HBO’s Leaving Neverland is ultimately a tribute to the power of personal testimony.
Over four hours, the film slowly excavates the stories of James Safechuck and Wade Robson. The two men each met Michael Jackson as children in the 1980s and allege the pop star sexually abused them for years while showering their families with attention and gifts.
Some of Jackson’s family members — particularly, his nephew Taj and brothers Jackie, Marlon and Tito Jackson — have denied these allegations. Last week, Jackson’s estate filed a lawsuit against HBO over the documentary.
“He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew,” says Robson, who eventually built a career as a choreographer for artists such as Britney Spears and NSYNC.
“He also sexually abused me for seven years.”
Soft-spoken and at times hesitant, Safechuck seems the more subdued of the two men. He says Jackson told him their activities were the singer’s first sexual experience.
One heartbreaking sequence from the film toggles between two jarringly different stories. In one, Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie, speaks about how she overheard Jackson and her son playing together, by themselves, in the singer’s hotel room, doing “just kid things” like reading books. In the other, her son describes in detail how the pop star used those private moments to kiss him and perform oral sex on him.
“He’s the biggest entertainer and he’s a creative genius, and that creative genius thinks that you are special,” Safechuck says ruefully, after outlining how Jackson would abuse him. “What’s not to like, right?”
Leaving Neverland makes a powerful case against the King of Pop. The film’s impact comes from its unwavering focus on the two men and their allegations. The harrowing tales are delivered in excruciating detail to the camera, bolstered by accounts from their mothers, wives and a few other relatives. They each describe a textbook case in which a superstar pedophile groomed children and their families to accept his advances.
Jackson met both men when they were children and he was at his creative peak. Robson won a dance contest at age 5 in his native Australia back in 1987; the first prize was meeting Jackson. Safechuck starred in a famous 1986 Pepsi commercial in which he rummages through the singer’s dressing room before Jackson enters, surprising him.
In both cases, the men describe how Jackson paid them loads of attention, bringing them onstage to bask in the white-hot spotlight of his fame. He would take them on his concert tours and talk with them on the phone for hours. This was when Jackson was at the height of his stardom, as screaming crowds mobbed his every public appearance around the world.
There were warning signs: Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie, describes how, as the tour went on, she was housed in hotel rooms farther and farther away from Jackson and her son. Robson’s mother, Joy, speaks about a visit to Jackson’s Neverland Ranch compound when her son and the pop star would disappear for hours together, actively avoiding her.
Their stories also suggest Jackson’s fame and success led the boys’ parents to accept situations they may never have tolerated involving someone less famous. The wider world may have been under his spell as well.
Stephanie Safechuck says when Jackson brought her son into his dressing room during the Pepsi shoot, the singer’s makeup artist told her about the star, ” ‘He’s like a 9-year-old boy’ … so that made me feel comfortable [leaving them alone].” But should anyone be comforted by the idea that a nearly 30-year-old man acts like a 9-year-old? And why did pop music fans back in the day accept the argument that he was too childlike to be dangerous? Such explanations were often used publicly to justify stories of Jackson sharing a bed with children.
Later, both men explain how they fell out of favor with Jackson as they aged, only to find the singer renew their friendship after he was accused of child sexual abuse in 1993 and arrested on child molestation charges in 2003. Back then, Safechuck and Robson denied that Jackson ever abused them, deciding later to reverse their stories as, they say, they were grappling with depression and emotional trauma.
But Leaving Neverland‘s greatest advantage — its focus on the two men’s personal testimony — is also its biggest weakness, as no one outside their families is interviewed by the filmmakers to provide a wider context. Most of the rebuttals to accounts of abuse in the movie come from news clips of Jackson and his lawyers addressing different allegations from different accusers. However, there are other sources who could have corroborated the men’s stories, including former employees of Jackson questioned during the pop star’s 2005 molestation trial (Jackson was acquitted on all charges).
It’s a stark contrast to another recent, attention-getting documentary, Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, which surrounded first-person allegations of abuse against the R&B star with fresh interviews. They featured everyone from Kelly’s high school music teacher to two of his brothers. That approach left little doubt that viewers had seen a wide-ranging narrative that built its case on the foundation of dozens of similar stories.
For Leaving Neverland, the lack of outside voices seems a crucial weakness, especially given that both men sued Jackson’s estate years after his 2009 death. Their lawsuits were dismissed after judges said they filed claims too late, but their lawyer plans to file an appeal.
The film has already made a huge media splash since its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. There’s now a lawsuit against HBO from Jackson’s estate, which called the film, “unvetted propaganda.” CBS This Morning featured interviews this week with Jackson’s family members, director Dan Reed, Robson and Safechuck. Oprah Winfrey will sit down with Reed, Safechuck and Robson before an audience of abuse survivors for a special airing Monday on HBO and her Oprah Winfrey Network cable channel.
As the struggle over Jackson’s legacy continues, Leaving Neverland offers a compelling look at two men who say their perspective on their abuse has shifted over time. And perhaps, in the same way, the wider world will have to take another, closer look at legendary figures accused of horrific acts.