have told the audience that victims of abuse frequently engage in denial, and can suffer from wide-ranging effects for years. But you won't learn that from Leaving Neverland.
The Details Of The Abuse Are Quite Disturbing
We never see the acts that James Safechuck and Wade Robson say they endured as minors while visiting Jackson's Neverland Ranch and Century City apartment, but these are described in such detail that viewers may be seized by a new impulse: to look away from what they're hearing. Mutual masturbation; oral sex; penetration; regular exposure to orgies and porn; emotional abuse characterized as special attention: Jackson is accused of all this and more.
Steel yourself for specifics, as dancing around them would defeat the purpose of this documentary: Jackson was a man who convinced their most innocent relatives to bend over and spread their butt cheeks while he masturbated to the sight; who forced them to suck on his nipples while he serviced himself; who installed an elaborate system of alarm bells at the Neverland Ranch so that he would hear if anyone was going to walk in on an eight-year-old boy with the pop star's penis inside his mouth. Penetration was a more complicated process, but one that got increasingly possible as the boys grew older. There was even a mock wedding ceremony at one point; the kid involved still can't bear to look at the ring.
It Grapples With How The Parents Could Be Manipulated Into Letting Their Guards Down
In its second half, the documentary adroitly brings the focus to both men's mothers, who in different ways were vulnerable to Jackson's influence. Robson's mother, Joy, decamped, with Wade from Australia to Los Angeles, partly due to his connection with the pop star; she hoped to leverage the move into a career. Jackson gave Safechuck's family, already based in Los Angeles, a new house. Both boys had aspirations to be famous, and their mothers thought proximity to Jackson could only be to their benefit.
Jimmy's mom — so moved by Jackson's childlike energy and supposed innocence — started to think of him as a son. Jimmy met a plethora of celebrities at Jackson's side, and if people like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery didn't think any of this was weird, what did his mom really have to worry about? Who doesn't want to believe in fairy tales? What was the Neverland Ranch if not a place where fantasies were protected from the forces of reality?
The mothers both mention an early limit they set. For Stephanie, it was refusing to let James sleep in Jackson's room on that trip to Hawaii. And Joy recalls vehemently nixing Jackson's request to abscond with Wade for a year. But Jackson ultimately wins, anyway. He gets his way, in part, because he could be as manipulative as he could be affectionate, but also because each woman feels, in her way, maternal toward him.
Robson And Safechuck's Accounts Are Not Presented As Clean And Straightforward, Nor Edited For Drama
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.
Reed's approach never lets us forget the eager-to-please boys they once were, especially in the presence of Jackson, whom Robson recalls being "my idol and my mentor and my god." And it reveals how unfair and unrealistic it is to expect Robson and Safechuck to be the kind of perfect victims whose stories follow a predetermined script.
The alleged victims do not simply bare their difficult stories for audiences to gawk at; they are given space to insist that a path forward exists. Or, as Robson said, "I'm hoping that those wounds will turn into new opportunities for healing."
In the end, "Leaving Neverland" is probably not the last we'll hear of these allegations, but it raises questions we likely should've been asking more seriously years and years ago:
After watching Leaving Neverland, I felt I needed much, much more information. That's not exactly a dig at the documentary, but it's an indication of how careful it is (and how provocative that care is); it's a precisely aimed dart, thrown in the midst of a dark, strange subsection of pop-cultural history.
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.
It's one thing to be vaguely aware of the various allegations that were made against the King of Pop; the asterisks that will always be next to the late mega-star's name. It's quite another to hear the horrifyingly lucid testimony that stretches across the entire duration of "Leaving Neverland," as two of Jackson's most repeat victims bravely lay bare how a universal icon seduced them away from their realities, splintered their families beyond all recognition, and leveraged their love for him into a disturbing litany of sexual acts.
The film keeps cutting back to images of Safechuck and Robson as young men — as boys — wordlessly underscoring the willful, collective obliviousness and celebrity worship that allowed Jackson to parade about in public like a spangled Pied Piper, surrounding himself with underage worshipers, even publicly confirming that he had slumber parties with them, without instantly triggering the alarm bells of community standards.
For so long, so much about Michael Jackson won our awe, our pity, our bewilderment, our identification, our belief that he was a metaphor, an allegory, a beacon, a caveat — for, of, about America. You need to do a lot of looking at him to feel this way. You also need to do a lot of looking the other way.