TW: Sexual Abuse and Paedophilia
Despite the ongoing allegations of abuse that have been leveled at celebrities from Kevin Spacey to Bryan Singer over the past few years, the hard to refute proof that Michael Jackson abused young boys still comes as a shock to the system. The reactions across the board have been intense, to say the least – from people absolutely despising him, to those who feel a sense of mourning for an icon they once loved, to a questionable group of fans who refuse to even consider that these accusations are likely true. I personally fall somewhere within the first two categories, but more than anything I feel towards Jackson, I feel pain and heartbreak for the two men at the heart of the documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck.
Coming in at an emotionally exhausting 240 minutes, the documentary utilizes a fairly simple and straightforward style, the whole film essentially being made up of talking head sections and 4:3 archive footage, recontextualized in light of the abuse. This bare-bones style assists greatly in lending these men the credibility they deserve, never sensationalizing the high-profile case but never downplaying the horror of what Jackson did. In many other cases, I would prefer a greater level of experimentation or originality in the aesthetic used, but here I think anything other than the visual approach they chose would have felt disingenuous or distracting. Director Dan Reed wants to present the accounts chronologically and in a convincing way, and that is what he achieves.
The other great strength of this doc (though I still refuse to rate it out of ten) is its focus on the interiority of the true subjects – Safechuck and Robson – rather than an obsession with Jackson as a lesser documentary may have tended towards. Obviously, his immense stardom is acknowledged; this is one of the key reasons why the survivors felt as though they couldn’t speak until now. But ultimately, this is a report of grooming and assault, and the decision to make the subject of Leaving Neverland the thought processes and backstories of the victims is one that allows for a more objective view of the situation, not made foggy by Jackson’s talent or charisma.
Regardless of this directorial choice, though, I do feel somewhat obliged to say a few words on Jackson in this review. So here’s my opinion: he was a pitiable figure who did terrible things for bizarre, unexplainable reasons, and while his sense of right and wrong may have been warped by a history of abuse, his actions remain despicable. Will I immediately stop listening to Jackson’s music or watching his iconic videos? Honestly, probably not, as his position in popular culture remains almost unavoidable. But I am glad in a way that this case is encouraging me and others to further analyze the argument of separating the art from the artist, a debate that’s frankly hard to confront, harder to make your mind up on, and one that deserves a separate post.
Leaving Neverland is an absolutely soul destroying watch, and the nature of this pain changed for me over the course of the documentary. At first, I was in mourning for an icon I didn’t realize I had such an appreciation for. This was followed by intense anger and disgust when details of the abuse were shared – how could he possibly do this to these children, so devoted and trusting of him? A sense of despondency hit afterward, for Robson and Safechuck and how their childhoods were effectively destroyed by the actions of a selfish individual. But now, I feel some hope – they have shared their stories, they are receiving the counseling that they need, and they can finally move on from the abuse that plagued the majority of their lives through this powerful, cathartic film.