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On March 3 and 4, HBO aired the two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, which discusses sexual assault allegations made against Michael Jackson. The documentary totals around four hours and focuses entirely on two victims, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and their families as they discuss their personal experiences.
The documentary immediately sparked anger amongst Jackson’s fans. Many protested at the film’s festival premier, and a $100 million lawsuit has been taken out by the Jackson Estate against HBO.
Jackson’s niece Brandi, who dated the accuser Wade Robson for several years in their youth, has called him an opportunist who is after money. Jackson’s daughter, Paris, has responded to worries about the tarnishing of her late father’s legacy on Twitter: “yeah they do that to everyone with a good heart and tries to make a difference [sic], but do you really think that it’s possible to tear his name down ? like do you truly believe they stand a chance ?” Her response reveals a larger issue: the general lack of willingness to listen to victims of abuse, especially at the hands of a popular celebrity.
It is important to establish that Jackson was, and still is, more than a cultural idol. He defined not only a genre but an entire generation; he was so beloved, particularly as a Black artist, that when accusations against him were made in 1993 and again in 2003, there were practically riots insisting on Jackson’s innocence.
People were convinced that Jackson was being falsely accused and victimized. Every statement made by the accusers and their families was picked apart. There were t-shirts, posters, protests, and celebrity support all in Jackson’s favor, but the fervor surrounding the public's denial prompts doubt as to whether or not people were truly paying attention. If they were aware of all claims being made by the boys, perhaps people would have noticed the striking amount of tangible evidence.
In a 1993 investigation, police found that Jackson possessed multiple books and photographs featuring inappropriate photos of young boys. In 2003, Jackson outrightly admitted to sleeping in the same bed with adolescents but claimed it was nonsexual.
These accusations are not new, but the timing of Leaving Neverland’s release is hardly a mistake. With a rising movement to believe and support victims, particularly when they were abused by people with huge amounts of social capital, Robson and Safechuck have an opportunity to be heard in a way that has not yet been possible.
The documentary is striking not only because child abuse is discussed for about four hours, but also because it becomes clear that the film itself operates as a platform. Robson, Safechuck, and their family members do not outrightly vilify Jackson but rather use their time to discuss the complexities of their relationships with him.
Both men came into contact with Jackson as he was reaching the height of his fame, and both said they felt special spending time with him. Jackson took time to ingratiate himself into the entire family, making each one of them feel chosen. He would fly them all over the world during tour and give them extravagant gifts. When Robson’s mother decided to move to the United States from Australia to allow Wade more dancing opportunities, Jackson helped the family take out a loan for their new home. Robson’s mother claims she felt Jackson was one of her own children, and she was sympathetic to his loneliness and lack of meaningful relationships.
Throughout the the documentary, there is a painful level of detail in the depositions of all parties involved, amplified by the shocking amount of tactile images to back them up. In fact, the majority of the visuals of the documentary are pictures of Jackson with each family, as well as recordings and letters.
It is impossible to separate Michael Jackson from his musical influence. He permeates the work of so many current artists in both conscious and unconscious ways. Leaving Neverland does not ask the audience to try and negate how revolutionary he was in his industry. Both victims discuss at length how much they admired him as an artist, and Robson details how his career was transformed by opportunities created by their relationship. However, the documentary does ask viewers to accept the multiple and complex facets Jackson’s life. More than anything, Leaving Neverland demands attention and open-mindedness. At its core, it is about two men who want to be understood, and the least we can do is listen.