TV Review – Leaving Neverland
Back in January, Lifetime aired a six-part series called Surviving R. Kelly, which detailed the alleged crimes of R. Kelly, the African-American singer and entertainer, crimes that were predominantly pedophilia. News of that series dominated the headlines, fueled in part because R. Kelly is still alive and allegedly still perpetrating crimes, which resulted in new charges and him being arrested again. Two months later, in March of this year, HBO aired this two-part series, which detailed the alleged crimes of Michael Jackson, the African-American singer and entertainer, crimes that were predominantly pedophilia. News of this series made some headlines but it didn’t get the level of attention or fuel that the R. Kelly series did. There are several reasons why.
First is that Michael Jackson is dead. The pop star passed away in June 2009. It’s difficult to get outraged over someone who’s been buried for nearly a decade. Secondly, the number of victims speaking out against Jackson is only two, whereas Dream Hampton interviewed about a dozen of Kelly’s alleged victims. Thirdly, the alleged victims who are speaking out now against Jackson have been interviewed before about the allegations against Jackson in a court of law and what they’re saying now contradicts what they said on the witness stand and under oath. A lot of people are hesitant to come forward or speak about their abuse or trauma. Many can and do deny what happened to them, but it’s another to swear to tell truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth on a witness stand, only to later contradict it.
Director Dan Reed has been criticized for not doing what Dream Hampton did and that’s interviewing the family of the accused. Hampton interviewed the brothers of Kelly. Reed interviewed nobody in the Jackson family, let alone his brothers. Kelly’s parents are no longer alive, but Jackson’s parents were still alive. Jackson’s father died last summer, but, at the time Reed starting making this documentary Jackson’s father was still alive, so Reed could have tried to interview Jackson’s parents and probably could have accomplished it.
Based on interviews he’s done on CBS and HBO with Oprah Winfrey, Reed had no interest in interviewing Jackson’s family. He claims that this story is told from the point-of-view of the alleged victims or the abuse survivors, which is fine, and I don’t object to one-sided documentaries or documentaries that are as biased as any fictitious story. However, Reed makes the argument that he’s making a story about sexual abuse. Reed says when the abuse happened, there were only two people in the room. He says interviewing any of the Jackson family wouldn’t have any journalistic value because none of them were in the room when it was happening. Yet, Reed interviewed the family of the alleged victims. Presumably, none of them were in the room either, but Reed interviewed the victims’ families, so his argument against including the Jackson family doesn’t hold water.
Wade Robson is an Australian dancer and choreographer who was born in 1982. Robson drew fame as a child when he was able to mimic the dance routines of Michael Jackson, particularly those from Jackson’s Bad (1987). Jackson heard about Robson’s dancing and invited him to dance on stage during his tour or at least during his concerts in Australia or elsewhere. Jackson then befriended Robson and his mother, so much so that Robson and his mother left Australia and moved to Los Angeles to be closer to Jackson and pursue a career for Robson as a dancer and choreographer.
James Safechuck is a computer programmer who was born in 1978. When he was younger, in his prepubescent years, he worked as a child actor. He was cast in a 1988 Pepsi commercial that featured Michael Jackson. Jackson then sent a camera crew to Safechuck’s house. Jackson befriended Safechuck and his parents. Like Robson, Safechuck would talk to Jackson regularly by phone.
Reed bounces back-and-forth between Robson calmly telling his experiences and Safechuck calmly telling his experiences with Jackson. Those experiences weren’t just mimicking dance moves or innocent phone conversations. Those experiences allegedly included a secret, sexual relationship. Yes, both explain how and when Jackson would get these children to have sex or engage in lewd acts when alone with the adult pop star. They accuse Jackson of being a child molester or basically a child rapist.
Whether or not one believes these two are telling the truth, there is a contrast to how R. Kelly’s accusers talk about him as opposed to how Jackson’s accusers talk about the late King of Pop. Even to this day, Robson and Safechuck claim to be in love with Jackson. At one point, Robson describes Jackson as a kind of father-figure. At another point, Safechuck describes Jackson as a kind of spouse. Both, however, never objected to the sexual activity or denied Jackson’s attention. They kept coming back for more. Robson said the abuse went from age 7 to age 14, but it didn’t stop through Robson’s choice. According to Robson, Jackson merely became interested in other boys and phased him out.
This isn’t to indicate that Robson or Safechuck are gay because they’re not. Both are now married with children of their own. They say that it’s due to having children of their own that triggered them to want to speak out after lying about Jackson’s abuse for decades. Yet, despite not being gay, they do admit to loving Jackson and wanting to protect him, even when he was publicly accused of child molestation, not once but twice. Both Robson and Safechuck were called to testify on Jackson’s behalf. Both did. Robson even appeared at Jackson’s trial in 2005 on Jackson’s behalf.
One can see how easy it would be for a celebrity that they love to manipulate a child, but as in the recent documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, the staggering manipulation is that of the parents. The charges that were brought against Jackson in his 2005 trial were not the first. In 1993, allegations of child molestation were brought against him, which were eventually settled out of court. Those two cases represented at least two other boys and two other sets of parents that let their guard down enough or was taken by his celebrity so much that Jackson could do what he did.
Given that Robson and Safechuck were triggered due to them becoming parents, this documentary feels like more of an examination of parenting. Surviving R. Kelly felt like an examination of parenting as well. It’s different here because Jackson went after children much younger than the ones Kelly pursued. The Jackson case was such a bizarre example because he opened a theme park in 1989 called Neverland Ranch as a hideaway where he could live out his childhood dreams or alleged pederasty. The likelihood that a celebrity would ever attempt something like this is probably low.
In the special that followed this documentary, Winfrey interviews Robson and Safechuck and she argues that regardless of Jackson’s guilt or innocence, this documentary should be more about warning people about the signs of sexual abuse, as well as stressing that sexual abuse, especially child sexual abuse isn’t going to reveal itself in stereotypical or obvious ways. The person abusing a child might be loved by the child and the child might even lie to protect the abuser. It then becomes up to the parents to be vigilant. However, how vigilant is too vigilant?
A lot of people think the Michael Jackson case was a no-brainer. Jackson convinced the parents to allow their children to sleep in his bedroom or hotel room alone. Jackson’s child-like behavior disarmed most of the parents. Jackson was 30-years-old when he became involved with Robson and Safechuck who were either 10 or younger. Allowing a 30-something to sleep with a minor, especially one under the age of 10 seems insane and an obvious no-no. Yet, child abuse won’t be and normally isn’t as glaring as what was allegedly happening at the Neverland Ranch.
Winfrey warns of child grooming, which is behavior that a pedophile will do in order to engage in child molestation. Child grooming is about building trust between the pedophile and the child, which could include building trust with the child’s family. It consists of offering to help with money or gifts. It could consist of offering to help in other ways. It leads to innocent touching at first, which gradually or incrementally increases. Usually, it ends with getting the child alone. Given how pervasive these abuse cases are and how invasive they are in families, it could get to a point that a parent won’t be able to trust anybody to be alone with their child, no babysitters or even family members.
Winfrey also said that it’s not just about the physical act of when the child is alone with a pedophile. She said it’s also about what happens afterward, the shame and secret, which can have untold psychological damage. I would even argue that the most compelling part of this documentary is seeing the aftermath or the effect it had on the families of these two men, particularly that of Robson. His family was literally torn apart by their involvement with Michael Jackson in shocking ways due to the shame and the secret.
Reed interviewed Robson’s mother, his sister, his brother and his grandmother. One ceases to care that the Jackson family wasn’t interviewed because the Robson family’s story and its subsequent breakdown are compelling drama. Even if it weren’t revealed that Jackson allegedly molested Robson, that family’s story could still fill an entire feature-length film. The molestation is almost incidental to Robson’s family and its story about pursuing one’s dream in lieu of maintaining certain familial bonds, as well as the exploration of mental health and its effects on children.
Running Time: 2 hrs. / 2 eps.
Available on HBO.