Editor’s note: This review of the Sundance documentary Leaving Neverland discusses allegations of sexual abuse and pedeophilia.
I remember exactly where I was when I found out about Michael Jackson. Over the summer before college, I was on my shift at Chick-Fil-A in Columbia, SC, when one of my fellow cashiers (who had stashed her cellphone behind the drive-thru register) exclaimed, “He’s dead!”
No one believed her. But after we all passed around her phone, which displayed the alert from CNN, it set in. For the man who created the masterpieces that were, and are, “Thriller,” “Man in the Mirror, “We Are The World,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Black or White?” His impact on music and the world was impossible to measure.
That’s why, walking into the Friday morning Sundance premiere of Leaving Neverland, I was admittedly hesitant. The much-buzzed-about doc claimed to further unearth allegations of sexual abuse committed by the King of Pop on two then-prepubescent boys. It’s not that I wasn't ready to hear what the subjects had to say—it’s that I wasn’t sure if the world was ready. But after a straight four hours (with a 10 minute intermission) what became clear is that Leaving Neverland is about so much more than the untimely death of a beloved icon. It’s a necessary, timely interrogation of how power and celebrity created a culture wherein the seduction of young boys (and their families) by a man far older than them was not only possible, but probable.
An entirely-too-slow of a burn, the film (re)introduces viewers to noted choreographer Wade Robson and James Safechuck who assert that Jackson sexually abused them when they were kids. It begins charting out each man’s journey to coming into contact with the pop legend, both of which center on an early idolization of his music and dance abilities.
Robson met Jackson by winning a dance competition at age five. He beat out kids far older than him with an adorable Jackson impersonation for a prize that included tickets to Jackson’s concert and a meet-and-greet. After meeting Jackson following the first night of the tour stop in their city, Robson and his parents returned the next evening, when Jackson would invite Robson to join him on stage. In reflection, he said it was like his “idol, mentor, god” anointing him, saying he was worthy. Two years later, Robson says, the abuse began.
As for Safechuck, he was cast in a Pepsi commercial starring Jackson when he was eight-years-old. Following the shoot, the two developed a close relationship, with Jackson calling Safechuck on the phone from his tour stops. He says the abuse started shortly after.
In addition to accounts from Safechuck and Robson, the doc includes interviews from their families. Much of the first half includes the parents’ justifications for what they believed to be budding, platonic friendships between their sons and Jackson. (They thought that because Jackson had a tough childhood that robbed him of the perks of being a kid, the singer saw the chance to live out what that time in his life should’ve been with the kids he came into contact with in the industry.) Both mothers, in particular, were initially present every time their child visited with Jackson. But as the familiarity grew, their guards came down. It should also be noted that neither family came from means, and when they traveled with Jackson, all expenses were covered.
Perhaps the most wrenching part of Leaving Neverland comes when the two subjects begin detailing the persistent, ongoing sexual abuse and manipulation they say they experienced. In painstaking, graphic detail, they described how Jackson allegedly introduced them to masturbation, instructed them to play with his nipples, and taught them how to perform oral sex. One of the men also said there was at least one instance in which Jackson fingered him while the other detailed a painful attempt at penetration (that left blood in his underwear which, he says, Jackson asked him to destroy). Both men say the alleged abuse took place in hotel suites, Jackson’s “hideout” in Los Angeles’ Westwood neighborhood, and throughout the nearly 3,000-acre Neverland Ranch.
The documentary addresses, in detail, two prior sets of sexual abuse allegations lodged at Jackson when he was alive, from two other boys who fell in and out of his graces. Though he categorically denied any of the accusations, the first case was settled out of court. Jackson was found not guilty in the second case. Throughout both trials, Robson and/or Safechuck and their families defended Jackson, going so far as to testify on his behalf. They both said at the time, repeatedly, that Jackson had not assaulted them.
Leaving Neverland leaves its viewers with much to grapple with, as evidenced by a heavy spirit in the premiere screening and the festival noting, prior to the film, that mental health professionals were on hand if anyone needed them.
What director Dan Reed has delivered is, without question, too long. But what we sacrifice in length is a convincing portrait of two men and their families, who were blinded by the novelty of being friends with the biggest star on the planet. Reed’s use of archival materials, from old newscasts to family photos and videos to copies of faxed letters Jackson wrote, to voicemails he left for the family, creates an intense, heavy, and eye-opening viewing experience.
As for the content of the doc, noticeably missing is the voice of any members of the Jackson family, representatives from the estate, or witnesses from prior Jackson trials that allege otherwise. Following the Sundance premiere, the estate released a statement:
“Leaving Neverland isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death. The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact. These claims were the basis of lawsuits filed by these two admitted liars which were ultimately dismissed by a judge. The two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred. They have provided no independent evidence and absolutely no proof in support of their accusations, which means the entire film hinges solely on the word of two perjurers.”
The estate’s statement went on to call into question Robson’s allegations in particular, which he initially revealed in a 2013 Today interview (ironically with Matt Lauer), noting that they emerged only after the choreographer was denied a role in a Michael Jackson-themed Cirque du Soleil production.
“We are extremely sympathetic to any legitimate victim of child abuse,” it continues.
‘This film, however, does those victims a disservice. Because despite all the disingenuous denials made that this is not about money, it has always been about money…”
It will be interesting to see how the public responds to the allegations presented in the fim, and particularly the graphic detail and similarities between Robson and Safechuck’s experiences. At Sundance, the reception was apparent: The audience gave Robson and Safechuck, who were in attendance, a standing ovation, all while the bots and Jackson fans on Twitter started the crusade to discredit them. But in this moment where we’re grappling with #MeToo and the Time’s Up movements, and most recently calls to finally #MuteRKelly, where people who say they’re victims of sexual-related abuse and assault are being believed, now comes the time when the unchecked power of celebrity could truly be tested — and Jackson’s legacy could forever be altered.
It’s hard not to wonder what will happen when such allegations circle (back) to some of our most beloved heroes who escaped either in death or in time the unearthing of their horrors. What will we do then? Leaving Neverland airs this spring on HBO. We shall soon find out.