(Note: The following film review addresses descriptions of abuse and sexual assault involving children.)
The Pitch: When Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck were young, they (like so many other kids of the ’80s) absolutely idolized Michael Jackson. Wade won a Jackson dance-alike contest in Australia that granted his family the opportunity to meet the King of Pop. Jimmy was a Los Angeles superfan who appeared alongside Jackson in a 1988 Pepsi commercial after meeting MJ under similar circumstances.
In both cases, Jackson insinuated himself into the lives of these young charges. He would lavishly wine and dine their families, even offering Wade and his mother Joy the opportunity to emigrate to the US to pursue Wade’s then-burgeoning career as a dancer. Michael would make phone calls, first to the boys and then to their parents, establishing himself as a presence within their homes, an extra member of the family who just happened to be one of the most famous people on the planet. He offered them career opportunities, vacations, and in what the boys undoubtedly saw as the cherry on top of it all, regular weeks and weekends away at Neverland Ranch, Jackson’s sprawling and private California property full of carnival rides, private zoos, and all other manner of childlike activities.
According to the firsthand accounts from Robson and Safechuck and their families that follow, Jackson then used his clout and resources to sexually abuse both young men, over a sustained period of several years each. . Using a mixture of affection, coercion, and even outright threats, the two not only kept quiet about abuses well into their 20s, but they even took the stand in defense of Jackson against other, similar claims of sexual assault in following years, lying to their own families in the process for the sake of protecting the beloved artist.
Over its two parts and four hours, HBO’s Leaving Neverland grants Wade and Jimmy the opportunity to tell their own stories, and examine the damage that their respective childhoods did to their families and their own lives in the years that would follow.
The Beginnings of Abuse: Throughout Leaving Neverland, you’d be forgiven for immediately beginning to wonder “how did their parents let this happen?” It’s a refrain that has commonly followed Jackson’s accusers over the years, ever since the first lawsuit alleging Jackson’s sexual abuse of minors was filed in 1993. The documentary explores that very question at length, taking a far longer view of their long journey toward coming forward.
Both Joy Robson and Stephanie Safechuck, the mothers of the young men, admit often (particularly in the documentary’s first half) that they frequently sidestepped red flags during their time with Jackson. In their own way, much like their kids, each was seduced by the mythology and mystique of MJ. Particularly once he began to take an active interest in the families at large, the parents were turned into active participants in the process. Stephanie, in particular, is left to reckon with episodes like the one in which she can recall allowing Jimmy to have a sleepover in the main manor of Neverland Ranch, while she slept in a “guest house” across the lake. The “trust” built between Jackson and his young charges was used to isolate them, not just during their time on the ranch, from their parents and anybody else who might start to have questions. The two kids became isolated, and wanted to be with no one more than Jackson.
In private, as both Wade and Jimmy affirm repeatedly throughout the film’s four hours, Jackson would express deep anxiety that if “their time together” were to become public, not only would his own life be destroyed, but the boys would follow him to jail “for the rest of your life”. Leaving Neverland is about more things than any one review or piece of writing could ever hope to address, but one of its primary themes is the way in which systems of power and privilege allow for even the most appalling and unbelievable things to take place, every day, and the ways in which they implicate even those who should know better in the process.
The mothers each remark upon the ways in which Jackson seemed “like a little boy”, and how in its own way, that fact became its own lingering justification, rather than cause for immediate alarm. Throughout Jackson’s life and in the decade now elapsed since his passing, his unassuming and “childlike” manner was used as everything from a punchline to an unsettling kind of backdoor justification for his alleged assaults. Leaving Neverland does a lot of active demolition of the Jackson legend, and few aspects of the shocking film resonate more powerfully than its reminders, through endless photographs and faxes and handwritten notes sent from Jackson to their boys and families alike, that Jackson was no child. Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck were, however.
The Things People Don’t Forget: Leaving Neverland includes several graphic descriptions of the alleged sexual abuse that took place over a sustained period of several years in each victim’s case. The documentary will undoubtedly be difficult, perhaps even impossible, for some viewers to take in as a result.
For those who can, however, Neverland asks audiences to put aside everything they think they know, everything they’ve read. Even the legal record is narratively expunged to allow Wade and Jimmy as clean-slate narrators in their own stories who have come to tell the truth long after the time in which both “should have.” The rhetorical quotes are deliberate here; under Dan Reed‘s thoughtful (if occasionally repetitive) direction, Neverland interrogates the ways in which America becomes especially demanding of “perfect victims” when allegations of abuse involve celebrities.
It’s difficult to convey just how culturally ubiquitous Jackson was during this time; he created a new definition of stardom beyond anything the world had seen up to that point. As a result, and despite the last 15 years of his life seeing him relentlessly followed by rumors and allegations of this type, many were especially willing to declare Wade and Jimmy and others like them liars, rather than acknowledge that a figure as universally worshipped as Jackson was capable of the things they describe. The film spends no shortage of its runtime, particularly in the second half, establishing exactly why Wade and Jimmy would take so long to come forward, drawing in footage of TV talking heads and aggravated YouTubers to illustrate just how much scorn saying a single word against Jackson still draws, years after his death.
Leaving Neverland probably doesn’t have the answers that some will demand in order to entertain the idea of Jackson as guilty, but it’s not especially interested in rehashing old arguments either. What lingers are those descriptions, each more revolting than the last, Wade and Jimmy inadvertently mirroring one another’s stories. Or the look in Wade’s eyes when he describes getting old enough that Jackson’s overtures became less romantic than explicitly sexual. Or Jimmy’s trembling hand when he reveals a box of rings that Jackson brought for him at the time, rings which barely fit over the nail of his adult hand.
A Wider Blast Radius: As is often true with cases of abuse, particularly relating to young children, it can sometimes take years for a victim to self-identify as such, or to even acknowledge that anything took place at all. In both cases, the denial that plagued Jimmy and Wade for years manifested itself in numerous forms, from substance abuse to difficulties in adult relationships to the withholding, for years, of what happened from their parents and families. Leaving Neverland traces just how difficult this process can be, and how personal. For both, it took years before they could admit to themselves that what had happened was no expression of love.
The ripple effects of them coming forward constituted their own kind of damage, and one of the most difficult aspects of this profoundly difficult documentary is seeing how the revelation of the secret was the first step to setting Wade and Jimmy free from their private agonies, but how it only further fractured families which had already been damaged by the years of secrecy and distance. Abuse never takes place in a vacuum, and Leaving Neverland eventually shifts from a specific portrait of two stories to a consideration of the ways in which abused power turns everybody in its path into a victim in their own way. This isn’t to say that the film de-centers Wade or Jimmy; admirably, it goes out of its way at almost every point to ensure that they remain the authors of their own histories. But when Stephanie admits, near the end of the film, that she was overjoyed by Jackson’s death just for the future safety it represented, it’s evident that the damage inflicted may never heal at all.
The Verdict: Leaving Neverland may convert its share of skeptics, but mercifully, it’s not in the business of attempting to answer the questions of people who’ve already decided that Michael Jackson never did a thing, that Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck and their families are money-hungry liars, that anybody who would ever speak ill of the man who made Thriller is undeserving of being heard. It simply offers pictures, and stories, and years of eyewitness accounts, and challenges those watching to continue to engage in “both sides of the story” rhetoric when it’s all over.
There’s no simple answer of what to do with Leaving Neverland, or with the legacy of Michael Jackson at large, but it’s an absolutely essential documentary for an era in which pop culture is beginning to reckon with its own role in the systems of abuse that artistic industries are finally taking small steps toward eliminating. It forces viewers to reckon with the allegations against Jackson in ways for which the news never allowed at the time, in ways that challenge the detachment of artist from their art. In ways impossible to avoid, the way society has (and has willingly) for years.
Where’s It Playing? HBO, streaming in full. We strongly recommend watching it over multiple sittings.