Having seen the “Leaving Neverland” documentary, I can tell you that I believe some things but not others, and some people but not others. I’m reserving judgment for a future date.
“Leaving Neverland,” a two-part, four-hour documentary about two survivors of alleged sexual abuse by Michael Jackson, premières on HBO this Sunday. It’s certain to be a bleak day of reckoning for serious fans of Jackson, who has been trailed, even in death, by accusations of unconscionable behavior. The film was directed by Dan Reed, a British documentarian (in 2014, he released a film about vigilante pedophile hunters), and hinges on extensive on-camera interviews with Wade Robson, who is now thirty-six, and James Safechuck, who is now forty. Both men allege that Jackson groomed and abused them when they were children.
The film immediately establishes just how exhilarating it was for the boys to be chosen by Jackson, who, in the nineteen-eighties, was the most widely idolized pop star on earth—to be offered not just his interest and affection but access to a rarefied, enchanted life style, absent of parents, school, or meddling by adults. “Leaving Neverland” does not offer any new evidence of abuse, but it is nonetheless a gruelling and devastating film that asks viewers to reconfigure how they think about both Jackson and potential victims of rape. Robson and Safechuck actively sought out and sustained contact with Jackson. They loved him. Each was heartbroken when he eventually turned his attention elsewhere, to other boys.
The film presents just one side of the story: what Robson and Safechuck recall about their experiences with Jackson, and, decades later, how both of these men have navigated the subsequent trauma. But what about Jackson’s side? What sympathy or voice, if any, is he owed now, in death? In his lifetime, Jackson furiously denied any sexual interest in children. It has been hard for Robson and Safechuck to bring their allegations to trial. They sued in 2013 and 2014, but their claims were dismissed for technical reasons. They have since appealed the ruling.
It is admittedly difficult, while watching “Leaving Neverland,” to hold in mind two contradictory but equally imperative ideas: that victims should be believed, and that the accused are innocent until proved guilty. The first is wildly crucial if we wish to protect the disenfranchised from egregious abuses of power. The second remains the crux of the American criminal-justice system. Can these two ideas coexist? Right now it feels as if they have to, which means that we are sometimes required to make personal choices about how we accept or dismiss the information made available to us. The first part of “Leaving Neverland” is explicit in the two men’s precise (and, it should be said, nearly identical) descriptions of abuse. Listening to Safechuck give a virtual tour of Jackson’s home—after describing each new room, he says, “We had sex there”—is especially nauseating for its casual use of “we,” as if a child could ever actively participate in his own abuse. I found all four hours of “Leaving Neverland” horrifying and unforgettable.