HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ never lets Michael Jackson steal the spotlight
Two men who say Jackson molested them reveal how a star weaponized his own magnetism
Leaving Neverland knows you love Michael Jackson.
It lets you love him until, finally, it’s impossible.
HBO’s two-part, four-hour documentary, which first airs March 3 and 4, intentionally mimics the contours of the sexually exploitative relationships Jackson allegedly had with two of his victims, Jimmy Safechuck and Wade Robson.
It’s that ability — that compassion, and that patience — that ultimately makes Leaving Neverland so devastating. Its beginning lulls and seduces you. You’re humming along to the melodies of “Smooth Criminal,” smiling with Jackson as Safechuck is photographed jumping beside him after doing a Pepsi commercial with the King of Pop. You’re marveling along with Robson when he meets his idol at age 5 after winning a dance contest in Australia. You’re thrilled, thrilled, just like young Jimmy and young Wade, when they’re first invited to Neverland Ranch and stay up past their bedtimes to eat junk food and watch movies that aren’t even in theaters yet. How glorious it is to feel liked, to feel special, because one of the most liked, special people in the world sees something in you.
Leaving Neverland is not a character assassination of Jackson. It gives you permission to like him, to like his music, even to love him, because Robson and Safechuck did, and so did their families. It does not demand your immediate sympathy for Robson and Safechuck, nor does it demand immediate condemnation of Jackson.
It only trusts that you will listen.
“He was one of the kindest, loving, gentle, most caring people I knew,” Robson says, “… and he also sexually abused me.”
Jackson’s estate filed a lawsuit against HBO in hopes of stopping the network from airing Leaving Neverland. The suit claims that the cable network violated a non-disparagement clause in a contract it entered to air Jackson’s Dangerous concert in 1992.
Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, shows how to make a documentary about sexual abuse without allowing the star power of the celebrity in question to upstage his victims. Lesser directors would be tempted to home in on the lurid details of Jackson’s alleged sexual predation and repeat them for shock value. It is the sledgehammer approach to storytelling: Start with the most horrifying, salacious parts, insist repeatedly that the subject was unfathomably monstrous, and then roll credits.
Reed, on the other hand, places his viewers squarely in the mindset of both Safechuck and Robson. He demonstrates how they could be persuaded to lie repeatedly to their parents, to law enforcement officials, and even on the witness stand, to protect Jackson. Yes, Jackson manipulated his young victims by telling them that he and they would go to jail if anyone found out about their assignations. But Jackson didn’t need to resort to violent threats to get what he wanted. He simply withdrew his love, knowing that his young friends would continue to seek it and do whatever was necessary to remain in his good graces, because that is what children do.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the story is that, from a distance, it’s so easy to judge the mothers of Safechuck and Robson as fame-seeking fools who were blinded by celebrity. But Leaving Neverland illustrates how Jackson also endeared himself to the families of his victims. His ingratiating neediness convinced them that they, in some small way, had power over him because he loved them so much. Robson’s mother, Joy, explained that when Jackson died in 2009, she felt as though she’d lost a son.
“Everybody knows he didn’t have a childhood,” she says.
“It was like hanging out with someone your age,” Safechuck explains.
The big reveal of Leaving Neverland is not that Jackson allegedly molested children, or the details of the acts Safechuck and Robson accuse him of committing. It is the emotional time bombs that continued to detonate long after his relationships with Robson and Safechuck ended.
Robson and Safechuck, who did not know each other as children, experienced mirror images of each other’s traumas later in life, from problems with depression to waves of crushing anxiety that developed after their own children were born and they began to imagine their sons experiencing what they did with Jackson. It’s the rifts within the Safechuck and Robson families that distanced both Wade and Jimmy from their own mothers. The actions of one man had consequences that rippled through multiple generations of these two families. Leaving Neverland briefly asks us to consider the same for other victims who did come forward as children, only to be smeared as liars and money-grubbers.
Jackson’s response to being investigated for sexual abuse feels all too familiar. Just as he manipulated the Safechucks and the Robsons into seeing him as a victim in need of love and protection, Jackson did something similar with black people as a whole. Viewers will recognize a commonality with other famous black men accused of sexual assault, such as Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, who publicly fashion themselves as victims of their own success in a racist country seeking to take them down a peg. Jackson made his appeal in a speech at the 1994 NAACP Image Awards, where he equated his legal battles against accusations of child molestation with the organization’s fight for civil rights.
“For decades, the NAACP has stood at the forefront for equal justice under the law for all people in our land,” Jackson said before an enthusiastic crowd brought to their feet by his mere presence. “They have fought in the lunchrooms of the South, in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, and in the boardrooms of corporate America for justice, equality and the very dignity of all mankind. Members of the NAACP have been jailed and even killed in the noble pursuit of those ideals upon which our country was founded.
“None of these goals is more meaningful for me at this time in my life than the notion that everyone is presumed to be innocent. Everyone is presumed to be innocent and totally innocent until they are charged with a crime and then convicted by a jury of their peers. I never really took the time to understand the importance of that ideal until now. Until I became the victim of false allegations and the willingness of others to believe and exploit the worst before they have had the chance to hear the truth. Because not only am I presumed to be innocent, I am innocent. And I know that the truth will be my salvation.”
Jackson is magnetic. He is radiant. He is a consummate performer, and he revels in his command of the crowd.
“We love you, Michael!” an audience member shouts.
“I love you more,” he responds, beaming.
Leaving Neverland does not blame Jackson’s fans for the love and faith they poured into him for decades. It simply exposes that as much as Jackson might have needed it, that love was never going to be reciprocated. Perhaps it couldn’t be.
“People think his music’s great, so he’s great,” Safechuck said.
Leaving Neverland doesn’t explain or excuse how Jackson became the man he did. There are interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Ed Bradley and Martin Bashir and plenty of others that attempt to do that. Instead, Leaving Neverland redirects the spotlight in the hope that its audience, like Safechuck and Robson, will finally see the truth.