‘Leaving Neverland’ is Bigger Than Michael Jackson

I’ve been dreading this day for weeks.

It was only a matter of time, in the wake of allegations against a litany of powerful men in entertainment that include Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Bryan Singer, Matt Lauer, and Les Moonves, that Michael Jackson – arguably the most famously accused of them all – would be up for re-appraisal. The #MeToo era has not only exposed the insidious nature of the entertainment world’s most powerful men, it has also re-contextualized previous allegations, giving renewed voice and platforms for victims – survivors, better yet – to be heard. 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, another one with even more explosive ramifications was announced at the Sundance Film Festival: Leaving Neverland. Since that day, I’ve struggled a lot with what that documentary could, should and would mean. After years of ignoring Jackson’s alleged crimes, would we all finally have to reckon with them? Were we about to “cancel” him, in the way we’ve done the others? Considered his indelible mark on popular culture, would that even be possible? If the allegations presented this time around are credible, what does it mean to be a fan of this man, as troubled at the very least, but such an entertainment luminary? What does it all mean for the legacy of Michael Jackson?

What’s important to understand is that Leaving Neverland is bigger than Michael Jackson. It’s an absurd concept; for the last fifty years, it didn’t seem possible that anything that could be bigger than Michael Jackson. He’s existed on a plane higher than the rest of us since he came into the public’s consciousness as a precocious child prodigy singing Motown classics like “ABC” and “I Want You Back”. From celebration to obsession to fascination to ridicule to exasperation to mockery to disgust to exhaustion to deification, Jackson was regarded differently. It’s the oldest of cliches, but he was larger than life. There was nothing, even at his lowest commercial and professional points, that could eclipse his presence in our lives.

That was until 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

Dan Reed’s documentary recounting Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of Wade Robson and James Safechuck when they were seven and ten does not contain new information. Both men – 36 and 40 respectively – filed lawsuits against the Jackson estate after his death in 2009 that were ultimately dismissed, by the law and the public. The documentary provides disturbing, devastating context to their allegations, laying out over the course of four painstaking hours how Jackson systemically groomed, manipulated and abused these children and their families, and presumably others (he was first accused by Jordan Chandler of molestation in 1993, and then by Gavin Arvizo in a case that he was acquitted of in 2005). The details and the methodologies of the abuse that Robson and Safechuck describe are unforgettably vivid and horrifying, even if you only choose to read the reviews instead of actually watching it yourself (those with sensitivities to rape content should consider the former option). Bear in mind that these vividly unforgettable recollections are not coming from parents looking to exploit their children’s “friendships” with Jackson – a narrative that derailed the 2005 criminal trial against him – but by grown men who’ve only just begun grappling with the horrors of their experiences with the idol they adored. 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. The documentary, more than any other attempt, 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. Leaving Neverland will change the context in which we view Michael Jackson forever.

But again, Leaving Neverland is bigger than Michael Jackson. The reason why this documentary is resonating so deeply is because of our recent reckoning with how talent and power are co-conspirators in this pervasive culture of sexual misconduct. If Jackson is guilty of these crimes, he couldn’t have possibly committed them alone. As was the case with other alleged abusers, it is impossible that someone, or multiple people, weren’t privy to what was happening and offering silence and support in some way. The scope of that support is still unknown, but 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. They have covered for them, protected them from suspicion, and allowed the public to love and admire them, so much so that, if and when the truth comes to light, it is incredibly difficult for us to let them go. We’ve only now just begun the process of grappling with these beloved figures by “cancelling” them, expunging them from the public record as a form of collective justice.

It’s a form with limits, as evidenced by Michael Jackson himself. There have been at least two opportunities to cancel him, and both failed. While his career never fully recovered from the 1993 allegations, he did achieve 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 culminating in the 2005 criminal trial. Jackson’s brand was deeply broken by the trial, but the surrounding media circus, with the focus on salacious details and bizarre courtroom behavior, obscured the allegations themselves. Of his two concurrent personas, “Wacko Jacko” and “King of Pop”, the former won out until his shocking death in 2009, when the world mourned and his musical legacy overshadowed his behavior. While it’s possible that this third and final attempt to “cancel” Jackson might stick in the public consciousness, Jackson’s roots in the soil of popular culture are thick and deep. There is very little that hasn’t been touched by Jackson’s influence. Even if the songs are removed from radio and the costumes are tossed in the trash, his cultural relevance is just too pervasive to be completely erased. And unlike Weinstein, Cosby, and Kelly, Jackson’s death means that there is no legal recourse or consequence either.

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

What remains then is how we move forward. Michael Jackson’s alleged depravities are his responsibility. Surely there are circumstances and pathologies that we don’t know, and likely 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 past public or private traumas excuse the trauma they’ve inflicted on others. Wade Robson and James Safechuck deserve to have their stories heard, and deserve the same benefit of doubt that we afforded Jackson, even within the context of past lawsuits and denials. The Jackson family have been staunch in their denials of the allegations, 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. For too long, we’ve allowed the powerful to run roughshod over the weak, exploiting them in myriad ways to satisfy their needs for control, dominance, and pleasure. We’ve let our admiration of their talent, their creativity, their beauty, their aura, blind us to their darker impulses, and when confronted with them, we remain blind. We’ve let the industry protect these individuals and crush countless lives in the process. If anything should be taken away from Leaving Neverland, it’s that we can no longer stand idly by and let predation continue. Frankly, I’m not sure how much more of this, of learning that people I’ve come to admire, are capable of such heinous behavior, I can take. Michael Jackson isn’t the first, he definitely isn’t the last, but he should be the impetus for a sea of change that will prevent the creation of future victims and survivors. If not, then all of the painful bravery of #MeToo has been for nothing, and that feels unacceptable.

Leaving Neverland has presented one of the greatest struggles of my pop cultural life. I have been a fan of Michael Jackson since before I could remember. My mother took me to his 30th anniversary concert on September 10th, 2001, and as a New Yorker with a mom who worked for the NYPD, credited him for potentially altering the course of my life since we skipped work and school the next day. I own all of his records, and was listening to them up until the news of the documentary came out. Since then, I haven’t been able to listen to a song of his and enjoy it, skipping it in my library and hoping another song could wipe away the disgust and heartbreak I felt. I 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’ve grieved Michael Jackson, twice. The first time on June 25th, 2009, when I read in an email on my way home from a movie that he had died, and again, when I finally understood that the allegations against him were probably true. I went through all of the stages of grief over the last month: denial of the documentary; anger at the victims and Dan Reed and HBO; bargaining by way of discrediting the allegations with any research I could find; depression over the gut-wrenching reality; and finally, and recently as few days ago, acceptance. The only solace that I’ve been able to find is that, true or not, at least he can’t ever hurt anyone else again.

Getting to this point, as a fan of Michael Jackson, 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 denounce the victims. I refuse to do it. I’m also sure that there will be people unwilling to stop listening to Michael Jackson after the full documentary airs; I can’t blame them, I get it. But that also reflects another key takeaway from Leaving Neverland. Our inability to reconcile the artist’s failings with their art has allowed this vicious cycle to continue unabated across multiple perpetrators and multiple victims. It’s a discomfiting, complicate process, especially for someone as revered as Michael Jackson, but we owe it to his victims, and to ourselves, to do it.