Leaving Neverland: A Look at The Man in the Mirror

CW: Sexual assault, abuse

Leaving Neverland is a documentary film from director Dan Reed, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and has since been showcased on HBO earlier this month. Ever since the film was slated to be screened at the festival it was met with criticism over the subject, and has received more backlash since the HBO release. The film focuses on the allegations of sexual abuse that Michael Jackson, The King of Pop, was accused of and is still being alleged today. There are two stories that are showcased in the documentary that reexamine the legacy of Michael Jackson in the face of these accusations after his death.  Wade Robson and  James Safechuck have come out with the accusations of sexual abuse that they suffered during their relationship with Jackson. At first both Robson and Safechuck kept the abuse to themselves, never telling anyone. This is a new era where survivors are becoming more comfortable with making their accusations public so that this might not happen again: a powerful moment in society, and the timing for this documentary highlights this zeitgeist. The Jackson estate, as well as his supporters, have been very vocal about not airing this documentary and discrediting the two accusers. This is highlighted at the end of part 2, and can also be seen on a daily basis on the internet. It’s a tough watch from start to end, HBO dividing the 4 hour documentary into two hour nights, as well as an after special with Oprah Winfrey. 


Part One: They were just kids (Late 70’s to 1992)

    The documentary commences with  Michael Jackson at the height of his solo career, for which he would later become known as The King of Pop.  Wade Robson was a child performer from Australia. His main act was a Michael Jackson impersonation: Jackson was his idol. When Jackson was visiting Australia on his tour he would have kids come up and join him on stage. Robson won a dance audition contest to dance when the tour came to Australia. On the other side of the country a young James Safechuck got one of his first big breaks starring in a commercial for Pepsi alongside Pepsi spokesperson, Michael Jackson. Reflecting on the experience, Jackson referred to it as the best commercial he has ever starred in, praising a young Safechuck for his performance. Media crew outlets interviewed both boys on their own experiences meeting The King of Pop. For Wade Robson it came easy to talk about being enthralled by his idol and doing the dance routines. The media embellished the interview with James Safechuck by redesigning his room with an abundance of Michael Jackson posters and memorabilia. Safechuck talked about what a great time he had working on the commercial with Jackson, and the camera also captured Safechuck dancing to some of Jackson’s songs. 

    Then came the contact with Michael: the film depicts both boys receiving calls and mail from Jackson. The parents found nothing wrong with this scenario and let the kids speak to Jackson for hours on end on the phone, because for them, Jackson had become another member of the family. Michael Jackson apparently never had a memorable childhood, so he sought to live out his childhood by having friends who were younger than him. There was never a question from the parents that this might be odd behaviour, because presumably Jackson was a genuine human being that would help the boys with their careers and invite them into his elegant lifestyle. The Neverland Ranch was a fantastical world for the boys that encapsulated Jackson’s youthful spirit. He would have both boys and their families come and visit him at his Neverland Ranch: a fun and care free space. This is also the place where the abuse started for both boys. What started as light gestures, say a hug or holding hands, progressed into sexually explicit gestures, with both Wade Robson and James Safechuck on separate occasions. Then the cover ups started, including the fact that Jackson kept on mentioning that he and the boys would go to jail if they even outed the abuse. He created the idea that they had special relationships and tried to separate them from their families by making them distrustful of the other people around them. During the day things would be normal at Neverland, and when night would roll around the abuse started all over again. Whether the boys were on vacation with him, visiting him or on tour with him this would be their life. They would be sleeping alongside Jackson, as their parents were in the other room, and this became normalized.

    Wade Robson and part of his family would leave Australia at Jackson’s request in order to help his career. His mother bought into Jackson’s demands even after the first time she said no to Jackson’s request to having Wade stay in America with him. There were times when Safechuck’s mother questioned some of the reasons why the rooms in Neverland were closed off or far apart when staying at hotels, but never distrusted Jackson. As the boys moved into their pre-teen teen phases of life there seemed to be a withdrawal of Jackson in their lives, as Jackson started having younger boys around him including child star Macaulay Culkin. Robson tells the incident where he was told to come on set to meet with Michael, only to find out the Culkin had become Jackson’s new protege. It was also the time that Robson described the sexual abuse getting more intense and intimate. Even though this was going on, the relationship with Robson and Safechuck was becoming less frequent, Jackson opting for younger “friends”. 


Part Two: Living in the Present (1993-Present)

    Part two opens on the 1993 child abuse allegations levelled against Michael Jackson, whose victim was 13 year old Jordan Neil Chandler. The accusations at the time were seen as the family looking for a money. Around the same time Jackson got back into contact with Wade Robson and James Safechuck, telling them that he needed their help for his defence. First with their own family, and then with investigators, both teens at the time denied the accusations that Jackson had ever sexually abused them. Finally this case was settled out of court for a larger sum of money than was perviously asked. Jackson stated as a defence for why he settled that his lawyers advised him, stating that it would cost him more in trial and legal fees. Following this, once again the boys’ contact with Jackson was lost. Then came Jackson’s marriages to both Lisa Marie Presley and later Debbie Rowe, which also seemed to discredit the accusations. Both Robson and Safechuck, at this point, wondered where their relationship with Jackson would be in the wake of his marriages. 

    Wade Robson went on to have a career as a famed choreographer with A-listers, including Britney Spears. Michael would try to get Robson to contact Britney for a collaboration. Both Robson and Safechuck started their adult lives, living in healthy relationships with their partners, yet remaining silent on their past abuse. They told their partners the bare minimum that they were friends with Jackson. There were some moments that their personal life were effected by the abuse, but it was never connected that it was because of the abuse. When the new 2003 sexual abuse accusations came out, the cycle of contact started again between both men and Jackson. Wade continually stood by Jackson even as a witness for the trial. James was finally done with the relationship and told Michael that he wanted nothing to do with the trail,  eventually confiding to his mom about the abuse he suffered at the hands of Jackson. 

    It was only after Michael Jackson’s death and having a child of his own that Wade Robinson  finally cmae out with the accusations (after some deep therapy sessions). There were many different reactions to Jackson’s death from the people who respected the man and his legacy. James Safechuck’s mother, now knowing the truth, thanked god that he is gone and can’t hurt any other children. There are still the defenders of Jackson’s legacy that discredit the accusations of Robson and Safechuck. They are also the ones who question why they didn’t come out sooner, or even why Robson defended Jackson for so long. The film shows how Safechuck and Robson are both coming to terms with the healing and grieving process, as well as having a personal life. 


After Neverland

    After Neverland is a one hour follow up special after the documentary where Oprah Winfrey sits down with Wade Robson, James Safechuck and director Dan Reed. Winfrey, herself being a survivor of child sexual abuse, held this post discussion alongside survivors of abuse in the audience. The one thing that is made clear, largely by Winfrey, is that abuse is covered up as a type of loving relationship that one has with the abuser. Dan Reed stated that he wanted to make this documentary not about Michael Jackson, but about child sexual abuse and the survivors. Wade Robson and James Safechuck go into details on how the abuse was constructed in terms of a normalized loving relationship, never seen as abuse. As both men put it, they would always come to Jackson’s defence in an attempt to continue his legacy and the fact that his character as an individual. One of the tactics that Jackson employed was the constant pattern of keeping the relationship a secret, and making threats of the consequences of leaking the secret.  Oprah then reads a letter from the Jackson estate discrediting the documentary and both men’s allegations. Robson describes that the only way that he could seek justice or tell his story where the Jackson estate would have to listen was to go through the court of law. This was the same court of law where he previously defended Jackson back in 1993 and 2003. In the final moments, Winfrey asks the hard questions about forgiveness and moving on from the experience. Most importantly, this documentary special outlines the definition of abuse, and how sometimes it comes disguised in the form of loving relationship.

    In this new era where the survivors are now being heard more than ever before, it is the perfect time for the documentary to be put out. It is both factual and personal, based on Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s experience with the king of pop, Michael Jackson. It is a hard documentary to watch, not only for the content, but also as it takes aim at Jackson’s personal life and his legacy after his death.  I feel that Safechuck and Robson presented claims that people may not want to hear because the truth hurts lives and legacies. However, in this era where survivors are coming forward it is an important step in the healing and grieving process. To make sure that this never happens again, no matter if the person is an influential celebrity,  or a regular citizen to society, the documentary is an important step in giving voice to the survivors of sexual abuse.