The world is in a state of shock, anger, and confusion once again after the release of a new documentary about Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse allegations. It has been hard to escape the controversy of the Leaving Neverland documentary, which explores the sexual abuse of Wade Robson and James Safechuck. Directed by Dan Reed and produced by Channel 4 and HBO, it refuses to hold back on the explicit accounts of the two men.
It is perhaps this lack of shame that has provoked the greatest backlash against all those involved; I have been deeply saddened to see the volume of people blindly defending the legacy of a celebrity who was plagued by accusations throughout his career. I struggle to empathise with those who can watch the raw emotions of someone discussing their PTSD and still dismiss the claims. In the wake of the Jimmy Saville scandal and the #MeToo movement, it is a dangerous hole we are falling down when we continue to protect the rich and famous at all costs and simultaneously ignore those male victims brave enough to speak out and break the stigma surrounding male sexual abuse.
We find it uncomfortable to hear that a beloved name is not the person that we think they are, but Robson’s sister, Chantal, makes an excellent point in the documentary, explaining that the public only knows Michael Jackson the celebrity, not Michael the everyday man. Much like we are constantly reminded that our Instagram influencers do not have the lives that they necessarily paint on social media, the true lives of super celebrities such as Jackson’s will always remain somewhat elusive. Reed’s stark but neutral commentary on a complex and historic story does allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Though as the Rolling Stone describes: ‘by offering these men a forum, this doc has clearly chosen a side.’ There is, I felt, little influencing at the hands of the editing or contextual information provided. But the accounts of the victims should be conclusion enough in themselves.
These accounts, as I have mentioned, are stark, explicit and uncomfortable. I actually found this a refreshing – if paradoxically unpleasant – documentary experience. We are largely moving away from the widespread unquestioning faith in prolific celebrities, though with names as internationally pervasive as Jackson’s, it does still remain. It is where these names are concerned that it is necessary to tell the truth as plainly and fully as possible. Other directors might have been more sympathetic in fear of the inevitable backlash. The Jackson estate is inevitably among those speaking in retaliation, stating that ‘Leaving Neverland isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death. The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact.’ It worries me that we continue to dismiss abuse claims, as though they never could be true.
Leaving Neverland is a bit of a marathon, not a sprint. Consisting of four hours of slightly gruelling viewing that gives you an alarming insight into the dizzy world of fame, I wonder if a slightly condensed documentary would have been more palatable for some viewers. While I’m equally wary of censoring the truth of victims’ experiences, the matter is complicated when a name such as Michael Jackson’s gets involved. It is a careful balancing act of providing an unbiased platform while also encouraging as many people as possible to support those involved. If the negative responses prove anything, it’s that this documentary has been in some way successful; the channels of communication remain open to the truth, beyond a celebrity’s death. Reed has produced a poignant and harrowing account of the extent to which people can behave wrongly when we allow money to equal power.