it only takes about two minutes into the four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland to realise that Michael Jackson’s legacy is never going to be the same again. After a brief introduction, praising him for his indisputable talent, one of his accusers looks into the camera and lists the ways in which the singer helped him. He then states: “And he sexually abused me for seven years.”
Ever since it was announced as a late addition to this year’s Sundance film festival, controversy hasn’t been far behind. The singer’s estate labelled it “an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson” while fans have reportedly levelled threats against the film’s director, the Bafta winner Dan Reed. Protests had been teased online, leading to an increased police presence, but on a frosty morning here in Utah, only a small group of the late singer’s die-hard obsessives showed up.
For those inside the Egyptian theatre on Main Street, resistance wasn’t futile, it was utterly impossible. Over four hours, set to be shown in two portions on HBO and Channel 4, Reed shared the detailed testimonies of two men accusing Jackson of graphic and extensive sexual abuse when they were children. Before it started, we were informed that healthcare professionals were on hand for those who might need it, the explicit descriptions potentially causing difficulties for those who might feel triggered. While prior court cases might have buckled and previous accusers might have been labelled delusional opportunists, it’s difficult to imagine this sensitively crafted and horrifically detailed film being quite so easily denied.
In a decision justified in a post-screening Q&A, Reed limits the focus to the two accusers and their families, insisting quite rightly that their stories remain powerful without any extraneous material. Their accounts contain many similarities: they were both younger than 10 when they got to know Jackson, they both possessed a keen interest in performing and they were both allegedly groomed then abused for an extended period of time.
The first accuser, whom we hear from at the outset, is Wade Robson, who at a young age developed an intense fandom for Jackson, his “walls plastered” with posters. Described as “a sensitive boy”, he preferred dance over basketball and was soon emulating Jackson’s moves at the age of five in a local contest. The prize was meeting the man himself and the pair developed a deep friendship, one that was encouraged by an over-eager, self-described stage mother, spellbound by Jackson’s celebrity.
The second accuser, James Safechuck, encountered Jackson after nabbing a key role in a Pepsi ad. Similarly, the two developed a friendship at a young age and by 10 he was accompanying him on tour, followed by an equally starstruck mother, who saw Jackson as another son.
It’s James who first describes his recollection of their friendship turning sexual with Jackson allegedly introducing him to masturbation. He saw it as a form of “bonding” and it kicked off what he describes as a “sexual couple relationship” when the two were left alone, allowed to share hotel rooms by James’s unaware mother. The stories progress into even darker territory as she would find her hotel rooms being booked on different floors, Jackson making sure to prevent any potential discovery. James recalls that he woke on one occasion to find Jackson saying that while he was asleep, he had performed oral sex on him. He also told the boy that he was Jackson’s first sexual experience and that this was just an “acceptable way of experiencing your love”.
When Neverland Ranch was built, it became easier to ensure privacy. “It sounds sick but it’s kind of like when you’re first dating somebody,” James explains, after listing the many, many spaces at the complex where Jackson would allegedly abuse him. He claims that Jackson would tell him that his mother was mean and that women were evil, pushing him away from his family and further into Jackson’s life.
Wade claims that his abuse started at an even younger age, when he was just seven. The family stayed at Neverland and after Jackson convinced Wade’s mother, he was allowed to be alone with the boy for five days. “You and I were brought together by God,” Jackson said to Wade as he would allegedly engage in a number of anal and oral activities with him. He told Wade, too, that women weren’t to be trusted and warned that if anyone were to find out, they would both face jail.
In one of the most chilling scenes, James recalls the mock wedding the pair had, complete with a wedding ring which he still owns and shows to the camera. He claims Jackson would reward him with jewelry for engaging in sexual acts. “It’s still hard for me to not blame myself,” he says, with his hands shaking as he holds the many trinkets.
But the tenderness soon wore off as Wade, still just seven, was allegedly shown hardcore porn, while James was introduced to alcohol. The two were slowly fazed out of Jackson’s life as younger boys were introduced. “You’re no longer special,” James says. Macaulay Culkin replaced Wade in Jackson’s music video for the song Black or White, and Wade and James dealt with feelings of jealousy and resentment. Before the documentary premiered, Culkin denied any impropriety. “For me, it’s so normal and mundane,” he said. “I know it’s a big deal to everybody else, but it was a normal friendship.”
In 1993, Jackson was publicly accused of sexual abuse by Jordan “Jordy” Chandler, which led to him reinserting himself into the lives of both boys, allegedly coaching them on how to respond to any questions. The case was ultimately settled out of court.
“Secrets will eat you up,” James says while detailing the long term damage of the alleged abuse. Both he and Wade have suffered from depression, self-loathing, and anxiety and have struggled with familial relations. At one point, bleakly, James adds: “I don’t think time heals this one. It just gets worse.”
The film also delves into the responsibility of the parents, with both mothers explaining their decision-making processes. Both were horrified when, as adults, their sons shared their stories and both sons have found forgiveness difficult. It also examines the complex reasoning for their decision to stay silent for all these years, including Wade’s appearance at Jackson’s 2004-5 trial, when the singer was accused of abusing Gavin Arvizo, as part of his defence.
“I want to speak the truth as loud as I spoke the lie,” Wade says near the end of the film, determined to make up for the lost years spent grappling with the experience alone.
After the film ended, an ashen-faced crowd rose to their feet to applaud Wade and James, who arrived on stage, both visibly moved by the response. They had met briefly as kids but have recently found support from each other as a way of feeling less isolated. They pointed out, for those who might question their motivations, that there was no compensation for appearing in the documentary. “We can’t change what happened to us,” Wade, now 36, said. “The feeling is what can we do with that now.”
They’ve both received death threats from Jackson fans, who today have flooded Twitter with attempts to discredit the pair. “I understand that it’s really hard for them to believe because, in a way, not that long ago, I was in the same position they were in,” Wade said. “Even though it happened to me, I still couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing up until six years ago. So I understand. We can only accept and understand something when we’re ready, and maybe we’ll never be ready. Maybe we will. So that’s their journey.”
- Leaving Neverland will air on HBO and Channel 4 later this year