I remember the moment that Michael Jackson died. Or at least I remember the moment that he died to me. I was sitting in the lobby of my uncle’s building, waiting for the elevator next to two strangers, when a doorman bolted in through the garage. The words sizzled out of his mouth like a spark erupting from an electricity cord. “Michael Jackson is dead.” I’d never been much of a fan myself, but I had to sit down as the news hit my ears.
He was that kind of superstar. The kind that made you weak to your knees by sheer virtue of existing, or not existing. But according to the new HBO Documentary, Leaving Neverland, he was also the kind of superstar that, were you unlucky enough to be an impressionable little boy, could also convince you to get on to your knees and never tell anyone.
Leaving Neverland’s argument lies heavily on the accounts of Wade Robinson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40, two men who allege that Jackson sexually abused them at the ages of 7 and 10. Neverland is for the most part a chronological account of events told through a series of interviews with the two accusers and their family members. The filmmaker, Dan Reed, spent three years putting this documentary together. Claims of sexual activity at Jackson’s ranch, alleged run drills with Safechuck to avoid getting caught, and Jackson’s staging of a mock wedding to one of the boys (complete with rings and vows), are only some of the shocking allegations brought up within the span of the four hour film.
The allegations made against Jackson by the two men are deeply disturbing, not only in their claims, but in their detail. One of the more disturbing scenes in Leaving Neverland occurs when Robson recalls having an “adult-size penis in my mouth, a little seven-year-old’s mouth.” Safechuck tells accounts of “french kissing, he said that I introduced that to him. It evolved to kissing all over the body and then eventually to kissing the genitals”. Both men mention that Jackson had pornography on TVs “everywhere,” even in the bathtub of one of his residences. Robson claims it was “pretty graphic heterosexual porn — oral sex, full penetration, anal stuff. It seemed like he liked it, so I wanted to like it. I just didn’t know how to deal with it. It was like him pulling back the curtain on this whole other universe, but this one wasn’t so fun.”
There’s a scene where Safechuck shows us a box full of rings given to him by Jackson over the years in return for sexual favors. “We had this mock wedding ceremony,” he says through visible discomfort. As his hands graze the jewelry, he looks up at the camera, then down, to the side, not knowing what to do. The audience doesn’t know what to do either. Throughout most of Safechuck’s camera time, there is an emotional undercurrent, a perceptible state of discomfort carried on from his eyes onto those watching. “We would go buy them at jewelry stores and … pretend like my small hand fit whatever female we were buying it for,” he says, stroking the rings. “Something that I enjoyed was used against me and so I think that causes discomfort. It’s still hard for me to not blame myself.” It’s painful to listen, but it might be even more so to watch. Robinson, much more self assured and seemingly less fragile, isn’t as charged. After Leaving Neverland, you don’t know anything for sure. But one look into Safechuck’s eyes, and whether you easily admit it to yourself or not, you can’t help but feel even what you don’t want to know.
Emotion aside, as a documentary based almost entirely on two single testimonies, there is an evident flaw in — if not a complete lack of — investigative evidence. Save for a few suggestive skin-crawling voice overs of Jackson calling the boys at their homes, there seems to be nothing but word of mouth to support any of the claims made in the film. None of Jackson’s family was interviewed for the movie, nor were his former employees. No mental health professionals were brought in to the film. Was it then a lazy endeavor for a documentary or an ambitious task for a movie? Well-researched or not, there’s only so much of the film that any of us can watch without suspecting that something about the king of Pop’s behavior towards little boys was terribly, terribly wrong. Still, there is something problematic about making a documentary about a dead man, and then not providing him with any sort of defense. But maybe a defense wasn’t necessary, because maybe this isn’t a film about Jackson at all.
The cultural moment that we’ve been living through in the past few months has changed the way we interact with and believe in alleged victims of abuse. What with the ever-present strength of the #MeToo movement, and the uncovering of decades of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, victims are being take more seriously than they have ever had in the past. We suddenly have the outrage, the language, and the room to believe accusers and condemn the accused. With a new wave of shows that give a voice to alleged victims, (think, Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, and Amazon Prime’s Lorena) the media has opened itself up as a platform of reckoning.
When I first watched Neverland, it was with a Michael Jackson fan who found herself watching against her will. A few minutes in, she declared that she didn’t believe any of what was being said and left the room. This morning, I opened my phone to a text from her in a group chat that read:
I can’t listen to MJ songs anymore without wondering if his lyrics are about kids.
Me neither. It’s weird now, wrote another friend.
That my friend, a self-described Michael Jackson fanatic, could feel discomfort when listening to the Kind of pop’s songs, despite not sitting through a full four hours of the documentary, signals an even greater shift — a shift into a world where our collective subconscious favors the accuser over the accused.
If you’re looking for punitive justice through Leaving Neverland, it seems that you’ve missed the point of the documentary entirely. The question of how to handle good work made by awful people doesn’t have a straightforward answer, and Neverland isn’t going to give us one. Ultimately, Neverland matters not as a movie about Michael Jackson, but as a documentary that vouches for the power of restorative justice. It’s a work of film that aims not to resolve, but to explore and expose the complicated emotions that come with sexual abuse.
“Michael had a lot of great attributes and he was great in a lot of ways and you loved him in a lot of ways, and then Michael does these things to you that are not healthy but you still have love for him, so it’s really hard to have those two feelings together,” says Robson. “I still, today, am grappling with that.”
Leaving Neverland leaves us with no choice but to grapple with it together. Maybe that in itself is enough.