One of my strongest, most formative musical memories is watching the “Thriller” music video, in its entirety, in an elementary school music class in the ’90s. All the 8-year-olds assembled, myself included, gasped at the very end of the video, when Michael Jackson himself turned into a monster, surpassing in creepiness the one he and his girlfriend saw on a movie screen. We gasped because he’d been misleading us, too.
On Sunday night, HBO will begin airing the two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, which details the ways that Jackson allegedly targeted, groomed, and sexually abused two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, over several years in the 1980s and ’90s, beginning when they were respectively 10 and 7 years old. And throughout its nearly four-hour runtime, Dan Reed’s documentary channels the look Jackson gives the audience over his shoulder at the very end of his most famous music video, revealing yellow eyes and a slick smile: a wolf-cat in Tiger Beat threads, whose jheri-curled head is now freeze-framed into pop culture history.
That last look is what Leaving Neverland feels like: the shock and pang of betrayal, a visceral reveal of insidious behavior. The film gives the gut punch of learning someone you’d believed has been lying all along, the final smirk feeling all the more coy as the years pass and more and more of us age out of ignorance. This documentary might be to Jackson’s legacy what that final shot is to the “Thriller” video. The film is so chilling that halfway through it I stopped listening as closely to descriptions of the alleged abuse, so as not to form looping GIFs of the gruesome acts in my head. But then I had to go back to make sure I’d heard right. Afterward I couldn’t listen to any music, least of all Jackson’s, or write, or go to sleep, or find a traditional chaser of any kind. Instead, I looked up low-waste living and bought work clothes online. That was the only pivot I could come up with: responsibility, do-goodery, adulthood.
Escaping into grown-up concerns felt apt, because Leaving Neverland is about the incredible vulnerability of children. The doc is suffused with heart-wrenching, graphic storytelling by Safechuck, now 40, and Robson, 36, who detail a system of exploitation, coordinated by Jackson. In addition to ritualized sexual abuse, this exploitation allegedly involved the singer’s successful attempts to distance the children from their parents, bedroom marriage ceremonies, and other truly disturbing acts that make you wonder how they’ve held it together at all. Robson recalls first telling his family about his experiences in 2012, and sued Jackson’s estate for sexual abuse in 2013; in 2014, Safechuck added his claims to the suit, which was later dismissed because it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired.
The film is also about the way Jackson allegedly exploited the workings of the entertainment industry to take advantage of these kids; he’d met Safechuck on the set of a Pepsi commercial and Robson at one of his concerts, after Robson won an Australian dance contest. (Robson recounts, “I left Australia as this young fan of Michael Jackson, and came back Michael Jackson’s best friend...and his lover. Trying to adjust back to reality was hard.”) It’s about the failure of their parents to protect them, and how Jackson took advantage of the parents’ trust, too. “I came to feel like he was one of my sons,” James Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie, says at one point of Jackson, who spent time in the family’s suburban California home. “I loved him.”
It’s been almost 10 years since Jackson’s death, in June 2009, of an overdose of the prescription drug propofol. In Owen Gleiberman’s review of Leaving Neverland, the critic wondered whether or not the singer’s drug dependence “may have grown out of the years he purportedly spent as an abuser.” A related question is how Jackson’s untimely demise may have kept the nagging concerns over his being a pedophile out of public discourse for so long — even after he faced accusations of abuse in 1993 and went to trial for child molestation (and was acquitted) in the early 2000s.
It is hard to overstate the impact Jackson’s music has made on American (and global) culture, or the depth of fans’ attachment to him as an artist — which does not excuse, but does, perhaps, help explain a collective unwillingness to look squarely at the darkness of his personal life. His songs are the soundtrack of wedding receptions, ball games, and bar mitzvahs; they are songs made for dancing. His own dancing is evidence of the body’s ability to transcend earthly limits, and to convert one’s spindliness into cursive kinetic energy. The solo albums he recorded as an adult are all pop essays, feats of fancy, sociological leaps. And since his death, Jackson and his music have enjoyed an even greater surge in popularity.
Jackson’s two posthumously released albums, Michael (2011) and Xscape (2014), went platinum and gold, respectively. Spike Lee, who’s thrown a block party in Brooklyn honoring the singer and his music since 2011, has also directed two documentaries on Jackson’s Bad and Off the Wall albums. In 2013, (unconfirmed) rumors swirled that Lady Gaga intended to help restore Neverland Ranch. And there’s a new MJ-themed play, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, slated to premiere on Broadway in 2020.
One does not leave Leaving Neverland without a sense of Jackson’s onetime grandeur, and the remarkable power of nostalgia. “You’re just starstruck,” Safechuck recalls of his early encounters with Jackson, and mimes a deer-in-headlights look. “And at the same time, he’s becoming a real person. He’s not this sort of, like, two-dimensional icon.” The way Robson, and Safechuck, and their parents and grandparents still visibly brighten when talking about meeting Jackson is notable and pretty jarring, when you consider what allegedly happened to the boys. But hearing their stories, in their own words, it becomes impossible to look away from all of the rumors and accusations that have shadowed Jackson’s legacy.
For the many millions of us who grew up listening to Michael Jackson, so many places — the dance floor, or the sidewalk as rolled-down car windows blast Off the Wall cuts come summertime, or an elevator wafting classic pop in between blocs of Muzak, or the cavern in our ears where the earbuds fit — will not ever be the same.
“I think it’d be very difficult not to believe them, once you’ve listened to them and their families,” director Dan Reed told Vulture in January. “But you walk away and it’s a sad moment, because another nice thing about the world has gone dark — the lights have gone out on a whole center of your cultural space.”
Reed made his name as a documentarian of terrorism, most notably Terror in Moscow (2003), Terror in Mumbai (2009), and Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks (2015). Leaving Neverland merges that focus with the kind of vigilante, fly-on-the-wall style and related subject matter of his 2014 film The Paedophile Hunter. The terror documented in Leaving Neverland is the damage inflicted by a culture of assuming the best of the powerful, and of silencing and ignoring victims, which a post–#MeToo America is still just beginning to grapple with.
The men’s allegations of prolonged sexual abuse by the man who was at one point the most popular entertainer in the world are horrifying, and much of what is alleged to have happened is too graphic to recount here. Safechuck’s intermittent use of the second person “you,” referring to himself — presumably to distance himself from the sexual acts he says Jackson made him do — is gut-wrenching. “It felt like you were bonding, in a way,” he remembers. He also recalls Jackson convincing him not to tell anyone what was happening: “He would tell me that if anybody found out, his life would be over and my life would be over. And that’s something he tells you over and over again.”
Robson, a celebrated choreographer, is just as emotionally affecting to see and hear in interviews; his relative stoicism here contrasts with the otherwise free physical expression he shows in his dancing. Watching Safechuck and Robson, it’s clear that even after all these years, and the therapy and family support they’ve had, there’s some part of them that will always remain in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Beyond the alleged abuse, there’s reason for that. Jackson’s in so many of their childhood photos and videos. Even when he’s not physically present, his essence is there; both boys performed as mini Jackson impersonators, moonwalking and kicking through their formative years. Jackson was, after all, a mainstay of the pop culture the men encountered as kids — Pepsi commercials, shopping mall talent shows, dance contests — just as he remains a musical fixture today. It’s a terrible aspect of Jackson’s alleged predation, aside from the physical and psychological toll: The way that those who have survived his purported abuse are reminded of him in even the most mundane, most ephemeral things.
In Leaving Neverland, memory is poignantly, if stylistically, treated. All of the archival footage is rendered picture-within-picture style, the images smack dab in the middle of the screen surrounded by a thick black border. Perhaps this treatment is meant to nod to the obfuscation of memory, and the way thinking back on the past can be like looking through a paper towel tube — capturing some, but not all, of the picture. The visual also has the effect of producing a lacuna onscreen, one that might unintentionally suggest gaps. In what? Robson and Safechuck’s memory? The distance between the kind of parenting they needed and what they got? Other stories that fell through the cracks?
Both Robson and Safechuck, and their mothers, seem to allude to the possibility. They comment on the timing of Jackson’s relationships with Brett Barnes and Macaulay Culkin, who were both children when Jackson initiated friendships with them. Robson’s mother, Joy, recalls Jackson’s shifting friendship circle: “After a while I realized there was a pattern. Every 12 months, there was a new boy in his life.” (Both Barnes and Culkin have denied that their relationships with Jackson were abusive; Barnes publicly defended him, alongside Robson, during the first wave of sex abuse allegations in 1993, while Culkin testified at Jackson’s molestation trial in 2005, where Robson also defended Jackson.)
Leaving Neverland focuses on Robson and Safechuck’s stories by design, rather than taking a broad view of Jackson’s life or alleged abuses, but it still bears obvious relation to Martin Bashir’s infamous 2003 TV documentary Living With Michael Jackson, which also functioned as an unsettling look behind behind the curtain. That film more precisely documented the singer’s strangeness, and the way the self-mythologizing eccentricities of “Wacko Jacko” might have masked his deeper pathologies. It included Jackson’s denial of his extensive plastic surgery, his 2002 baby-dangling incident, and most critically his relationship with Gavin Arvizo, which was part of what led to Jackson’s arrest later that year. Bashir’s documentary inaugurated a new era of Jackson obsession in pop culture: on South Park, in the Scary Movie franchise, and in an influx of other works that reflected the general public’s tendency to both make fun of and be endlessly perplexed by the singer’s antics.
Leaving Neverland also comes on the heels of Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part Lifetime docuseries that aired in early January. The series, produced by longtime music journalist and filmmaker Dream Hampton, includes interviews with more than 50 people, including alleged survivors, members of Kelly’s family, industry luminaries, music journalists, and witnesses to Kelly’s alleged crimes: abuse that runs the gamut from rape, pedophilia, and child pornography to emotional abuse and coercion. That series, widely covered in the media, has already spurred legal action; last week, Kelly was charged with 10 counts of criminal sexual abuse. Given the timing of their releases, Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland are destined to be linked together in much the same way that the stories they tell — of beloved and famously eccentric entertainers, accused of unforgivable abuses — bind Kelly and Jackson.
Surviving R. Kelly is less in-depth, in part because there are so many survivors to hear from, as well as experts who contextualize Kelly’s career and abuse. Leaving Neverland, however, is a richer and more intimate film, more personal than sociological: We see Safechuck and Robson as boys, then as fathers, coping with the lingering effects of the abuse; we meet their wives, parents, and grandparents, all of whom provide angles from which to better understand them. We don’t get to know the women in Surviving nearly as well. Leaving feels like a closeup, while Surviving is a series of establishing and medium shots, toggling between a big picture about how black women and girls are disbelieved in society and a semi-intimate look at their stories that focuses almost extensively on the immediacy of the abuse. Critic Sonia Saraiya wrote “Surviving R. Kelly is telling a complex story, but its tabloid sheen obscures its own profundity—and that salacious skin never lets up.”
I wonder if these films will unintentionally reinforce the disparity between how black women survivors and white survivors of any gender are perceived and believed. What emerges from both documentaries is a sense of imprisonment: the ways that American society locks black girls into stereotypes — the Hottentot Venus, the jezebel — while two particular white boys who are generally (and cinematically) granted more freedom and space in the pubic imaginary to have their humanity validated are still in many ways circumscribed by different-yet-similar hauntings. It’s possible to come away with the sense that both childhood and adulthood can be confining, if one’s trauma is deep-seated enough.
In this way, the verbs “surviving” and “leaving” end up being both practical, accurate terms to describe what the subjects are up to, and existentially fraught activities. Healing from this kind of trauma is an ever-ongoing process, marked both by meaningful forward progress and inevitable bouts of what feel like stasis and regression. Ultimately, after viewing these films, you come away with the idea that progress can sometimes mean simply staying still, riveted and devastated at the same time, caught between wanting to look away and continuing to gaze ahead.
In her 2006 book On Michael Jackson, Margo Jefferson homes in on the singular power of the “Thriller” video on Jackson’s legacy:
When people praise Michael Jackson today, recall his gifts and why they loved him, they always mention the 1983 Thriller video. That’s because it’s a short masterpiece, a perfectly thought-through and executed horror tale. It is the tale of the double, the man with two selves and two souls, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like Poe’s William Wilson or Dorian Gray and his portrait. The everyday man and his uncanny double. Which is his true self? [...] who is Michael Jackson’s double? Is it the brown-skinned self we can no longer see except in the old photos and videos? Is he a good man or a predator? Child protector or pedophile? A damaged genius or a scheming celebrity trying to hold on to his fame at any cost? A child star afraid of aging, or a psychotic freak/pervert/sociopath? What if the “or” is an “and”? What if he is all of these things?
In addition to the literature Jefferson lists, the long-held notion of the tortured, talented man with two distinct personalities is a recurring feature of pop discourse — in religious works, in psychological tracts, on Top 40 charts. This is especially true in the public perception of black men entertainers accused of sexual assault, where dual identification is a consistent theme: Think of David Ritz’s assessment of Marvin Gaye — who began a romantic relationship with his wife, Janis, when she was an underaged hang-around at his studio and he was an adult man in his thirties — as a “divided soul” in the biography of the same name; the jarring juxtaposition and conflation of Cliff Huxtable with Bill Cosby; the persistent pitting of “Robert” versus “R. Kelly” in Surviving R. Kelly.
Since the Jackson 5 first got a taste of the limelight, there have been the internecine struggles of Michael Jackson and Michael Jackson. Leaving Neverland, more than any other presentation of Jackson’s alleged crimes, gets at the duality Jefferson lays out. If Jackson truly was a chimera — both the man, and the man in the mirror — then the establishment of that doubling played out not only in the private hellscapes Robson and Safechuck allege, but also in the entertainer’s public performances. Could or should we have seen it, looking back now, in “Thriller”? In his event interviews, first with Oprah Winfrey in 1993, and then again with Martin Bashir; in his courting of tabloid attention while simultaneously appearing to disdain it?
Leaving Neverland echoes On Michael Jackson in its assertion that Jackson probably hated women, hated responsibility, hated the trappings and freedoms that come with being a grown-up human. The documentary also raises the question: If the brutal treatment Robson and Safechuck say they endured did in fact take place, then did Jackson — rather than loving children, as he routinely claimed — actually hate them, too? And is it possible that Michael Jackson’s establishment of his own self-identity involved repeated attempts to obliterate the selfhood of two boys?
To those boys at the time, these questions would have been almost impossible to consider, let alone answer. The documentary explores how it was only as adults that Robson and Safechuck eventually came to understand their experiences with Jackson as abusive. Both men point to a mix of factors that made them feel differently as children: parental pressure, fear, psychological compartmentalization, and a belief that the abuse was not wrong, but instead how Jackson showed them love.
If what these men say is true, the irony of Jackson’s ostensible rejection of power, fame, fortune, and adulthood is that he ultimately used all of those things to further his own insidious agenda. And that’s the move of an authoritarian and a self-proclaimed Peter Pan stan. The film exposes Jackson’s crucial contradictions, and by extension the concept he’s so closely associated with: the man-child. For that state of retroactive helplessness and vulnerability requires a vast degree of power and privilege to fabricate, especially if you’ve never had it to begin with, which is a widely held belief about Jackson that Leaving Neverland also advances.
Leaving Neverland should prompt anyone who feels and thinks deeply to make a decision about their relationship to Michael Jackson and his music. My own is more complicated than I realized, before watching the documentary. As a black woman who was once a young black girl, I’ve felt targeted by adult men and boys. But because Michael Jackson’s alleged survivors all shared a profile I didn’t — young, male, not black — not once in my life did I feel I‘d be subject to his predation, even if only in my nightmares. Oddly enough, for me, Michael Jackson was an example of a grown adult stranger who didn’t want anything from me, and so he became a strangely “safe” figure in my head — where R. Kelly represented the absolute opposite.
That distance allowed me to keep enjoying Jackson’s music at a conceptual remove, even if I was freaked out and disgusted by the allegations made against him. I compartmentalized my way through his catalogue, through I don’t know how many listens of Off the Wall and Thriller. It felt almost impossible to wholeheartedly divest from him. “Don’t you go nowhere,” he yelped on “The Lady in My Life,” and I stayed put. The older I got, the more my ambivalence toward him set in.
Up until very recently, before I began to hear the conversation around Leaving Neverland that came out of Sundance, I saw myself in relation to Jackson the way I imagined the women love interests in his music videos related to him — with an abstract, anodyne kind of affection. The women in those videos are always walking away, wanting to be chased. But Leaving Neverland has collapsed the distance I was able to maintain from the boys who weren’t safe from Michael Jackson, and in doing so killed my platonic affection for him, my identification with those aloof girls. It’s given me a reason to walk away for good. ●
Niela Orr is a writer from Philadelphia. A former BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow, she is a columnist for the Baffler and an interviews editor for the Believer. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Elle, and McSweeney’s Quarterly.