Leaving Neverland asks a lot of its viewers, and toward a profound purpose. The four-hour documentary details the complexity of child sexual abuse at the hands of a pop icon. Director Dan Reed (Terror at the Mall) and the two subjects of the film, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, know the public doubts that they face. The film is four hours because it carefully outlines and compares their separate experiences with Michael Jackson, as well as their motivation to speak and to speak together. Regardless, they are convincing.
We begin with a portrait of success, with the music industry singularly focused on a star and his 1987 album Bad. There’s a global tour and various sponsorship tie ins. Wade meets Michael in Australia after winning a dance contest at age 5. James (“Jimmy”) meets Michael in California on the set of a Pepsi commercial at age 9. Both of their mothers were managers of their son’s career and saw the tremendous opportunity in forming a friendship with the King of Pop. Wade’s family splintered as half the family moved to California from Brisbane to pursue that opportunity. Jimmy’s family merely opened its arms to Jackson, allowing him some “normalcy” amidst the chaos of his life.
The friendships were similarly obsessive: hours-long phone calls, sometimes every day; letters, faxes, gifts, vacations, mentorships, promises of career success. Love was uttered frequently and intensely. All this is documented thoroughly on screen, presented with photographs, scans of letters, and audio recordings. Sleeping in the same bed was the gateway to abuse. But this detail has been out in the open since the early 1990s, confirmed by all parties. It’s been explained away by Jackson’s “childlike” demeanor and ascribed the innocence of slumber parties. As if kids never experiment at slumber parties? Also, Jackson wasn’t a child. He just wasn’t.
The abuses are eerily similar. The exact methods of abuse are important to note because comparing the two separate relationships corroborates the other’s claims to a point. The locations and frequency and types of abuse are harrowing to endure. But the larger themes are also significant. The intercut stories of meeting, befriending, grooming, and abusing propel the second part of the story: the lies protecting Jackson. Secrets were part of the intimacy with Jackson, an us-versus-them dynamic with parents and adults in general, especially women. There was constant awareness of the jeopardy of the relationship, of what would happen if they got caught. This veil of loving secrecy guides the doc into uncomfortable territory.
Safechuck and Robson both relate stories of their parents being distanced from them as boys. Parents and siblings are interviewed and confirm encountering strangely locked doors. Jackson would call the boys his “sons” while also relating to them as peers, saying that they were mirror images of him. Physical expressions were extensions of an already existing bond. Jackson was never violent, never scary. They were “in love” in multiple senses of the word. There was profound hurt and jealousy when other boys usurped their place. Jackson maintained the relationships enough to demand loyalty, especially around the times of the criminal allegations against him. Wade and Jimmy never wanted Jackson to go to jail; it was incomprehensible because the love endured.
There are times during the viewing experience of Leaving Neverland when you want an interview with a psychologist. But clearly, both men have been in therapy and share insights. Robson is incredibly articulate when he explains that the version of the story where Jackson was innocent was the foundation of his life. To acknowledge the other version was to overturn everything. It was never a case of repressed memories, but rather facing the consequences of the truth. Safechuck is also incredibly articulate when he says that Michael had a lot of great attributes, that he did great things but also things that weren’t healthy. He’s still grappling with those contradictory aspects, as we all must do over time. But being stuck with the secret was worse.
Documentaries about crime are usually about failures in a criminal justice system. This one definitely is, but it’s also about something more ambiguous: fandom. Michael Jackson inspired devotion and love across the globe, much like a religious icon. Millions of people felt that they knew him and bonded with his persona of childlike wonder, other-worldly talent, and generosity. Fans feel inextricably tied to his artistic output and his causes. This film asks us what we really knew, what we can ever really know about our idols. There are always doors to be closed, behind which we know nothing. What does fandom allow us to ignore, purely because we don’t want to disrupt that adoration? What will we deny in order to preserve that illusory bond?
There are, of course, claims that Safechuck and Robson are only seeking fame or money with these allegations. My only response to that is, fame and money allowed the abuse to happen in the first place. Parents were willing to leave their children alone with Michael Jackson because of awe and opportunity and naivety and neglect. That mutual exploitation did not preclude abuse, it actually protected it, allowing it to thrive in a limbo of entitlement. In that way, it’s not much different from the Harvey Weinstein case.
For 25 years, our criminal justice system has cast doubt on Jackson’s guilt based on statutes of limitation, chains of evidence, and plain legal spin. At the end of the day, we’ve already tried not believing this. We’ve basked in a not guilty verdict that allowed our fandom to continue despite clear and repeated cries from sources such as these two and beyond. This documentary lays out evidence of inappropriate relationships with children who were manipulated; there’s no doubt. What’s left to work on is the way we engage with another legacy that embodies terrible contradictions.