“Leaving Neverland,” the two-part documentary directed by British filmmaker Dan Reed that premiered on HBO on March 7 and 8, is not really about Michael Jackson. The late singer’s presence, of course, is everywhere – in candid photos, archived footage and most importantly, in memories. The specter of the King of Pop haunts this film. His omnipresence is invasive, pervasive and malignant. He hovers over this piece, one imagines, in a manner similar to the way he invaded the lives of the two men at the center of “Leaving Neverland”: with malevolence concealed in the veil of harmless innocence. No, this riveting, if ultimately harrowing, 236-minute punch-in-the-gut belongs not to Michael Jackson, but to Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the men who accuse the pop star of molesting them when they were children.
James Safechuck was a 9-year-old child actor when he first met Michael Jackson on the set of a Pepsi commercial. Jackson took an interest in him and invited him to come onstage and dance with him at some of his concerts. From there, Safechuck and his family visited Jackson at his Neverland Ranch at the edge of Los Padres National Park in southern California, enjoying weekends playing in his arcade or watching movies in his private screening complex. The abuse began at night, as Safechuck slept in Jackson’s bedroom. His parents slept in a nearby guest house. To the rest of the world, the two formed an odd, but seemingly innocuous, bond. Jackson’s interest in children was well documented and the Safechucks wholeheartedly embraced the singer’s presence in their lives. Jackson often visited the family home and Safechuck’s mother came to feel as if Jackson was another one of her children.
Wade Robson and his family share a similar story. At 5 years old, the Australian-born Robson met Jackson after impressing him at a dance contest in his hometown of Brisbane during the Australian leg of Jackson’s 1987 world tour. Robson, like Safechuck, was invited to dance with the pop star onstage. By the time Robson was seven, Jackson paid for him, his sister and mother to fly out to his Neverland Ranch. The Robsons were in awe of Jackson’s kindness and star power. Robson slept in a bed with Michael, and his sister slept in a private lofted bed inside the master bedroom complex. Once alone, Robson recounts, Jackson began to abuse him. In a move that was encouraged by Jackson, the Robsons relocated to Los Angeles so that Wade could pursue a career in dance.
Throughout the documentary, both Safechuck and Robson — now 41 and 36, respectively — recount their experiences in an honest, somber and straightforward manner. The pain they have endured is raw, palpable and utterly convincing. They describe how Jackson primed them for abuse, and instilled terror in them by warning them that if they were exposed, both he and the children would go to jail. Jackson kept them tethered to him at the expense of their relationships with their parents and other loved ones. Both men kept their abuse secret for years. Like many victims of abuse, they lied to cover up for their abuser. They lied to their parents, their wives and to judges.
Perhaps most disturbing is the way in which both men felt as if they were in love with Jackson and that keeping his secret was a testament to that love – long after their interactions with him had ceased. Like other victims of childhood abuse, Robson and Safechuck didn’t see the behavior as wrong at the time. To them, the abuse felt like a natural part of their relationship with Jackson. This, of course, could not be further from the truth, yet the insidious nature of child abuse left them feeling as if they were inexorably bound to their abuser.
The second part of the documentary focuses on how the two men have come to acknowledge, understand and begin to heal from their trauma. Jackson’s death seemingly offered them the space and distance they needed to begin their journey.
“Leaving Neverland” offers no insight into Jackson himself. His side of the events are not told and, of course, the man is no longer around to tell them. But regardless of the circumstances involved, “Finding Neverland” is not ultimately about Michael Jackson, even if his estate is currently suing HBO over the documentary. It’s about the victims of abuse, not the perpetrators. It is about the bravery of Wade Robson and James Safechuck. It is a story that should not be ignored.