When Leaving Neverland premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, audiences were left to an astonished silence after chilling revelations detailing Michael Jackson’s alleged child abuse. This is a case that has been circulating the media for most of his career, with numerous teenage boys coming forward claiming to have been sexually abused by the singer. Now, the controversy seems to have resurfaced in the era of the #MeToo movement.
Leaving Neverland is a bombshell tour de force by filmmaker Dan Reed. It debunks the horrific accounts of two little boys with big dreams that morphed into nightmares, spawned by a man they believed was their best friend.
The documentary, which aired as a two-part, four-hour series on HBO and Channel 4 (for UK viewers) is not a Michael Jackson doc for the die-hard fans. It is the story of two men – Wade Robson, 36, and James “Jimmy” Safechuck, 40, who mustered the courage to sit across Reed’s lens and make recollections of the years the King of Pop reportedly befriended and sexually abused them in their pre-adolescent years. The film is meticulously edited from showing a series of rare photographs, archived videos, and interviews with Wade and Jimmy’s families.
Australian-born Wade Robson was only 5 years old when he met Michael the first time on the Brisbane leg of the Bad tour. Wade calls MJ his “idol”, after coming across the making of the Thriller music video, leading young Wade to pursue dancing as a career. Wade earned the first prize at a dance competition held at a mall in Brisbane. The ultimate price? Getting to meet Michael himself.
In 1986, 10-year-old James or “Jimmy” Safechuck crossed paths with Michael on the set of a Pepsi commercial. In the ad, Jimmy can be seen flashing a beaming smile upon seeing Michael enter the dressing room they were shooting in. That’s when he saw Michael for the very first time. Unlike Wade, Jimmy admitted that he wasn’t much of an MJ fan. But the singer developed a budding friendship with Jimmy, along with a living delivered to him on a silver platter.
Wade and Jimmy describe the closeness and privileges that the singer bestowed upon them. Regular private phone calls given by Michael were just the tip of the iceberg. Two of the many instances, when Michael brought Jimmy along in a private trip to Hawaii with his family for a Pepsi Convention while the Robson family was invited to Michael’s Neverland ranch.
But it wasn’t just the boys who savoured the lavishness. Ttheir parents seem to have been complacent all along as they permit their sons be in the same company (and bed) as Michael Jackson. The two now believe that he tried to isolate them from their own parents, by insisting on sleeping in the same room as him or taking their family on a separate vacation with no communication.
Since then, friendships grew to attractions, and when Michael is seen with a new boy – the attraction turns to jealousy.
The distressing testimonies made by Wade and Jimmy as they recalled the times Michael introduced them to lewd sexual acts and pornography, is one of the many disheartening portions in the documentary that may be too graphic for sexual abuse survivors. It is an unsettling thing to imagine to have been done to a young boy who could barely define the term “consent”.
According to the boys, to Michael, it was how people showed “love” to each other – and they bought that promise. Even convincingly defending him when first child abuse allegations broke out in 1993 and in the singer’s 2005 trial, when Michael was acquitted of 10 counts of child molestation charges.
The one-sided premise of Leaving Neverland is pretty clear: Michael Jackson was not the man that we think he is. Whatever the facts, Reed managed to successfully impose a question in our heads: have our role models been good all along? What more are we not aware of?
And albeit the singer’s continuous denial of the claims, Wade and Jimmy seem to have been victims of emotional manipulation and seduction. Even upon hearing the news of his death in 2009, the two ended up in an emotional and mental whirlwind – damaging their own families’ lives. “He’s [Michael] to blame for a lot of things that happened in our life.” Wade’s grandmother said.
The media has also given no exemption to a deceased celebrity. Following the release of the documentary on television, some radio stations have banned playing Michael Jackson from their roster, the removal of his statue from Britain’s National Football Museum, and pulling a 1991 episode of The Simpsons that featured his voice.
Meanwhile, Corey Feldman, who has been a child sexual abuse victim himself and was a friend of Michael, has retreated from defending the accusations thrown against the singer.
It is very crucial to question the validity of Wade and Jimmy’s revelations in ‘Leaving Neverland’, given that today’s political climate has disabled sexual predators from generating more power. But Reed’s work is just another perturbing scenario of the ways influential figures prey on the innocent – by fulfilling their heart’s desires all in their own hands. As the lyrics say in Billie Jean, “be careful of who you love”.
Text: Audrey Vibar
Images: HBO, Dave Hogan, Page Six