It’s hard to reconcile how we see our heroes when they do something wrong. The #metoo movement especially has forced many to reconcile someone’s “movie star image” with their off-screen behavior. Even still, those accused of heinous acts of sexual abuse are still allowed to make movies and see them become successful. HBO’s 2-part documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” allows two men to tell their stories of child molestation at the hands of pop star Michael Jackson. While both accounts are harrowing and graphic, the movie is even larger than powerful tales at the center. The more we listen to the subjects and their families, the more we understand how celebrity and fame can cloud one’s judgment. What happens when you are so successful and so famous that you can literally get away with anything?
Choreographer Wade Robson and James Safechuck are the two men at the center of the documentary. Both men share the stories of their sexual relationship with Michael Jackson that occurred when they were at age 7 and 10, respectively. Their tales follow very similar narratives. Michael Jackson is depicted as having a young boy as a companion throughout the height of his career. Both Robson and Safechuck describe the initial meeting of their idol. From there, the grooming and sexual relationship begin, only for Jackson to move from one child to the next.
Even more haunting than the acts of sexual molestation that are alleged in the film are the lifelong effects chronicled in this documentary. As the men matured, both found some levels of success in their fields, helped by Jackson’s mentorship to a degree. They both entered into relationships with women around the same time and became Fathers. However, the trauma permeated their relationships with their family, spouses, kids, and their own self-identity. The documentary outlines how predators groom children to believe the abuse is their fault. The men say that they believed if they had come forward as children that they would be taken down with Michael. There’s a tremendous pressure that comes with their secret that ate away at their lives and relationships.
Headlines around the documentary focus on the graphic descriptions of the child molestation. Yes, the film features some truly horrifying and detailed descriptions of sexual abuse related to children that is visceral and upsetting. However, this is included for more than just shock value. It’s important the film strips away the pop superstar image of Michael Jackson and reframes him as this dangerous predator. In this same sense, the movie narrows its focus around Jackson’s relationship to its subjects. There’s scant mention of Lisa Marie Presley or Jackson’s children. The film chooses not to cover many of his other scandals. In fact, there’s very little of his music that is featured. The subjects of the film are Robson and Safechuck, not Jackson. By hearing the victims’ stories we’re opening ourselves up to their experiences, their hurt, and their pain.
Some critics of the film have noted that the documentary appears one-sided. While it is true that we only get both men’s perspective of events, the film comes off less like a hit piece. Instead, it works best as an examination of how the scars of childhood sexual abuse have lifelong effects on victims. The two men at the center of the documentary did not set out on a vengeful quest to ruin the legacy of Michael Jackson. As they entered fatherhood, the pains of their childhood abuse ate at them in such a way that they had to come forward with their story. “Leaving Neverland” comes off like an exorcism of troubled childhood trauma. In this way, the film feels like more of a productive and healing exercise, rather than a mudslinging celebrity expose.
“Leaving Neverland” airs Part 1 on Sunday, March 3rd at 8 p.m. ET and Part 2 on Monday, March 4th at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.