The incendiary documentary examines Michael Jackson with a critical lens.
HBO and UK Channel 4 recently released “Leaving Neverland,” a documentary detailing the stories of two men who claim that pop star Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children. Both Wade Robson and James Safechuck met Jackson while working with the singer on different projects, after which he became close with the boys’ families. Those connections gave Jackson a way to keep in contact with the boys and to eventually form sexual relationships with them.
Jackson’s alleged pedophilia is obviously appalling and no one holds more blame than him, but these accusations have been public knowledge for quite some time. What the documentary does a good job of exploring is just how wrapped up the boys’ parents were in the whole charade as well. They willingly let their sons sleep in Jackson’s bed and spend long periods of unsupervised time with the man. Whether through an unfathomable sense of heteronormativity or naivete in light of the superstar’s presence, these parents displayed neglect for their own children to an extent that, according to the accounts of multiple people interviewed in the film, enabled a serial pedophile to molest them for years.
The documentary is pertinent to the current cultural moment since the allegations against Jackson predate revelations about similar high-profile wrongdoings committed by Catholic priests, Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and financier Jeffrey Epstein. Though those cases have all faced considerable skepticism, the campaign by Jackson’s fans to discredit and shame his accusers was nothing short of monstrous. It is impossible to know whether the formal allegations against Jackson would have been received differently had they come out later, but as with Anita Hill to the #MeToo movement, it is likely that Jackson’s accusers paved the way for those who would later come forward with allegations against the aforementioned figures.
An interesting side-note is that Johnnie Cochran, the primary defense attorney for OJ Simpson in his murder trial, acted as Jackson’s defense lawyer in the first case that leveled pedophilia claims against the singer, and fellow OJ Simpson defense team alum Alan Dershowitz worked on Epstein’s defense team for his criminal case centered around his inappropriate relationships with underage teens.
What “Leaving Neverland” forces us to do is not just reevaluate the actions of people like Jackson, but to also consider personal and public decisions about how much new revelations should bear on what we may view as successful careers. This kind of reevaluation has been a major talking point for the revelations that the #MeToo movement has brought to light, but often, it is a hard decision to make.
Everyone has to personally decide whether the heinous actions of individuals make watching or listening to the media they produced immoral as well. However, the effects these scandals have on the public sphere are not as easy to deal with since it is not subject to the whims of one person. Forcing everyone to stop listening to Michael Jackson’s music is not a possibility, but that does not mean action should not be taken.
“Leaving Neverland” gives the public a way to talk about these awful things that have happened, and opens conversations about sexual assault awareness. Though not a panacea to fixing the problem, “Leaving Neverland” can at least bring the topic further away from the shadows where it was allowed to hide for so many years. Additionally, sharing information about the documentary with others is a subtle yet active way to make sure people you know are informed about the most impactful musician since the Beatles.
We cannot make meaningful choices about how we view Jackson’s legacy until the populace really understands the things he did. The country as a whole will have to decide whether or not we believe Jackson’s accusers before any kind of change in perspective on the icon is possible, but HBO has done something great by starting thousands of little conversations across the world.