‘Leaving Neverland’ is Bigger Than Michael Jackson

It was only a matter of time.

Michael Jackson in the #MeToo Era

In the wake of allegations against a litany of powerful men, Michael Jackson – the most famously accused of them all – was due to be re-appraised. The #MeToo era exposed pop culture’s insidious nature, and re-contextualized previous allegations. It gave abuse survivors a long-overdue platform. The Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly was the catalyst for the R&B singer’s decades-long allegations of sex crimes against young black girls to reap significant consequences, from losing his record label to fresh criminal charges.

Within days of that documentary, Leaving Neverland premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Since that day, I’ve struggled a lot with what the documentary could, should and would mean. After years of ignoring Jackson’s alleged crimes, would we all finally reckon with them? Considered his deep roots in global culture, where do we begin? If the allegations were credible, what does it mean to be a fan of this troubled, heinous man? What does it mean for Michael Jackson’s legacy?

What’s important to understand is that Leaving Neverland is bigger than Michael Jackson.

It’s an absurd concept. For the last half-century, it didn’t seem like anything that could be bigger than Michael Jackson. He’s existed on the highest plane, ever since he came into the public’s consciousness as a child prodigy singing “ABC” and “I Want You Back”.

Jackson was treated differently. We celebrated him, obsessed over him. We ridiculed him. His antics exasperated us. We mocked him. He disgusted us. We deified him. Clichéd as it might be to say, but Michael Jackson was larger than life. Nothing, not even at his lowest commercial and professional points, could eclipse his presence in our collective lives.

That was until Leaving Neverland.

Watching Leaving Neverland

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An image of Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in the late 1980s, one of the key promotional images from Leaving Neverland (Courtesy: HBO)

Living Neverland does not contain new information. The documentary recounts Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of Wade Robson and James Safechuck when they were seven and ten, respectively. Both men filed lawsuits against the Jackson estate after he died in 2009. The lawsuits were dismissed, by the law and the general public.

The documentary does, however, provide disturbing and devastating context to the allegations. It details, over the course of four painstaking hours, how Jackson systemically groomed, manipulated, and abused Robson and Safechuck, and presumably others. (Jordan Chandler first accused Jackson of molestation in 1993. Gavin Arvizo accused him a decade later, in a case where Jackson was found not guilty.) The details and the methodologies of the abuse that Robson and Safechuck describe are vivid and horrifying, even if you choose to read the reviews instead of actually watching it yourself. (Those with sensitivities to rape or sexual assault content should consider the former option.)

These vivid, unforgettable recollections are not from parents looking to exploit their children’s “friendships” with Jackson, a narrative that derailed the 2005 criminal trial against him. They come from adult men grappling with their horrifying experiences with the pop star they once idolized. Watching the men, especially Safechuck, recount the abuse with an air of dissociation is devastating. Hearing their parents recount how Jackson emotionally seduced them, to the point of risking their safety is sickening.

Living Neverland effectively nullifies any plausible deniability about Jackson’s alleged sex crimes against children. You can choose to ignore or deny them if you want, but it is futile. The documentary will change the context in which we view Michael Jackson forever.

But again, Leaving Neverland is bigger than Michael Jackson.

What Leaving Neverland Means

This documentary resonates because of how talent and power are co-conspirators in a pervasive culture of sexual misconduct. We’ve barely scratched the surface of this reckoning. If he is guilty, Jackson couldn’t have possibly committed these crimes alone, without help. It is highly unlikely, if not impossible, he was receiving support, either through silence or active participation. The scope of that support is still unknown, and may always be.

It’s clear, beyond a doubt at this point, that the entertainment industry has facilitated unspeakable crimes against vulnerable people for the sake of prestige, influence, and finance. It has covered for them, protected them from suspicion, and allowed the public to love and admire them. It is such a powerful operation that, when faced with the awful truth, it is incredibly difficult for us to let them go. The process of grappling with these crimes – expunging them from the public consciousness as a form of collective justice – is still new and foreign.

Michael Jackson is proof of the limits of this process. While his career never fully recovered from the 1993 allegations, he did achieve commercial and critical success with 1995’s HIStory and 2001’s Invincible. The last decade of his life dealt more damage, beginning with the infamous 2002 baby-dangling incident in Berlin and ending in the 2005 criminal trial. Jackson’s brand was shattered, but the media circus largely obscured the allegations themselves.

Jackson had two public personas throughout his career: “Wacko Jacko” and “King of Pop.” For years, “Wacko Jacko” dominated the conversation until his shocking death in 2009. The world mourned and his musical legacy – the “King of Pop” persona – overshadowed his behavior. Even if this third and likely final attempt to reckon with Jackson’s alleged abuse sticks, his legacy is deeply entrenched in pop culture. Very little exists that hasn’t been influenced by Jackson. You can removed the songs from radio and trash the costumes, but there is no erasing his relevance. And unlike Weinstein, Cosby, and Kelly, Jackson’s death means there are no legal consequences either.

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Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed, and Michael Jackson’s two accusers Wade Robson (left) and James Safechuck (right)

Moving Forward Past Leaving Neverland

What remains is how we move forward. Jackson’s alleged depravities are his responsibility. There are circumstances and pathologies that we don’t know, and never will, but they are immaterial. Jackson may have been robbed of a childhood, and may have experienced crippling abuse himself, but it is not an excuse. No one’s trauma excuses the trauma they inflict on others.

Wade Robson and James Safechuck deserve to have their stories heard, and deserve the benefit of doubt, even within the context of past lawsuits and denials. Jackson’s family are staunch advocates for him, but that is to be expected. Unless they knew of Jackson’s behavior and are lying to protect him (and his lucrative estate), they are also blameless. If anything, my heart goes out to them, especially his children, who must now contend with soul-shaking questions about their father.

But most important of all, for the sake of our collective humanity, this must mark the end. We’ve allowed the powerful to run roughshod over the weak, exploiting them to satisfy their needs for control, dominance, and pleasure. We’ve let our admiration of their talent, creativity, and beauty blind us to their darker impulses. When confronted with them, we remain blind. We’ve let the industry protect these individuals and crush countless lives in the process.

If Leaving Neverland leaves any impact, it’s that we can no longer stand idly by and let the predation continue. I’m not sure how much more of this – learning that people I admire are capable of such despicable behavior – I can take. Michael Jackson isn’t the first, and he definitely isn’t the last. He should be the impetus for a sea change that will prevent the creation of future survivors. If not, then the painful bravery of #MeToo has been for nothing. That feels unacceptable.

Grieving Michael Jackson, Twice

Leaving Neverland is a great struggle to contend with. I have been a Michael Jackson fan since before I could remember. My mother took me to his 30th anniversary concert on September 10th, 2001. As a New Yorker with a mom who worked for the NYPD, I credited him for positively altering the course of my life, since we skipped work and school the next day.

I once wore two Michael Jackson costumes in the same year for Halloween, because I couldn’t choose between “The Way You Make Me Feel” Michael and “Smooth Criminal” Michael. I own his records, and listened to them almost religiously until the news of Leaving Neverland came out. Since then, I’ve struggled to listen to his music without feeling ill, likely I was contributing to his acts in some way. I would skip it in my library, hoping another song could wipe away the disgust and heartbreak.

I’ve grieved Michael Jackson twice. The first time was on June 25th, 2009, when I read an email on my way home from a movie that he had died. The second time was when I finally accepted that the allegations against him were probably true. I went through the stages of grief over the last month. At first, I denied the documentary’s existence. I was angry at Robson and Safechuck and Dan Reed and HBO. I tried discrediting the allegations with whatever research I could find, bargaining for a way out. The gut-wrenching reality depressed me. Finally, as recently as a few days ago, I accepted it. The only solace is that, true or not, at least he can’t ever hurt anyone else again.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. It has been soul-crushing. I’m sure that there will be plenty of backlash from other fans who will denounce the documentary and the victims. I won’t do it. I’m sure others will be unwilling to stop listening to Jackson. I don’t blame them, I get it.

That reflects another key takeaway from Leaving Neverland. Our inability to reconcile the artist’s failings with their art allows this cycle to continue unabated. It’s a miserable and devastating process, especially for someone as revered as Jackson was, but we owe it to his victims, and to ourselves, to break the cycle.