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Friday, April 12, 2024

Commentary: “Leaving Neverland”

Documentary presents child abuse allegations against Michael Jackson

In the span of two two-hour episodes, the 2019 HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland” betrays the iconism of Michael Jackson — the King of Pop, the beloved performer famed since his childhood. Director Dan Reed displays the narratives of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim Jackson molested them both repeatedly throughout their childhoods and pre-teenage years. In hard-to-listen-to, detailed interviews, both men walk through how they became Jackson’s victims at young ages.

Part one of the documentary concerns itself with Robson and Safechuck’s first interactions with Jackson and the beginning stages of the abuse. It serves as the background in understanding how the events were able to occur. And the film’s excellence lies in its attention to detail; each piece of information, anecdote and character description is vital to understanding the complexity of the abuse. Robson and Safechuck’s parents’ gross perpetuance to guide their children to fame becomes a main reason for their frequent close interactions with Jackson. As they each gained a familial acquaintance and even friendship with Jackson, what he could do for their children’s performance careers drove the parents to endow Jackson with their full trust. On top of that, the feeling of being “special” — they were chosen out of all of the families in the world to be Jackson’s friend — made them oblivious to various red flags. They let their children sleep in Jackson’s bed on multiple occasions; they left their kids in Neverland alone for days on end. The naivety of the parents is stressed in the film. As one judges and disapproves of the parents, one can’t help but question if they would be keen enough to engage their own critical thinking in the face of Jackson’s charismatic attention.

The parent’s deception ultimately becomes critical to Jackson’s manipulation. His kindness, his sympathetic appeal as a man stripped of his childhood groomed the parents in his favor. The same was done to the boys. Jackson did not come on to the boys in a violent or forceful way (towards the end of the abuse in the teenage years, Jackson “respected” both boys’ denial to anal sex). Rather, Jackson’s alleged abuse was calculated, sinister and fundamentally damaging. In a much more insidious way, he told the boys that their sexual intercourse was a way to display love. He called the boys by pet names, bought them presents and even had a fake wedding ceremony with one of the boys. The boys have the cards and jewelry, the chilling evidence to prove the inappropriate relationship. Jackson knew the faults of his ways — he made the boys practice getting dressed in case they got caught and told the boys they would all go to jail if anyone found out. He was not a helpless victim. His actions had a clear objective, which further illuminates to the public the unspoken methods of pedophiles in general.

Part two focuses on Robson and Safechuck’s years after abuse, and the deep psychological damage. The foundation of love explains why it took decades for Robson and Safechuck to speak out and why Robson testified in favor of Jackson in his 2003 trial. Existing issues of blame and self worth are clear in both adult men. Part two also focuses on Jackson’s various other child abuse allegations in 1993 and 2003. The viewer is reminded that this is not the first time this portrayal of Jackson has entered the public sphere. There lies a layer of social guilt. As this documentary presents the most personal and damning account of Jackson’s pattern of pedophelia, it begs the question how many other children were his victim and were disregarded in favor of the beloved Michael Jackson.  

The documentary thus adds another layer to the #MeToo era — it does not only happen to adults, it happens to children. It not only victimizes women; men have also suffered. Moreover, Jackson is arguably the biggest star to be accused of sexual abuse — larger than Bill Cosby, bigger than Harvey Weinstein.

The sketchy area, and possible fault, of the film lies in a similar vein: Jackson is not alive to defend himself. The film could be perceived, then, as slander and claims without evidence even with the moral intention to simply give the victims a voice. Reed then takes a risk in his documentary as he battles the King of Pop’s legacy. While there is some evidence, the film is Robson and Safechuck’s word against the lasting personhood of Jackson.

The documentary itself presents a thorough narrative-led investigation to bring justice to the abused. Yet the audience is left with the question of how to interact with Jackson’s music. Other #MeToo cases had a seemingly streamlined way of reacting: cease watching their movies, stop listening to their music, and furthermore, bring charges. However, the legacy of Jackson is on a much larger scale. Michael Jackson the musician is bigger than Michael Jackson the abuser. The dances, the songs and art we consume on a popular scale are a result of Jackson’s masterful creativity. He is an integral part of our modern day art and culture, and fully ridding our society of Jackson would mean erasing blameless artists he influenced. As these allegations against Jackson cut our society to its deepest cultural core, the complexity and deep emotional charge of the situation does not lend to us one correct way to morality. Nonetheless, a voice to the victims and a change in the way we each interact with Jackson and his music will compel us to think.

Written By: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org


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