When the Sundance premiere of Leaving Neverland hit its intermission, it was difficult to imagine what could possibly be left. In the first two hours of Dan Reed’s documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck had already recounted in exacting detail their memories of how Michael Jackson sexually abused them when they were children: how, they said, he groomed them and their parents until the boys were allowed to sleep over in his bedroom alone; how he began with a touch on the thigh and moved on to their crotches, reaching inside their pajamas to fondle their genitals and telling them to follow suit on his own body; how he instructed them to spread their buttocks so he could see their anuses as he masturbated to completion. If that was only half the story, what horrors could the movie’s second half hold?
The headlines out of Sundance have naturally focused on Robson and Safechuck’s allegations. But in its second half, it becomes clear that Leaving Neverland is not merely a film about enduring child sexual abuse. It is a film about surviving it, and the decades it can take to reckon with that trauma.
The greatest hurdle Leaving Neverland has to clear is explaining why Robson and Safechuck are coming forward now and alleging acts that they have previously denied, including during their testimonies in defense of Jackson against other accusers. (Jackson’s estate has issued statements after the premiere denying all charges against him, calling the fallout a “public lynching” and saying in part, “The entire film hinges solely on the word of two perjurers.”) When Jackson was sued for sexual abuse in 1993, Robson, then 11, appeared at a press conference to say that he and Jackson had slept in the same bed without incident, and when criminal charges were filed against Jackson in 2005, Robson was called as a witness for the defense. Some reports in 2013, when Robson came forth with allegations of his own, suggested he had repressed the memories of what happened to him, but he made clear from that time on that that was never the case. He knew both times that he was lying; in 1993, Robson and Jackson still had a sexual relationship. But he says now he was simply unable to deal with the consequences of telling the truth and, even in his early 20s, afraid of severing his last remaining tie to the pop star he idolized and even loved.
As the Jackson estate’s response underlines, Leaving Neverland is not a movie that allows for two sides to this story. The only interview subjects are Robson and Safechuck (each of whom was interviewed for several days) and members of their immediate families—including their mothers, who made the fateful and now unimaginable decision to allow their sons to spend evenings and sometimes days with Jackson unsupervised. Robson came into Jackson’s orbit after winning a dance contest in his native Brisbane, Australia. Safechuck was cast as a starstruck child exploring Jackson’s dressing room in a Pepsi commercial. They both ended up dancing onstage with him as part of a concert number where Jackson was surrounded by children, a Pied Piper who, it now seems, was masking his abuse by parading it in plain sight.
Onstage after the Sundance premiere, Reed said he shot interviews with lawyers and prosecutors but decided this was ultimately not their story. Even Jackson himself is scarcely heard from, although the film does use excerpts from the “Live From Neverland Valley” broadcast in 1993 in which Jackson said the “many disgusting statements” made about him were “totally false.” We see him as Robson and Safechuck saw him, first as an almost godlike celebrity of a kind whose cultural dominance is almost unimaginable today, then as a figure who descended from the heavens to bless them and their families with his attention and his love and finally, much later, as a manipulative monster.
To reckon with why it took Robson and Safechuck so long to tell their stories is, in a way, to reckon with why it has taken the culture so long to believe them. The allegations against Jackson have been public record for 26 years, but even before that, it was as if Jackson existed in a bubble where the rules and judgments that would have applied to anyone else simply did not exist. One moment in Leaving Neverland that particularly haunts me is a news broadcast from 1992, in which Jackson is shown on a hotel rooftop, peering over the edge to give the fans massed in the streets below a tantalizing glimpse of his sunglasses-framed face. He’s accompanied by a 9-year-old boy, who also sticks his head over the edge, participating in the playful spectacle, soaking up a moment shared by the two of them alone. In the film, it’s presented as evidence, received via a TV news broadcast, that Robson had been replaced as Jackson’s favorite—which even now, it seems, still feels to him like a betrayal. But I was struck by the way the broadcast referred to the 9-year-old boy as Jackson’s “traveling companion,” as if that required no further explanation and was certainly no cause for alarm. We were collectively, willfully blind, because the thought of losing, or even tarnishing, Jackson’s monumental contribution to popular culture was too much to bear. As Dave Chappelle put in in a Chappelle’s Show sketch, “He made Thriller. Thriller.”
It’s difficult to imagine anyone watching Leaving Neverland and coming away skeptical of Robson and Safechuck. Although the two men, who were obviously near tears as they took the stage after the film’s premiere, said they had never spoken to each other in depth before this week—they met in passing as children and then were kept apart for legal reasons after they filed suit against Jackson’s estate—their accounts of Jackson’s behavior are eerily similar, not just in terms of how he sexually abused them but also how he dismantled their trust in their parents and coached them on how not to get caught. (Both lawsuits were dismissed due to the statute of limitations.) Robson says Jackson told him that if their sexual relationship were ever discovered, both of them would go to jail for life.
But it requires watching both halves of the film to understand, not just intellectually but emotionally, why victims of abuse can take decades to come forward and why their response to that trauma may not take the clichéd forms we expect. Robson and Safechuck weep when discussing the long-term harm the abuse has done to their families, but neither sheds tears as they describe how Jackson abused them, although Safechuck swallows hard when he approaches the subject, and his hands shake as he picks through a box full of jewelry he says Jackson gave him in return for sexual acts. Safechuck often talks about the alleged abuse in the second or third person, and Robson frequently refers to “sexual stuff” without going into further detail.
In a 2017 episode of the true crime series The Jury Speaks about Jackson’s 2005 trial, one of the jurors who voted for Jackson’s acquittal said they disbelieved his accuser because he “didn’t seem as distraught as you would think somebody who’d been molested would be,” and another fixated on what she characterized as the accuser’s “smirk” in an interview with the police. One of the advantages of Leaving Neverland’s long-form approach is that the interviews with Robson and Safechuck aren’t edited down to their most obviously emotional moments. They discuss their anger, sorrow, anguish, and remorse, sometimes as if it’s all happening again as they speak, sometimes as if it’s so distant it no longer seems entirely real. You see that this trauma is something that manifests itself in different, sometimes unpredictable, ways, and that much of the conventional wisdom about what abuse survivors should look and sound like is simply, sometimes catastrophically, wrong.
The day that Michael Jackson died, I remember walking the streets and hearing his songs pouring from the windows of passing cars, one after another. It felt like the world was filled with the joy of his music, as if it were the glue that bound us together. His songs were the ones everyone could dance to, the stuff of wedding receptions and all-ages parties. Even at Sundance the night after Leaving Neverland’s premiere, DJs were still blasting his songs. At the moment, I can’t imagine playing Jackson’s music, but I spent days after the premiere walking around Park City, Utah, with the riff from “Bad” lodged in my head. For decades, Michael Jackson’s music has been unavoidable. Leaving Neverland should make the stories about his behavior unavoidable, too.