An indictment of a culture

Zoe Mavroudi on Leaving Neverland and leaving behind our glittery illusions

I believe the two men interviewed in the documentary Leaving Neverland. By this I don’t simply mean that I think allegations made by James Safechuck and Wade Robson that they were sexually molested by Michael Jackson as children are ‘their’ truth – as goes the careful wording – but that their accounts are the truth and director Dan Reed’s new film is now part of the historical record.

The men allege they were promised lifetime love and career opportunity by the singer as their middle-class families received material rewards: toys, jewellery, cash, trips, even a house. The indirect price for these gifts was devastation, depression, divorce and a suicide. This is a story of innocence and hope betrayed. When Safechuck met Jackson, after co-starring in his Pepsi commercial, the singer was “happy, at the peak of his success. And then he likes you”. The boys were made to feel special or, as Robson puts it, “anointed”. What they were anointed for is alleged during four hours of on-camera confession in excruciating, graphic detail.

Critics of the film as a one-sided account misunderstand the nature of both documentary and child sexual abuse, a hidden, mostly unreported crime. A film about war victims matches testimony with documented carnage but this story is about the internalisation of undocumented violence. Reed, a meticulous interviewer, films his subjects’ struggle to contain their pain, intercutting archival footage of fun and dancing. Drone shots of landscapes – including Jackson’s former, up-for-sale Neverland Ranch – suggest a looming presence. When pain eventually surfaces – tears, a shaky hand – we confront integrity and bravery up close. The boys’ alleged grooming included instructions to guard the secret into adult life, a promise Robson kept by testifying in Jackson’s defence at his 2005 sexual molestation trial. The film helps us understand his decision and subsequent coming-out in 2013. Documentaries aren’t trials but narrative tools of history, which doesn’t have a statute of limitations.

Reed skips the traditional flashback to Jackson’s early career. As a child-prodigy, he showed performative maturity and sensuality comparable to those of older stars. When his solo career sky-rocketed during the Reagan era, his overtly masculine stage persona and militaristic choreographies countered his image as a reclusive Peter Pan who defended his unusual closeness to children for years. The merging of child with adult identity is a persistent theme in Reed’s film. When Safechuck met Jackson, he told his idol: “we’re the luckiest boys in the world.” Elsewhere, an old video shows 5-year-old Robson perform Jackson’s floor-humping dance move to a cheering crowd, his tiny pelvis thrusting in choreographed imitation of copulation. Hindsight about what would soon overtake his life is mixed with befuddlement: how could this get public approval? The answer can be traced in his mother’s talk of being swept away by “the good life”, dreams of showbiz success for her talented son and a mix of awe and pity for the “childlike” mega-star.

The film’s co-producer HBO is currently embroiled in a lawsuit filed by the Michael Jackson Estate and Reed has been wrongly accused of supposed inconsistencies in his reportage. But Leaving Neverland cannot be undone. Jackson’s legacy will from now on be filtered through this film. (One wonders how the National Portrait Gallery’s recent Jackson exhibition might have addressed it.) Oprah Winfrey, who interviewed the star in 1993 inside his home theatre but didn’t seem troubled by the surrounding bedroom cubicles for his child guests, showcased the film in a TV special, saying its story “transcends” Jackson. Indeed. The film implies that all this happened under the watch of a gushing media.

Recalling his childhood experience, Robson says that at the time, “it didn’t seem that strange”. His words convey a confusion shared by too many culpable adults, making Leaving Neverland an indictment of an entire culture and its glittery illusions.

Zoe Mavroudi

Zoe Mavroudi is a filmmaker and performer.