Michael Jackson was one of the most famous men who ever lived, a star who burned out of the stratosphere in terms of his reach, his impact, and the length of his time in the spotlight. It’s hard to describe to those who aren’t familiar with that kind of thing, because they never will be. Stars like that don’t really exist anymore, and it’s too hard to imagine the kind of power they had over not just ordinary people, but society as a whole. His lifetime of celebrity and scandal is not new information. We were familiar with the allegations of child molestation which surfaced in 1993 (a case that he settled out of court) and again in 2003, resulting in a trial where he was acquitted of all charges. His unsettling relationships with young boys played out in the public eye and was late night fodder for years before his death led to the burying of those negative stories, when everyone decided they just wanted to remember the music again.
But we never reached a reckoning with the truth that was (barely) hiding in plain sight, and that was because during his life, whatever charges were filed or accusations made, the magnitude of his own bizarre image made everything about him- the spectacle, the gossip, the rumors, whatever made him the alien-like creature from another world that every facet of him seemed to be. There was no real face to the victims, no humanization of these children, these boys who actually went through this nightmare, as the circus surrounding the tabloid megawatt celebrity tends to hog all the media attention, both in life and death. Until now. Dan Reed has made a four hour documentary called Leaving Neverland that asks us to bear witness to two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who were friends of Michael Jackson and claim to have been sexually abused by him as children for years in the late 1980’s and early 1990s. We are asked to listen as they tell their stories and put their lives on display, as we find out the methodical steps of how a child’s innocence are taken from them by a man who becomes their entire universe and convinces them that they are safe and loved by him, as he proceeds to indulge in the behavior that will ruin their lives, as well as those of their families.
This is not a normal talking heads documentary, as simply listening to these men recall every detail of their relationship with Jackson is a strikingly personal, effective and brutally devastating way of conveying this truth. They speak and we listen. James was a 10-year-old when he met him, a child actor in commercials who starred in Jackson’s 1987 Pepsi commercial. Soon MJ was calling him, giving him presents, coming over to his house and befriending his parents in equal measure. James’s mother Stephanie, also interviewed, recalls how starstruck she was, how welcoming and kind and childlike Michael seemed, how caught up she was in this life of luxury he was wiling to extend to her and James as he offered them trips, took them on tour and methodically groomed them into trusting him, loving him, accepting him as a member of the family. And then when that trust was complete, how he exploited Jimmy’s love to begin abusing him, convincing him that it was normal, that it was their way of “showing their love for each other.” Jimmy wasn’t scared because he loved him by that time, but he also believed Jackson’s warning that it had to be a secret, because if anyone found out they would both go to jail and their lives would be over.