A chilling account of sexual abuse, which lets Jackson’s survivors tell their own stories, in their own words.
Leaving Neverland was never going to be distributed without a significant amount of backlash. Michael Jackson, despite extensive allegations raised against him for acts of child sexual abuse, has continued to be on the most loved pop stars across the globe for over 40 years. Channel 4’s decision to air the documentary in two parts was met with protests and social media backlash almost instantly – Jackson’s die hard fans arguing that “facts don’t lie. People do”.
It’s been over 15 years since Michael Jackson was last taken to court over claims of child sexual abuse. The first time was in 1993. Now, Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland documents the claims and experiences of two men – Wade Robson and James Safechuck – who have both gone public about abuse they suffered at the hands of Jackson as young children.
Charting events of the childhood chronologically, Reed cuts between interviews of Robson and Safechuck as they give their individual accounts. The real strength of Leaving Neverland is within this testimony that Safechuck and Robson give. Survivors should never (repeat: never) be believed on the basis of their ability to articulate their trauma, but Robson and Safechuck are both incredibly adept at explaining, in horrifying detail, what happened to them. The result is not only credibility but it becomes increasingly easy to relate to them and care about them, as adults and as seven year old children.
Split into two 90 minute parts, the first half details how Jackson met Robson and Safechuck and went on to integrate himself within each family (Robson won a dance competition, Safechuck was cast in a Pepsi commercial alongside Jackson). Each of them tell an eerily similar story; a lonely pop star connecting with a family he never had, becoming a pseudo-brother and son within their unit. There is an uncomfortable speed at which Jackson becomes someone that the Safechuck’s and Robson’s trust with their children; his celebrity status seemingly pitting Jackson has someone they knew far better than they really did. When you grow up watching someone on TV every day and you fill your bedroom with their posters, the real-life person is already familiar. Reed explores this sentiment at length with both Robson and Safechuck – again, their experiences both run like parallel lines to one another.
Naturally, Leaving Neverland deals with the allegations against Jackson and the ongoing difficulties both men have faced in their lives since childhood. But it is the conversations surrounding parental blame that are most interesting – here we are able to hear from both sides of the table. Jackson is not around to defend himself (and rarely spoke publicly anyway) but listening to Robson and Safechuck’s mothers is a fascinating insight into the mindset of two people who have blame laid at their feet too.
Robson, particularly, seems to have had a harder time coming to terms with the lack of care displayed by his mother. Having thoroughly built up the relationship between Jackson and the families (“he was like another son to me”) helps audiences to grasp why Robson and Safechuck’s mothers may have made the decisions that they did. Reed allows all of his contributors to speak for themselves and, especially with where the blame lies, doesn’t coerce his audience to a given conclusion. It is incredibly complex and Reed does not try to simplify it.
Contrary to the assumptions of those still vocally supporting Jackson, Leaving Neverland addresses Jackson’s 2005 trial – the very same one at which Robson testified for the defence that Jackson had never sexually abused him. The complicity of love and abuse, and of the lasting psychological damage that prevented Robson from seeing what happened as abuse, is explored in depth. Far from omitting the events of the 2005 trial, the film actively seeks to understand why it is that victims do not come forward sooner.
Leaving Neverland is an exercise in letting survivors speak for themselves, and this is something quite revolutionary. It’s hard to believe that anyone could watch the film in its entirety and dismiss Robson and Safechuck’s experiences – though of course this will undoubtedly continue to happen. Reed’s film is a testament to the victims of sexual abuse and should be seen as such. And it really should be seen.