HBO’s Leaving Neverland review: The last word on Michael Jackson’s abuse allegations
Leaving Neverland is a meticulous, harrowing four-hour watch. The two-part film dissect Wade Robson and James Safechuck's claims, who in recent years have come forward with their stories about Michael Jackson.
Leaving Neverland is a meticulous, harrowing four-hour watch. From director-producer-cinematographer Dan Reed and editor Jules Cornell, the two-part film takes the form of a childhood-until-now dissection of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who in recent years have come forward with their stories about Michael Jackson. They allege — convincingly, to the point that hordes of online fans casting aspersions about them ought to have their own motives questioned — that the pop sensation sexually abused them as children.
Of course, the questions raised by the mere existence of this documentary are numerous.
Why now, a decade after Jackson’s death?
Why did Robson and Safechuck, the former of whom went public with his story in 2013, wait so long?
Why did they defend him in court when he was accused by others?
How do these allegations, if true, factor into the quasi-religious reverence we still have for the King of Pop?
The film covers all this ground in detail, but it isn’t interested in convincing those who ask these questions in bad faith. It isn’t concerned with legal evidence, nor should it be; rather than a journalistic document, Leaving Neverland functions wholly as a series of first-hand accounts of abuse and its ripple-effects, carried over into adulthood. It’s intimate, and at times even terrifying, but it’s vital in an era where re-orienting our perspective on stars and celebrities (and reckoning with the hurt they’ve caused, despite our adoration for them) has become increasingly necessary.
In fact, the film is entirely framed around the victims and their families knowing, revering, supporting and even loving Michael Jackson — a love they continue to wrestle with till this day. Director Dan Reed is as close to a standard documentarian as you can get, but his approach deviates from the norm ever so slightly. In addition to traditional, head-on interview segments, where the subjects speak directly to camera in medium shots, Reed’s second camera setup — an intimate close-up at a 45-degree angle — captures them from slightly above.
It’s a simple trick, but effective; the camera peers down on the seated victims and family members, as if standing in a position of power, as Safechuck, Robson and their families speak about how Michael Jackson convinced them he had their best interests at heart. The film’s most gut-wrenching revelations occur from this angle, as if the subjects continue to wrestle with Jackson’s domineering presence, even in death. What’s more, looking down on them this way reveals certain facial details that a standard interview might not fully capture. Like Safechuck’s nervous glances off to the side, or the vein under Robson’s left eye, which emerges in the moments he struggles to speak his truth.
Robson, now a famous choreographer, was a hardcore Michael Jackson fan, whose family immigrated from Australia in order to be closer to the popstar. They initially met on Jackson’s Australia tour, and the relationship allegedly became sexual — unbeknownst to the other family members — when Robson visited the U.S. at the age of seven. Safechuck on the other hand, didn’t start out an M.J. super-fan, but was soon made one after they starred together in a Pepsi commercial and the musician became close to Safechuck’s family. Safechuck’s mother, notably, considered Jackson a son.
While a binary view on sexual predators is, at least for those of us at a distance, often easier to digest — the Weinstein or Cosby-esque monsters, who put on a show in order to lure in their victims — Leaving Neverland digs in to the multi-faceted complications of abusers like Jackson, and the subsequent difficulties one can have unpacking (or even understanding) one’s abuse, when it’s so tangled up in what appear to be genuinely loving feelings.
The film’s first forty minutes barely touch on the allegations. Rather, they lay the foundations for Safechuck and Robson’s stories, building on their adoration for Jackson, an adoration that was seemingly returned in ways both innocent and nefarious.
The film’s final forty minutes chronicle more recent years, after Jackson’s death, during which the victims — they’re both parents now — and their families come to terms with the truth and begin to heal. The nearly two hours in the interim however, use old photos and videos to paint a sympathetic-yet-petrifying three dimensional image of Michael Jackson and his Neverland Ranch. Neverland was a place of wonder, where Jackson could fashion his lost childhood as he saw fit, yet it was also a place where he manipulated children and their families, and got away with not only years of sexual abuse, but years of grooming that convinced his child victims that this was something normal and affectionate.
As stomach-churning as the victims’ accounts are (both parts of the film rightly open with content warnings about the same), what’s equally heartbreaking is the long-term domino effect on both Safechuck and Robson, as well as their families, who were all drawn into Jackson’s orbit and made to believe nothing out of the ordinary was occurring. It seems almost silly in retrospect, that these two mothers would let their children sleep in the same bed as an adult stranger. But such was Jackson’s innocent allure, and that apparent “silliness” is now a lifelong guilt that these families have to wrestle with.
Four hours is a lot to handle, especially when so much of it involves graphic recollections of childhood molestation (do proceed with caution). And yet, the film warrants every one of its two hundred and thirty-six minutes, putting viewers in the headspace of the abused, from the fears that were instilled in them and the loyalty they felt they owed Jackson, to the psychological effects of child abuse as they manifest in adulthood, which the victims couldn’t even initially reconcile as such.
A topic this heavy, this personal, and this currently vital, deserves more than just a skim. Leaving Neverland, therefore, creates a ground-up portrait of the mechanics of abuse on either side of the physical act itself. For a culture so ready to question the motives of those who come forward (especially those who speak out years after the incident), the film feels especially like the final word. Not only on Michael Jackson, on rabid fandoms who attack accusers, or on the victims themselves, but on our collective lack of understanding of the culture(s) of abuse and silence that are, as we are now learning in the #MeToo era, all too common.
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