Dan Reed’s intimate portrayal of calculated child grooming and sex abuse through the recollections of Wade Robson and James Safechuck presents a compelling truth that may forever change the legacy of the once idolised Michael Jackson.
I watched Leaving Neverland not wanting to believe Michael Jackson could have done these things to children. As the two-part four-hour documentary finished I was shell-shocked. Saddened. Angry.
When I was a child, I loved his music, his style, and the almost ethereal quality of his celebrity. A bit like everyone else my age in the late 1980s/early 1990s. He was a superstar like no other. But clouds have forever hung over the late pop singer. And whether or not he was a predatory figure who groomed children, Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s allegations in director Dan Reed’s film provide compelling witness testimony to suggest the rumours of impropriety have a significant amount of truth attached to them.
Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2019, Leaving Neverland, a new film from the maker of Terror in Mumbai and The Paedophile Hunter, focuses on two accounts of childhood abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson. Wade Robson (now 36) and James Safechuck (now 40) allege the music idol sexually abused them for a period of time beginning when they were 7 and 10 years old, respectively.
Amongst their allegations includes Jackson giving them jewellery in exchange for sex, separating the children from their parents in lavish hotels so that the singer could spend the night with the pre-teen boys without interruption, and, at one point, asking one of the boy’s mothers if her son could live with him for a year.
Leaving Neverland was met with shock as its credits rolled at Sundance Film Festival with one critic saying it was “one intense film”. Another critics – US Weekly’s Mara Reinstein said she was “shaking” after the screening and declared “we were all wrong when we cheered for Michael Jackson.”
Robson, a child dancer whose Jackson-like moves brought him to the attention of the pop singer in the late 1980s, told the Sundance audience: “We can’t change what happened to us. And we can’t do anything about stopping Michael. He’s dead. That’s gone. What happened, happened. The feeling is, what can we do with it now?”
Similarly to Safechuck, Robson says his relationship with Jackson lasted for years and included trips abroad and overnight stays at the singer’s Neverland home. They tell us the days were largely spent playing childish games before the sexual abuse would take place at night. “He told me if they ever found out what we were doing, he and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives,” says Robson in Leaving Neverland.
It’s perhaps that statement – which both accusers mention – that is the most shocking for those of us who felt Jackson was a strange eccentric who had become somehow stuck in his own childhood. The enjoyment he gained from his time with children was, we believed, innocent. But telling these children that what they were doing would get them both into trouble is indicative of a calculated individual who understood right from wrong and knew how to manipulate guilt to shame the victim.
That’s perhaps the moment I felt the most sad during the documentary.
Alexis Nedd on Mashable said, “There are many moments that made me shake with horror, both for the abused men and for my own fractured complicity in supporting the accused abuser.” Similarly, while I found myself squirming at some of the revelations, the film’s real gut punch was the sense that I was wrong about Michael Jackson.
Dan Reed’s film weaves a narrative that leaves you believing in Jackson’s guilt. Of that, there is not doubt. The accusers tell their stories in detail and separately share common ground that adds further weight to their allegations. In addition, the artist’s actions, as corroborated by family members, suggests a long and sustained attempt to win the trust of the children’s parents to such a degree the victims’ families’ wealth was connected to whether or not Jackson got his own way.
You can argue that there is one point of view in Leaving Neverland. Indeed, the pop icon’s nephew called it a “one-sided hit job”. Jackson’s estate issued a statement saying Reed’s film was an “outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in” on the singer, who died in 2009 after receiving a lethal dose of anaesthetic propofol.
And the singer’s fans were quick to point out the fact that Robson and Safechuck had previously supported Jackson under oath during previous legal cases against the singer. After law enforcement raided Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in 2003 while investigating claims he had molested a 13-year-old boy, Robson was one of the chief witnesses in the defence’s case. He said in court the singer never abused him. Jackson was acquitted of all charges in 2005.
Indeed, Reed’s film is not an exhaustively researched piece of journalism; rather it’s an intimate portrayal of personal accounts about things that happened, largely privately, many years ago. In terms of new evidence: there isn’t any. That’s important given the singer’s acquittal in 2005 after a jury deliberated for 32 hours.
An attorney for Jackson’s estate, Howard Weitzman, said in the statement that the documentary was made with monetary motives as its principle driver. “Had they made an objective film it would have allowed viewers to make up their own minds about these allegations, instead of having a television network dictate to them that they must accept these false claims about Michael Jackson,” Weitzman said.
As one commentator put it: Leaving Neverland is like having a public trial where the prosecution has had its say but the defence has no voice to offer a rebuttal. But then you read Vanity Fair’s 10 Undeniable Facts About the Michael Jackson Sexual-Abuse Allegations and you wonder how any defence attorney could really mount a plausible comeback.
As Alex Bojalad says in his review on Den of Geek, Leaving Neverland “can’t definitively lay claim to THE truth about Michael Jackson’s sexual assault and child rape allegations” but it presents “James Safechuck and Wade Robson’s respective truths and it does so sensitively, fairly, and believably enough that it seems that theirs may be the best truth we ever get.”