HBO’s Leaving Neverland, which detailed the accusations of two men who say they were molested by Michael Jackson was difficult to watch.
Like many lifelong Jackson fans, my love for him only intensified after his passing. So checking out a movie that his supporters say tries to undermine and capitalize on his legacy, felt gross and confusing.
But then I found out Oprah Winfrey had not only watched the documentary, but was also doing an aftershow special with the alleged victims – and my heart skipped a beat.
Probably the only celebrated figure tied to my childhood memories even more than Jackson, is Oprah, and I asked myself: Who do you choose when both of your childhood heroes are at odds with each other?
Ultimately I put my personal biases aside, and challenged myself to openmindedly watch all four hours of Leaving Neverland and the after show special.
For those who would rather just get a Cliffs Notes version, below is a list of the five most powerful things the rest of us learned from watching the Oprah Winfrey Present: After Neverland special.
Oprah explains why she’s doing this
When it was announced that Oprah was endorsing this controversial film that had up until now been widely dismissed as a “mockumentary” it felt a bit like a betrayal, with Michael Jackson fans all over social media dragging her for taking part in slander.
But during After Neverland Winfrey set the tone for the whole special by making her intentions clear from the very start.
“In 25 years of the Oprah Winfrey Show I taped 217 episodes on sexual abuse,” she says to the audience full of sexual assault victims, including #MeToo founder Tarana Burke.
“I tried and tried and tried to get the message across to people that sexual abuse was not just abuse, it was also sexual seduction. After I saw Leaving Neverland for the first time, I called up Dan Reed – I didn’t know Dan Reed – and told him ‘Dan, you were able to illustrate in these four hours, what I tried to explain in 217.’”
.@Oprah reveals the reason she wanted to film #AfterNeverland. Tune in to the two-part @HBOdocs "Leaving Neverland" on @HBO March 3 & 4th – then watch #AfterNeverland, a one-hour special on OWN Monday at 10 p.m. pic.twitter.com/bUBDEC7NmI
— Oprah Winfrey Network (@OWNTV) March 1, 2019
“And I know people all over the world are gonna be in an uproar and debating whether or not Michael Jackson did these things or not, whether these two men are lying or not lying, but for me this moment transcends Michael Jackson,” she continues. “It is much bigger than any one person. This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity. And it’s happening right now. It’s happening in families. We know it’s happening in churches and in schools and sports teams everywhere. So if it gets you – you our audience – to see how it happens, then some good would have come of it.”
Wade Robson addresses his critics
Aside from Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement, for many the second most unbelievable thing about this project was the participation of Wade Robson, a choreographer who while immensely talented, would have probably never been famous without Jackson.
Robson had even testified in Michael’s defense and played a large part in helping him win against other sexual abuse claims in the past. So how could he of all people turn on MJ like this?
“If you were abused, why would you continue to want to be around him,” Winfrey asks, referencing the Jackson estate’s biggest defense against Robson, who they claimed wanted to work with them even after the pop star’s death.
— HBO Documentaries (@HBODocs) March 4, 2019
“I had no understanding of it being abuse,” Robson responds. “I loved Michael and in all the times that I testified and the many many times that I gushed over him publicly, in interviews or whatever it may be, that was from a real place. While never forgetting any of the sexual details that happened between us – but having no understanding that it was abuse. I had no concept in my mind that anything about Michael could ever be bad. Anything that Michael did was right to me. For so many years.”
“Did you think, ‘he might have done a bad thing, but I’m gonna defend him’, or did you not think it was bad?” Winfrey pushed.
“I didn’t think about it as far as that concept. I couldn’t even go there,” concedes Robson. “I couldn’t even question Michael, because if I was to question Michael and my story with Micheal, my life with Michael – it would mean that I would have to question everything in my life. So it wasn’t even an option to think about it. Michael was good – that was all that existed in my mind.”
MJ allegedly trained the boys to lie to authorities from day one
Unlike Robson, James Safechuck was never a celebrity in the true sense, and mostly lived a quiet life outside of his dealings with Jackson. But like Robson he did testify for the music icon in court as well.
Because of his status as an “every man” critics haven’t been able to cast him as someone seeking fame or fortune and have for the most part downplayed his participation in the film.
But it is perhaps his tame, unassuming demeanor, that serves as the most damaging evidence against Jackson, as he quietly contends that the singer trained him since he was 10 years old on how to lie to authorities.
Y'all I'm going to worry about James Safechuck for the rest of my days. He seems haunted and deeply fragile. I hope he finds a way to live in peace. #AfterNeverland
— No Average Bitch (@BitingPanda) March 5, 2019
“It’s you and him against the world. And that intense love combined with the world’s intense love for him is overwhelming,” explains Safechuck
“Michael would drill in you, over and over, ‘If we’re caught, your life is over, my life if over.’ And it’s repeated over and over and over again. That’s just drilled into your nervous system. So there’s this panic of being caught. It takes a lot of work to sort through that.”
Safechuck says he battled with crippling depression and panic attacks for years, often left wondering, “Why do I hate myself so much?”
He says it wasn’t till he saw Robson come forward with his story, that he finally realized he’d been abused.
Fatherhood is what made them come forward
Perhaps the biggest question that even those who believe the victims have is, “Why come forward now that he’s dead?”
As if sensing that lingering confusing in the air Robson admits with stunning candor, “If my son had never been born, I think there’s a really good chance that I’d still be living in silence.”
“You don’t connect to you as a child, you don’t have any sympathy for yourself or empathy. There’s a disconnect, I don’t relate to that kid.” he explains.
No one does it like Oprah. That #AfterNeverland special was educational, compelling, emotional, necessary TV. "This moment transcends Michael Jackson."
— Kevin Fallon (@kpfallon) March 5, 2019
Robson says it wasn’t until he gained the perspective of being a father that he finally had the realization, “Oh my god, this is what a child looks like. This is how a child thinks, this is how a child behaves. That was me.”
When the choreographer started having graphic nightmares about Jackson raping his son, and then suffered through not one, but two nervous breakdowns, that’s when he came to the decision that he had to speak up, even if the public crucified him.
“I loved [Michael] and I wanted to protect him. Up until 6 years ago, in my mind, I was gonna take what truly happened to my grave.”
How to identify “grooming”
“These men had an extraordinary story to tell,” filmmaker Dan Reed explains to Winfrey when she inquires about how the documentary came about. “It’s not so much even about Michael Jackson, but about what grooming child sexual abuse looks like. And that’s so important.”
“When you see the grooming process laid out that way it makes you think about your own process,” Winfrey agrees. “I was 42 years old and I was doing a show with men who had molested their children and stepchildren. And it wasn’t until one of the child molestors — the accused — said out loud how he had practiced grooming his 13 year old daughter, that I had a lightbulb moment and finally realized, at 42, that it was not my fault.”
“Everyone who is entrapped and seduced has been groomed,” Winfrey tells the audience of survivors.
Then she has an expert come on who explains to the viewers the three things that all groomers do to seduce their victims and their families,
- They convince you, “You’re safe with me.”
- They teach you that you’re special, “You’re special you’re the only one.”
- The gradual introduction of touch – from playing around to touching your leg, to laying hands on your genitals, the line slowly moves until you’re lured into acceptance.
“I think one of the interesting things about Michael and his particular situation, is that the grooming started long before we ever met him, because he was who he was,” Robson interjects, and there is an audible gasp of realization from the audience.
“He was such a massive figure and represented himself as such an angel. ‘I didn’t have a childhood, I love children so much. That’s why I love being around children. I want to help other children have a childhood.’ – So long before ever meeting him the first time, so much had been set up already. I was – my whole family was – already surrendered.”
And perhaps that is the biggest takeaway from this project, just how masterfully we can all be seduced by celebrity.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric