“LEAVING NEVERLAND”— Disturbing and Devastating

“Leaving Neverland”

Disturbing and Devastating

Amos Lassen

“Leaving Neverland” is documentary exposé that gives us devastatingly powerful and convincing testimony that Michael Jackson was guilty of child sexual abuse. Jackson was one of the most photographed celebrities who ever lived and in “Leaving Neverland” is a devastating four-hour documentary about Jackson, the serial predator that he really was and there are photographs of Jackson that are unlike any we have seen before. They are casually candid shots that were probably shot during the visits that Jackson to the modest boyhood homes of the two men the movie is about: Wade Robson and James Safechuck, both in their late 30s, each of whom describes, “with disarming eloquence and self-possession, how Jackson befriended them when they were children and then, for years (starting when they were 7 and 11 years old, respectively), sexually abused them. The film suggests that were other victims as well.

The testimonies of Robson and Safechuck are overwhelmingly powerful and convincing. The two don’t just describe the sexual activities that Jackson subjected them to (oral sex, mutual masturbation, the viewing of porn), they describe, in abundantly articulate and deeply emotional detail, how the abuse took place within the context of what appeared (to them) to be a relationship of hypnotic warmth and trust.

Jackson became the kids’ “pals,” and he befriended their families, too. We see photos of him sitting around with them, looking relaxed and giving off a vibe that we are  not used to seeing. He was still the biggest celebrity on the planet, after all and this was a reality he used in the most manipulative way possible.

Jackson was considered to be “larger-than-life” and that’s what’s gripping and dismaying about “Leaving Neverland.” The filmmaker, Dan Reed, forces us to confront the reality that the greatest pop genius is a monster, beneath his talent. “Leaving Neverland” ia a kind of true-life horror movie that will leave you both shaken and liberated by its dark exposé.

Jackson met the two boys through show business. Wade Robson grew up in Brisbane, Australia, and during Jackson’s 1987 concerts there, a dance contest was held for children, the winner of whom would get to meet Jackson. Robson, who was five at the time, was officially too young to enter the contest, but they let him perform anyway. At about the same time, James Safechuck, then 10 years old, starred in one of Jackson’s Pepsi commercials  as the kid who pokes around Michael’s dressing room, and who then flashes a bedazzling smile when the star walks in on him. That moment in the commercial was actually the first time he’d ever seen Jackson in person.

Jackson seized on both boys, inviting them to perform with him on stage as one of a group of kiddie mascots, then visiting Safechuck at his family’s home in Simi Valley, Ca. His relationship with each boy was separate, but he would invite each one on what might be called play dates, and from there he’d spend time with them in his bedroom. For a while, the parents lurked close by, but after some gentle parental arm-twisting Jackson would get the kids to share his bed for the night. By the time he was inviting the families up to Neverland Ranch, that arrangement became the norm.

It is very difficult to understand how any sane parent would have gone along with this? That’s an obvious question, and one’s initial response is to say: It’s enraging, and unforgivable, that the parents allowed any of this to happen and they are certainly to blame. However, “Leaving Neverland” captures how the parents found themselves under the spell, and the Mob-like pushiness, of Michael’s celebrity. They thought he was creating opportunities for their children that might otherwise be taken away. And once inside their homes, he seemed to be a gentle soul and so they closed their eyes and enabled him to play with their children.

What happened behind those closed bedroom doors was hideous and criminal. But Robson and Safechuck describe, with great intimacy, the way it happened, and their feelings about it as kids, and that’s part of the revelation we see here. These children felt close to Michael Jackson, and to use their own words they felt a kind of love for him; they wanted to do what it took to please him. The movie captures one of the great evils of child abuse. Children sre usually raised to please adults and Michael Jackson wasn’t just any adult. The movie captures how he began to crowd out the boys’ parents, and to effectively replace them. He was that devious.

The sexual activities are described with total candor, and one’s inevitable response is to be appalled at Michael Jackson’s predatory sickness. He was a serial pedophile who came on as a protector of children. At the center of the movie, though, is a fact that is controversial and will remain that way— both Robson and Safechuck testified, during Jackson’s first criminal trial for child sexual abuse, that he was innocent  and that he’d never done a thing to them that was inappropriate.

The movie explains, quite believably, how this happened. Jackson, during the years of abuse would tell the two boys, repeatedly, that they couldn’t reveal any of what went on; if they did, Michael said, both he and the boys would go to jail for life. He struck a note of fear and diseased loyalty in them, so that they felt they couldn’t reveal it. The boys lied to their parents, to their future wives, and to the courtroom. “Leaving Neverland” reveals that this level of denial at all costs is, in fact, an intrinsic element of the horror of child sexual abuse. It always starts off as a terrible secret, and quite often remains so. The compulsion to cover it up — out of fear or shame, or both — is part of the insidious nature of it.

The second half of “Leaving Neverland” is mostly devoted to how Robson and Safechuck got in touch with their trauma and began to recover from it, something that only happened after Jackson’s death. It’s an essential part of the story, and part of why this is an important film. Yet there’s one element of “Leaving Neverland” that remains largely unexamined: what was happening in Michael Jackson himself. We are left to speculate as to what it was that made him a predator. I might then seem  that his untimely death, which resulted from his use of a sleep an aesthetic, (he was warned could kill him), may have grown out of the years he spent as an abuser. He died recklessly and unnecessarily, perhaps as an unconscious act of self-destruction. It may be the one true expression of the guilt he couldn’t let himself feel.

The two-part, four hour documentary was directed by Dan Reed and the synopsis reads: “Through gut-wrenching interviews with the now-adult men and their families, “Leaving Neverland” crafts a portrait of sustained exploitation and deception.” “A deeply emotional Wade Robson and James Safechuck received a standing ovation after the screening of “Leaving Neverland” at Sundance. This is a thorough, devastating, deeply credible piece of filmmaking.” I have to admit that I would not know that I was hearing Michael Jackson if he were on the radio. He became popular after I left this country and died before I came back so I know little about him but the rumors. I do think that “you’ll never listen to Michael Jackson the same way again. In fact, you may never listen to Michael Jackson again at all.

It may not be much of a secret that Jackson acted inappropriately with a number of young boys, but there’s no way to prepare yourself for the sickening forensic details presented here. It’s one thing to be vaguely aware of the various allegations that were made against Jackson but it is something else to hear the horrifyingly testimony that spans the entire duration of the film  as two of Jackson’s most repeat victims bravely tell “how a universal icon seduced them away from their realities, splintered their families beyond all recognition, and leveraged their love for him into a disturbing litany of sexual acts.”

The film was made for no other reason than to dispel the rumors and exchange them with truth and in this case that truth is disgustingly ugly. Many of the rumors were silenced behind settlements, and none of which a jury was able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In the wake of Reed’s film and the shattering interview footage that it shows us, there’s no longer a reasonable doubt. There’s no longer any doubt at all. The documentary’s two main subjects corroborate their separate accounts in all of the most tragic of ways and they do so with a degree of vulnerability with no place for skepticism.

This next paragraph is extremely graphic but I feel that it is necessary.

“Jackson was a man who convinced their most innocent relatives to bend over and spread their butt cheeks while he masturbated to the sight; who forced them to suck on his nipples while he serviced himself; who installed an elaborate system of alarm bells at the Neverland Ranch so that he would hear if anyone was going to walk in on an eight-year-old boy with the pop star’s penis inside his mouth. Penetration was a more complicated process, but one that got increasingly possible as the boys grew older. There was even a mock wedding ceremony at one point; the kid involved still can’t bear to look at the ring. The mothers chaperoned many of these vile trysts, oblivious to (or in denial about) what Jackson was doing to their sons behind closed doors. A teenage sibling even defended the pop star in court. She didn’t know any better but will still regret that decision until the day she dies.”

The first part of Reed’s film is hard to stomach, the second part of “Leaving Neverland” is more concerned with the two trials that put Jackson’s behavior in the public sphere, and the psychic fallout that the Robson and Safechuck families are still fighting to survive. The last 30 minutes are the most harrowing of all, as they focus on how Wade and Jimmy revealed the truth to their families — to their parents, siblings, and wives — and the effect that it had on everyone in their lives. It’s devastating to watch but very important to see. We allowed a young man to destroy the lives of children right in front of us as we bought his music and listened to him sing. What were we thinking?

The Neverland Ranch was a place where fantasies were protected from the forces of reality. It’s not easy to understand how “a living god” could be such a sick human being — Jackson was an iconic figure that played such a foundational role in so many of our lives.

On the surface, the film seems to have nothing more on its mind than setting the record straight. It skews closer to the archival than the artistic and the film transcends its basic functionality. We see the denial, the shame, the way that young minds are able to rationalize even the most insidious trauma until it explodes later when they are adults. These are the very same forces that allow powerful abusers to undermine the accusations against them and frighten their victims into silence. While “Leaving Neverland” is far from great cinema, it is a crucial document for a culture that still can’t see itself clearly in shadow of the King of Pop.

Because of Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s previous support of Michael Jackson and claims that he never molested them, his fans have asked the festival to pull the film while the Jackson estate has hit back at the project in a statement: “The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact.  The two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred. They have provided no independent evidence and absolutely no proof in support of their accusations, which means the entire film hinges solely on the word of two perjurers.” Furthermore, they state that the filmmaker purposefully decided not to interview anyone else other than the two men and their families he “neglected fact checking so he could craft a narrative so blatantly one-sided that viewers never get anything close to a balanced portrait.”

Michael Jackson’s family members said Monday that they are “furious” that two men who accuse him of sexually abusing them as boys have received renewed attention because of a new documentary about them.

The family released this statement: “Michael always turned the other cheek, and we have always turned the other cheek when people have gone after members of our family — that is the Jackson way,” the statement said. “But we can’t just stand by while this public lynching goes on…. Michael is not here to defend himself, otherwise these allegations would not have been made.”

The Jackson statement calls the men “perjurers” because of this reversal, saying the family is “furious” that media outlets without evidence have chosen “to believe the word of two admitted liars over the word of hundreds of families and friends around the world who spent time with Michael.” The family insists that truth and evidence are on their side. “We are proud of what Michael Jackson stands for,” the statement said.

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