James Baldwin once wrote, “If you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all.” It’s a truth that, in the Me Too era, has been battering the fans of artists and creators revealed to have done terrible things. At some point in our current celebrity culture, the fallacy that an artist you admire must also be a person you admire took root. It’s a pervasive, emotional lie that keeps a dwindling number of supporters in the corners of men like Louis CK, Woody Allen, and Bill Cosby. Leaving Neverland, a four-hour documentary airing on HBO, asks viewers to look that fallacy head on without euphemism or restraint. Can someone whose music we all know and love be the same man accused of sexually abusing children? Its answer is yes, but doesn’t offer prescriptions, definitive answers, or demands. All it asks is that, for a moment, we let Jackson’s survivors’ stories ring louder than his music.
Though touted as a Michael Jackson documentary, Leaving Neverland focuses on accounts of the singer’s alleged abuse from two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, and is solely comprised of their and their families’ testimonies. Over the course of the heart-wrenching and difficult film, both men recount in frank and graphic detail claims of how the singer sexually abused them for the majority of their childhoods. Through their testimonies, a dark and ugly dimension to the star emerges. “He was one of the kindest most gentle loving caring people I knew. He helped me tremendously, he helped me with my career, he helped me with my creativity,” says Robson in the opening minutes of the film behind photos of him as a young child beside the superstar. He continues, his voice cracking, “And he also sexually abused me for seven years.”
The first two hours of Leaving Neverland cover how Robson and Safechuck respectively came to know Michael Jackson. Robson met the singer at age 5 after winning a children’s dance competition. Safechuck also met Jackson when he was a young child after starring alongside him in a Pepsi commercial. Those meetings, the men say, were the beginnings of his seduction of their families with celebrity and wealth. As Robson and Safechuck describe how Jackson escalated their initially innocent playdates into sexual acts and grooming, interviews with their parents and other family members describe how they grew to love and trust the star they thought was generous if not just a little bit odd. The final two hours of the film cover Robson and Safechuck growing up, facing rejection from Jackson as he replaces them with new boys, and, while still in denial about their own abuse, defending Jackson in court against highly-publicized sexual abuse allegations in the ‘90s and ‘00s.
While Leaving Neverland is filled with moments of tragedy and heartbreak, its second half is particularly wrenching as we hear how Robson and Safechuck reckoned with the abuse and their trauma as adults. Both are moved to open up to their families about Jackson's alleged abuse after they have children. In 2013, Robson decided to go public with his story, thereby inspiring Safechuck to do the same. “Even though there’s lots of parts of it that are still scary and uncomfortable to talk about... these sexual details and this crazy stuff that happened between Michael and I it still feels a whole lot better than the lie did,” Robson says as the film reaches present day.
There’s no doubt that Leaving Neverland is one-sided. As many critics have pointed out, it doesn’t include interviews with people who knew Jackson and were unconnected to Robson and Safechuck. Jackson’s estate denies the claims made in the film and is suing HBO for $100 million in damages. However, after wrestling through the film, I understand how Jackson’s continuing global influence makes space for such a supposed imbalance. The audience is an intergenerational one that has felt Jackson’s presence and influence in pop culture for the majority, if not all, of their lives. And his legacy as a music and dance pioneer lives on in pop music today, nearly a decade after his death. His songs are not only ubiquitous, his influence runs through the work of all our current pop superstars, Bruno Mars’s dance performances, Lady Gaga’s music videos, Beyoncé’s framework of worldwide pop culture domination, to name a few. What Leaving Neverland presents is one, four-hour, long overdue side of a forced confrontation between the Michael Jackson audiences love and the one we’ve batted to the back of our minds for since the ‘90s.
The unspoken question humming at the Jackson fan from the screen is what do we do, then, with the music of Michael Jackson? Unlike R. Kelly, Jackson can’t be cut off or shunned. Banishing his music from streaming platforms or airwaves doesn’t send him a message of condemnation or cripple his insulating wealth. As the credits roll, a slideshow runs alongside of photographs that appear to show Robson burning his Jackson keepsakes and memorabilia in a fire as his young daughter watches on. A Neverland Valley brochure book, a white sequined glove, the Thriller jacket, all blackening and curling at their edges as they go up in flames. I couldn’t help but think about those photos a few days after first seeing those as I folded laundry and my hands came across my favorite Michael Jackson t-shirt.
There’s the suggestion in these final moments that all there is to do is move forward with honesty. Perhaps years from now the film’s one-sidedness will render it incomprehensible. How, future viewers might wonder, did one man’s talent and celebrity burn so bright that it could so intensely blind so many? As Leaving Neverland reminds and ensures, “We didn’t know how bad it was” is no longer a viable excuse.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot is a writer. Follow her on Twitter.