Opinion: We Can't Ignore 'Leaving Neverland'
Leaving Neverland is not the documentary I thought it would be.
Dan Reed’s two-part, four-hour long HBO docuseries is polarizing and controversial. Subjects Wade Robson and James Safechuck were two of a series of boys Michael Jackson befriended during the height of his fame, and Leaving Neverland chronicles their accounts of meeting the star and being brought into his inner sanctum: touring with him, spending extensive amounts of time at Neverland, gifts and favors bestowed upon the boys and their families – and Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse.
The controversy around the documentary, however, isn’t whether Robson and Safechuck’s stories are believable, but whether it merits watching at all.
Jackson superfans have been rabidly swarming anyone who mentions Leaving Neverland on Twitter, sending court transcripts and links they argue debunk allegations made over the years and discredit Robson and Safechuck. Some fans have complained about black writers, especially, who’ve reviewed the documentary without dismissing it as a farce.
Those fans are about to be mad at me.
I believe one’s approach to Leaving Neverland depends on what Michael Jackson era they experienced. I’m old enough to remember Thriller’s release (I was in elementary school), to remember the “Black or White” video premiere on TV (middle school), and to remember the Wacko Jacko tabloid era. Michael Jackson was synonymous with scandal for over a decade. Severe alterations to his appearance; questions about his sexuality – or lack thereof; his unusual obsessions like The Elephant Man’s remains; his propensity to take a chimpanzee with him everywhere, and then take young boys with him everywhere; his incredibly strange marriages first to the princess of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lisa Marie Presley, and then to Debbie Rowe, the mother of his children (who seemed like the most random white woman on the planet for Michael Jackson to procreate with); and finally his behavior as a father, covering his kids with masks in public (which I think many of us understand, now), and dangling his infant baby over a hotel balcony. For much of the ‘90s, Michael was prime tabloid fodder, and his relationship with black culture was complicated. Black comedy was peppered with MJ jokes, including jokes about his alleged pedophilia. Even as we were jamming to Dangerous, we still clowning him – I remember the extensive analysis of his awkward kiss with Iman in the “Remember the Time” video. Michael was weird, but he was still a musical genius. There wasn’t a conversation, then, about the limits of separating art from the artist.
When 13-year old Jordan Chandler accused Michael of sexual assault in 1993, I was a senior in high school. I don’t remember if I believed it, but I know I didn’t not believe it. I at least believed – as I still do - that Michael’s relationships with the boys in his life were completely inappropriate as a grown ass man. Even if he was a socially and emotionally regressed Peter Pan-figure. I wasn’t that invested, though, because by 1993 Michael wasn’t the mythological, faint-inducing King of Pop he was when I was a kid. He was a deeply flawed character who still put up some bangers. Like I said before, it was complicated.. By the second trial a decade later, I believed the accusations. I followed the spectacle and had seen the surreal Martin Bashir documentary, Living With Michael Jackson, which prompted Jackson’s 2003 arrest on nine counts relating to child molestation, but I was even less invested. Michael was acquitted both times, but also settled with both families.
Over the years, however, I’ve grown doubtful. There were walk backs; Jackson’s housekeeper’s son said during the Chandler investigation that Michael had fondled him, only to then refuse to go on record with the statement or testify. The 2005 Arvizo trial was messy: Bashir doubled back on previous public comments to defend Michael’s relationship with the children. Witness testimony from the alleged victim’s brother came apart during cross-examination. Questions about the Arvizo family’s intentions and credibility arose with revelations that the mother was under investigation for welfare fraud and the father had pushed the young sons to shoplift in the past. Also, since I wasn’t actively engaged during the trials, I hadn’t closely examined all the details. But I’d watched every interview and statement - Michael hadn’t done as much public speaking as he did following the first set of accusations since the beginning of his solo career. It was morbidly fascinating. I thought I knew real facts and not misinformation or spin, but I felt I needed to take another look.
In the cases of Robeson and Safechuck, neither ever brought accusations against Jackson while he was alive. In fact, both testified in his defense against Chandler, adamantly denying Jackson had ever been inappropriate with them. Robson initially declined the request to testify again in 2005, but said his mother convinced him support Michael. Safechuck’s mother also told him he should show up for Jackson again, but he refused. The men also hadn’t cut Michael out of their lives. Robson, best known as the creative director for *NSYNC and Britney Spears at their massive peaks, took his wife to meet Jackson soon before his death and even discussed collaborating. He and his family attended Michael’s funeral at the Jackson family’s invitation. Then, several years later, both men publicly alleged Jackson had abused them for years, and sued the late entertainer’s estate and existing companies. The lawsuits were both dismissed because too much time had passed since the alleged abuse happened; there was no decision on the credibility of the accusations.
I not only understand the skepticism around this documentary, I shared it. Why now? Are Reed, Robson and Safechuck trying to ride the #MeToo wave? Is it a money grab? (Reed says Robson, Safechuck and their families weren’t compensated for their participation.) Also, this docuseries doesn’t meet the investigative standards of Surviving R Kelly, with reporters, people who worked with the artist, psychologists, industry executives, and multiple points of view presented. While there is video footage of Michael with Safechuck, Robson and their families, and at points relative news and TV clippings to establish time and circumstance, this is solely their and their family’s side of the story. The Jackson Estate and family have condemned the documentary and the accounts.
I was honestly watching it just to be able to say I did my due diligence before dismissing it.
I was caught off-guard.
#AfterNeverland, an @Oprah Exclusive. After watching the 2-part @HBODocs #LeavingNeverland on @HBO - tune in to see Oprah's conversation with Wade Robson, James Safechuck, and doc director David Reed. Monday at 10p. pic.twitter.com/92E8yiRM73
— Oprah Winfrey Network (@OWNTV) March 1, 2019
Leaving Neverland isn’t just a story of Michael’s alleged abuse. It’s a story of how grooming and long-time abuse affects victims and their families. In the first part of the documentary, both men recount how their relationships with Michael developed and evolved, starting with the awe of having the sun of the biggest superstar in history shine on them, and growing into grooming - not just of the boys but their families - and eventually alleged physical abuse. After part one, I still wasn’t convinced. I believed some of it, but the very graphic details were hard to reconcile.
Part two changed that, for me. Reed told Oprah Winfrey during her post-show special that Leaving Neverland “isn’t about Jackson, it’s about what happened to Wade and James.” In the second part of the series, Robson and Safechuck tell Reed how Michael’s influence affected them as they grew up. How they handled his distance as they got older, how they and their families supported Michael during his trial, how emotional trauma started showing up in their lives, how they processed his death. Most importantly, why they finally decided to tell their story, and how it impacted their families.
Nothing rang false. Nothing felt contrived.
Now, I have to process what this means for my personal relationship with Michael and his music as a fan. After his death, I simply placed all the problematic questions about him to the side and celebrated the parts of him I loved, as I believe many of us did. We started filling in the gaps in Michael’s story - his emotional trauma, his loneliness, his desire to recreate childhood. I had even come around to the theory that Michael was completely asexual. But I also believed he was manipulative; enough stories from the music business exist to confirm that. And I believed he didn’t think the normal rules of life applied to him. Now I believe it was much deeper and more disturbing than that.
Some of the fans I’ve seen rallying furiously against the documentary in an effort to protect Michael's legacy seem too young to realize that his legacy was complicated and murky when he died, that he was redeemed in death. But we can’t afford to keep ignoring inconvenient truths about the figures we love. No matter how much brilliance and joy they gave the world, no matter how troubled or broken. Leaving Neverland and the reexamining of Michael is not a smear campaign against Jackson, this is a reckoning.