Just a few weeks after Lifetime’s six-part exposé Surviving R. Kelly made the country erupt into a passionate debate about the singer’s long-rumored history of child abuse, another explosive documentary has now debuted at the Sundance Film festival. This one addresses allegations about music legend Michael Jackson and claims of sexual abuse.
On Friday Leaving Neverland debuted at the Egyptian Theatre in Utah. The two-part, four-hour documentary is directed by Dan Reed and is focuses on the accusations of two men: famed choreographer, Wade Robson, and James Safechuck.
According to a description of the film on the Sundance website, “Through gut-wrenching interviews with the now-adult men and their families, Leaving Neverland crafts a portrait of sustained exploitation and deception, documenting the power of celebrity that allowed a revered figure to infiltrate the lives of starstruck children and their parents.”
Not surprisingly, Saturday, the Jackson estate vehemently disavowed the project, calling the lingering accusations about the late singer “tabloid character assassination,” and a few fans even showed up to the premiere holding posters with the word “innocent” displayed over Jackson’s mouth.
Usually, when I hear heinous accounts of abuse, particularly against children, I am appalled and research all the facts of the case to get a sense of exactly how something like this was allowed to happen. I don’t let the glitz of “celebrity” allow me to give anyone any passes, and often wax poetic about how none of us – myself included – are above reproach. I passionately push back against those who have the knee jerk reaction to ask “clarifying questions” that reveal their subconscious urge to blame the victims for their own abuse. And then I look into the systems and co-conspirators that were put in place to allow a predator to go unchecked for so long.
As a journalist, this has always been my method of operation, and being objective is something I take great pride in. However, it is with a heavy heart that I admit that, in this case, when I first caught wind of this film about Michael Jackson, I found myself feeling uncharacteristically….. conflicted.
“Omg, is this what all those R. Kelly fans I’ve been cussing out feel like?” I asked a colleague after reading the press release for Leaving Neverland, suddenly feeling an uncomfortable sense of affinity with a group of people I’ve found myself repeatedly exasperated with for years.
Because a world where Jackson gets recast as a manipulative sexual predator, instead of the socially awkward musical genius I’ve spent my whole life loving – is definitely an uncomfortable concept to even entertain let alone accept.
Believe the victims
When dealing with accusations of sexual abuse we’re all today to stand with (and believe) the victims because only a fraction of them will ever be able to come forward due to the social, financial, and psychological pressures associated with accusing a public figure of misconduct.
Like we saw during the Kavanaugh hearing, even the smartest, most gracious and academically accomplished white woman who comes forward, can still be dragged down from her pedestal at the top of the desirability food chain, and discounted as an attention seeking whore, if she dares point a finger at a man of means or influence.
There is very little protection provided to those who share their most intimate violations with the court of public opinion. And even the ones who seemingly “cash in” with book deals and television appearances are still treated like jezebels with a scarlet letter stitched across their chests. So for the most part, I’m going to always listen to alleged victims with an open heart and mind.
Which is why THIS documentary has me all in my feelings. From all the research I’ve done, the accounts by Robson and Safechuck are disturbing but compelling. Both men outline in graphic detail all the textbook grooming tactics that child abusers use to endear themselves to children and convince the adults around them not to question what they are seeing.
According to a breakdown of the documentary done by the Daily Beast, “In 1986, James Safechuck got his big break when he was cast in a 1986 Pepsi commercial starring Jackson. After filming was done, Jackson invited him to hang out in his trailer, which his mother, Stephanie, allowed after being assured by the singer’s hairstylist that ‘he’s like a little 9-year-old boy.'”
The two men allege that the very docile nature that made us all see Jackson as harmless is exactly what he used to lull those around him into a false send of security while he essentially took advantage of young boys in plain sight.
So… Wade Robson defends Michael Jackson for 20 years, participates in tributes after his death, then gets rejected from a MJ Cirque du Soleil show, THEN comes out with accusations of child molestation against him.
How are journalists falling for this? #LeavingNeverland
— John Cameron (@Cameron_John) January 27, 2019
But by 2005, Wade Robson was a famous choreographer who many of us remember for his work with Britney Spears and NSYNC. And during the TRL glory days he arguably as much as a teen-phenom as his clients. So when he testified in Jackson’s defense at a trial involving another young man, he was cited as being a big part of why Jackson was acquitted of molestation charges.
But now Robson is coming forward to say he lied out of fear of shame, and prior to joining him on the Bad tour, he was molested by the King of Pop from the ages of 7-14.
“We can’t change what happened to us. And we can’t do anything about Michael,” he explained to a somber audience at the Sundance festival. But he said he’d come forward in hopes that his story would make other survivors feel less isolated and alert anyone responsible for children on what signs to look out for.
Both Robson and Safechuck also clarified that they did not receive any compensation for appearing in the film.
— 13june2005 (@13june2005) January 25, 2019
How is Michael Jackson different than R. Kelly?
When unpacking my complex feelings as a life long Michael Jackson fan who up until now has always believed he was innocent, against the current climate of #MeToo and victims rightfully standing up for themselves after years of shame and silence, one question always comes up: “Well how is Michael Jackson different from R. Kelly?”
And while that question is extremely loaded, it’s still a fair one.
How DO I reconcile constantly telling R.Kelly’s fans to mute him on sight and never spend another dollar on his shows, when to this day I still blast “Off the Wall” and “Billie Jean” while cleaning my house?
Well first of all – I never watched a grainy video of MJ peeing on a young boy, but I did very clearly see Robert Kelly molesting a child with my own two eyes. Anyone who saw that video knows it’s him. The young lady in the video still lives with him. And at this point, even ardent Kelly supporters have stopped denying this happened and instead pivoted to excuse it, by asking questions like, “Well where were her parents though? They’re to blame in all this too.”
While I agree that parental neglect is a real thing, the person who deserves the lions-share of culpability in that incident is Robert Kelly, and to insinuate that the actions of that child, or her naive (or at worst fame hungry) parents excuse his actions is intellectually dishonest.
No one threw a fit when the documentary on the accusations on R Kelly came out. Now, people are throwing a fit about #leavingneverland for what reason? It shouldn't be any different.
— Musntbeconsumed (@deadcow1213) January 25, 2019
Had Jackson ever been caught so brazenly on video hurting a child – yes – I would have been forced to let go of the man who single-handedly shaped the musical catalog for my childhood. I’m not saying I would have liked having to do it, but when it comes to child abuse, right is right and wrong is wrong.
I may have initially been conflicted and distraught about seeing Leaving Neverland, but eventually my objectivity kicked back in and I realized that until I see the film for myself, any strong feelings about Jackson, his accusers, or his legacy, would be premature at best.
Instead of treating this project as a character assassination built on a throne of lies or as an explosive “wig snatch” about the hidden depravities of my childhood hero – I’m going to instead choose to watch it with an open mind, and let the facts speak for themselves.
My discomfort about the film being made though shows that we all have some inherent biases we constantly need to examine and keep in check, even those of us who like to think we’re on the right side of history.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric