Leaving Neverland makes a devastating case against Michael Jackson
Written by Lindah Nduwumwami on February 28, 2019
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.
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.
Leaving Neverland airs on HBO in two parts on Sunday, March 3, and Monday, March 4.