Over the course of two 90-minute films, Leaving Neverland paints a deeply disturbing picture of pop star Michael Jackson’s alleged extended sexual abuse of two young boys.
The accounts of Wade Robson and James Safechuck made headlines in the weeks leading up to the documentary’s broadcast on Channel 4 and HBO, as the pair recalled in graphic detail claims of grooming and abuse they suffered from the ages of seven and ten, respectively.
Their testimonies are compelling, but Dan Reed‘s film stands out not just for their interviews but for the on-camera conversations the director has with Robson and Safechuck’s mothers, both of whom candidly question their own decisions to let their sons sleep in Jackson’s bedroom for long periods of time in the 80s and 90s. They, like many others, they claim, fell under the superstar’s spell.
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The first child sexual abuse allegation against Michael Jackson emerged in 1993, when Evan Chandler alleged that the singer had molested his 13-year-old son Jordan. The case was settled outside court for a reported $23 million.
Some 12 years later, in 2005, Jackson was charged with abusing 13-year-old cancer survivor Gavin Arvizo. During the trial, which lasted several months, the son of Jackson’s housekeeper testified that the singer had also abused him when he was a child. Jackson was eventually acquitted.
It wasn’t until 2013, four years after the singer’s death, that Robson, who had testified in defence of Jackson during the 2005 trial, first alleged sexual abuse. James Safechuck followed in 2014, filing claims against the Michael Jackson Estate, also alleging he had been sexually abused by the pop star as a child. Both lawsuits were later dismissed because they were filed outside the statute of limitations.
Jackson’s legacy has in the large part withstood all of the above, thus far. But Reed’s film comes at a key moment. We’re living in a post-#MeToo era, a movement that has exposed a string of major celebrities starting with Harvey Weinstein in late 2017. Allegations of sexual assault have brought down Oscar winner Kevin Spacey – and in recent months, reports of sexual abuse prompted a boycott campaign targeting the music of three-time Grammy winner R. Kelly.
Jackson’s back catalogue has remained widely played and hugely popular, with hits including Billy Jean, Black or White and Thriller. But the accounts given in the documentary are detailed and persuasive.
Could they have a serious impact on Jackson’s legacy within an entertainment industry that has begun to wake up to abuse of power?
Director Reed is convinced that there are “many more” victims than the two who speak in the film, and that his documentary could possibly move others to come forward and share their stories. “I don’t think Wade and James can be the only ones,” he says. “Because Jordan and Gavin have come out in public and also the son of Jackson’s chambermaid, Jason Francia, has gone public, and I believe there are many more.
“Will they come out or not? I don’t know, it’s something that people will do in their own time… I’m not interested in outing anyone or compelling anyone to come forward if they’re not ready.”
But Reed does hope that Leaving Neverland will encourage victims of sexual abuse to speak out after they see “the courage that Wade and James have had coming forward, even when confronted with the might of the Jackson machine and the power of the Jackson Estate and the ruthlessness of Jackson’s lawyers”.
He also believes Leaving Neverland could impact Jackson’s legacy as a musician. “The reaction I’ve had most often [to the film] is that people don’t feel like they want to hear his music anymore.”
The director has said he wouldn’t support a campaign to ban Jackson’s songs, but adds: “Is this a time to celebrate Michael Jackson? I don’t think so. I think it’s a time to acknowledge the man he was and that he’s also a brilliant entertainer. Maybe those things one day can fit together in people’s minds, but there’s going to be a period of re-evaluation of who he was and then, of course, of his work as well.”
Nearly a decade on from his death, Jackson still has some of the most passionate fans on the planet. Reed reveals he has received “thousands of emails” as well as a backlash on Twitter from “a tiny minority of Jackson fans” who he calls the “MJ cultists”.
“They’re uncompromising,” he says. “They won’t listen and their knee jerk reaction has been to denigrate and hurl abuse at children who were [allegedly] raped by Michael Jackson, and I don’t think that’s a very good look. Especially in 2019.”
Jackson also has a defensive and litigious family and estate, which is currently suing Channel 4’s Leaving Neverland co-producer, HBO, for $100 million over their alleged violation of a non-disparagement clause in a 1992 contract. This comes after the estate sent a ten-page letter to the broadcaster’s CEO denouncing the film and branding it “one-sided” and “sensationalist”.
The accounts of Robson and Safechuck are compelling – and shocking in their detail – but are they capable of changing the views of dedicated Michael Jackson fans, especially when it’s no longer possible to put the late singer on trial and prove the alleged abuse in court?
But what about the more general public? The consumers who have responded and engaged with the #MeToo movement, now faced with the chilling accounts of two men who describe years of suffering.
Could Leaving Neverland be the film that finally moves public opinion on Michael Jackson?
Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me airs at 9pm on Wednesday 6th and Thursday 7th March on Channel 4