It’s been a tough week for the millions of fans of Michael Jackson, an iconic figure in American music, often referred to as “The King of Pop.” A month after the six-hour Lifetime documentary “Surviving R Kelly” resulted in R&B singer R Kelly being arrest on sexual assault charges and held on $1 million bail, HBO has aired a 236-minute documentary, “Leaving Neverland.”
Directed by British filmmaker Dan Reed, “Leaving Neverland” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25. It aired in two parts on March 3 and 4 on HBO and details the alleged sexual abuse of two boys–now grown men–with whom Jackson worked. It’s a searingly graphic film that is hard to watch, but speaks to the global awe and reverence with which Jackson was held. A musical and dance genius, Jackson had been in the international spotlight for decades before his sudden death in 2009 at only 50.
Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, Michael Jackson’s music was the background for American lives. At the 1993 Super Bowl XXVII halftime show, Jackson stood for a full two minutes while the crowd cheered. It was a testament to his superstardom and his mastery of audiences. Comedian Chris Rock once joked on the Oprah Winfrey show that Jackson was so beloved, he got the first kid no questions asked — alluding to the pedophilia rumors that followed Jackson for years.
Just months after that Super Bowl performance, in December 1993, Jackson was accused of sexually abusing 13-year-old Jordan Chandler at his Neverland ranch. He denied the claims and settled the civil case out of court. No criminal charges were filed. In 2003, Jackson was charged with seven counts of child molesting and faced up to 20 years in prison. In 2005, following a 14-week trial, Jackson was acquitted of child abuse. Robson and Safechuck had previously denied being molested by Jackson.
In 2013, Robson sued the Jackson estate, claiming he had been sexually abused from ages 7 to 14. Robson said, “I have never forgotten one moment of what Michael did to me, but I was psychologically and emotionally completely unable and unwilling to understand that it was sexual abuse.”
Safechuck filed a suit in 2014, claiming that he had been abused from 1988 to 1992.
“Leaving Neverland” details how Robson met Jackson after winning a dance contest in his native Australia when he was 5 years old. Safechuck shot a Pepsi commercial with the singer right before his 9th birthday. In the film, both men assert that Jackson warned them they had to keep the abuse a secret and allegedly pressured them to defend him in his sex-abuse cases.
The Jackson family has denounced Robson and Safechuck as “opportunists” and “admitted liars.” His estate also sued HBO last week, calling the documentary a “one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda to shamelessly exploit an innocent man no longer here to defend himself.”
On “CBS This Morning,” Reed responded to critiques that he should have included the Jackson’s family’s viewpoint. Reed said, “This isn’t a film about Michael Jackson. It’s a film about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two little boys to whom this dreadful thing happened long ago. It’s the story of their coming to terms with that over two decades and the story of their families. As far as including other eyewitnesses to that, there was no one else in the room, I don’t believe, when Wade was being molested by Michael or when James was having sex with Michael.”
Robson and Safechuck were 7 and 10, respectively, at the time the alleged abuse began. Robson, 36, is now a world-renowned dancer and choreographer. James “Jimmy” Safechuck, 40, a performer.
Oprah Winfrey aired an hour-long interview with Reed, Robson and Safechuck following the second episode of the documentary and her unilateral support may be as controversial as the film itself. In “Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland,” Winfrey said, “I know people all over the world are going to be in an uproar and debating whether or not Michael Jackson did these things and whether these two men are lying or not lying. But for me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson,” Winfrey said. “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. …If it gets you, our audience, to see how it happens, then some good would have come of it.”
Winfrey has long been an advocate for sexual abuse survivors. In 1989 she revealed on her talk show that she was sexually abused as a child, in what many considered a breakthrough moment for abuse survivors because of her celebrity. Winfrey praised Reed for the film.
“I taped 217 episodes [of “Oprah”] on sexual abuse. 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,” Winfrey said, adding that Reed was “able to illustrate in these four hours what I tried to explain in 217.”
Reed’s comments on the film reinforce Winfrey’s interpretation, supported by myriad studies, that sexual abusers groom their victims to make them feel loved and “special.”
Reed said, “What people find it difficult to understand — and what I’ve always found while making this film sort of difficult to understand and very shocking — is the deep attachment formed between the abuser and the abused with this kind of grooming pedophile activity. So, both Wade and James were in love with Michael, even after the sexual activity stopped. They continued loving him and he was a close friend, particularly to Wade for many, many years.”
Both Robson and Safechuck said they believe Jackson was in love with them, too.
Neither Robson nor Safechuck was paid for their participation in the film and have “no future, past or present interest” in it, according to Reed.
“Leaving Neverland” leaves no doubt that Michael Jackson — revered, iconic, beloved — was a pedophile who serially abused and raped children. Separating the music from the abuse will not be easy, but it will be necessary. “Neverland” ranch itself, catering only to children as it did, should have been a red flag and “Leaving Neverland” warns us — as did: “Surviving R Kelly” — that we can never again let adoration for any star blind us to the suffering of their most vulnerable victims.