“You don’t need it. All you need is me.”
-James Safechuck, recalling Michael Jackson’s answer to whether he should attend film school
It’s difficult to write about something this harrowing. I feel that Leaving Neverland is among the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, for a variety of reasons. But it is vital to the broader cultural and social discourse, both in the way it talks frankly about the ways in which pedophiles groom children and families, and in the way that its subjects who discuss such things don’t know quite how to process that this grooming has occurred. It is a snapshot of a moment past and present; one in which celebrities were and one in which they are still much too much larger than life.
In Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson and James Safechuck bravely tell their stories about how Michael Jackson allegedly sexually abused them as children at Neverland Ranch and other locations. Director Dan Reed wisely keeps the 4-hour recanting focused, linear and straight-faced.
For the first 30 minutes of the first 2-hour installment, however, we see a benign portrait of a mega-famous and mega-eccentric superstar. What we see and hear of Michael here is totally in line with his unchallenged status in the 1980s. Once the bomb is dropped, though, there’s no going back.
Almost systematically, according to the victims, children were seduced by Jackson’s elaborate home, theme park, and an overwhelming amount of playtime and junk food. Jackson convinced family members of his affection for them and their children, and turned himself into a part of the family. He was an honorary Safechuck, even helping the family purchase a new house. His proximity to and effect on the Robson family resulted in their dissolution as a family unit, leading to the eventual death by suicide of Wade’s father.
I refuse to write about the specific lewd acts Jackson is accused of doing in this documentary, not because I feel any sort of special protectiveness towards the man or his legacy as an artist, but because the acts described are truly disgusting.
Instead, what I think is more relevant in the broader discussion this movie advances is the notion of unchecked celebrity. If last year’s Whitney and 2015’s Amy were about how celebrity culture can negatively impact the person on stage, Leaving Neverland is about the impact of celebrity culture on everyday people.
It is not normal for an unrelated grown man to inject himself into a family’s daily life. It is not normal for someone who has no children to have a theme park at which he or she hosts children and sleeps in the same bed with them. It is not normal, no matter how much clout or prestige someone has, for someone to never be questioned about this kind of activity. It is not normal, and it is not okay.
And it could happen again.
We are still in the eye of the storm on these issues, especially in Hollywood. Whether or not you believe the interviewees in this documentary, it is never okay to groom children, and if it appears that someone is, that person should be questioned. For decades, Michael Jackson’s celebrity kept him off the hook for so much of his negative impact on people’s lives.
If we continue to buy into rampant celebrity worship, all of these issues will get worse before they get better.
No one is above the fray.