I didn't grow up listening to Michael Jackson. Some memorable first encounters with his role in the broader American cultural milieu came in Bloom County comic books or in "The Jeffersons" episode of South Park. But I was never a big fan.
So when HBO dropped Leaving Neverland, the documentary featuring two men who say they were sexually abused as minors by Jackson, I wasn't forced to reconcile with the notion that a (now deceased) personal cultural icon had allegedly done horrible things.
I figured I'd be able to isolate the experiences of calculated seduction and rape described by the two primary subjects, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, for what they were: disturbing and highly credible. And, for the most part, I was able to do that, unclouded by any personal retrospection of my relationship with Jackson's music. The level of detail from the two men, corroborating stories from their family members, and the visible emotional reactions to reliving trauma that they exhibited on camera is sickening.
And yet, the film doesn't simplistically stake out the immorality of Jackson's abuse for the viewer. Rather, it illustrates the highly complex relationship that Robson and Safechuck had with Jackson, one that led to denial, self-blame and continued loyalty towards Jackson as they aged — such as when Robson testified in 2005 that Jackson never sexually abused him.
Through a hauntingly whimsical soundtrack, lengthy shots of sunny Southern California and Jackson's Neverland estate and, of course, the interviews, the film highlights the positive experiences and feelings that the victims — and their families — associated with Jackson, such as his charm, generous gifts and boosting of their careers. (Their family members, meanwhile, described Jackson as a kind individual who they trusted to care for their kids.) As Robson says in the film: "He was one of the kindest, most gentle, loving, caring people I knew ... and he also sexually abused me."
The film fluidly slips between nightmare and fairy tale — oftening blurring the two worlds together. It helps explain why the victims didn't tell their parents about the abuse, and lied about it for years afterwards. At times, the lack of bright lines in the film almost seems obfuscating. But that's how it was for the victims, and it's important for us, the viewers, to try to understand that.
So, even for someone who never really cared about Michael Jackson, I still walked away from Leaving Neverland with a slew of emotions aside from just blind rage and disgust. ♦