In “Black or White,” Michael Jackson’s 1991 pop plea to transcend divisive racial thinking, the famous lyric goes: “If you’re thinking about my baby/ It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” Ironically, though, Jackson’s unprecedented career success had almost everything to do with race, as he forever altered the parameters for black achievement. Exploding sales records with Thriller and breaking the color barrier on MTV, Jackson emerged as a bona fide hero to black America, blazing a trail for the future success of icons like Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. Having long internalized Motown’s crossover-success ethos, Jackson may have even wanted to look like a crossover. In the 1980s, Jackson became progressively lighter-skinned (he later blamed it on the skin disease vitiligo), and a battery of cosmetic surgeries warped the look of his nose, his chin, and the shape of his face. But however much Jackson wanted to transcend race, it has always been at the core of his celebrity, from those vitriolic sellout accusations to his resurrection as a kind of black superhero after his 2009 passing. All of which is why it’s curious that Dan Reed’s provocative HBO documentary Leaving Neverland declines to confront race almost at all.
Let’s call out the elephant in the room: Have any of Michael Jackson’s accusers to date been black? Leaving Neverland presents us with parallel stories of sexual abuse from two of Jackson’s alleged victims, James “Jimmy” Safechuck and Wade Robson, both of whom are white. Throughout his storied career, Jackson audaciously demolished racial glass ceilings, going where no black man had dared go before—including his wily late ’80s outmaneuvering of Paul McCartney to wrest control of the Beatles’ lucrative catalog, and his mid-’90s hitching up with Elvis Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie. Writer Greg Tate once floated the theory that Jackson may have secretly been a bitterly angry black “race man,” working out his racial victimization by engaging in a “pedophilic race war.” Ultimately, we may never come to know—and we may not even want to know—the horrific root of Jackson’s motivations, should the documentary’s allegations prove to be true.
Unfortunately, however, Leaving Neverland offers up a racial spectacle—two white men trashing the reputation of a black man—and then refuses to grapple with that spectacle’s historical dimensions. Don’t get me wrong (or send me hostile letters or tweets): I’m not saying Leaving Neverland amounts to some sort of “mass media lynching”—that phrase meant to connect the public persecution of black celebrities to white mobs’ terroristic practice of hanging black people as a twisted form of entertainment, often in response to dubious allegations of rape. Conflating public accusations of black male celebrities with the ugly history of “lynching” has become a kneejerk response whenever almost any black superstar is accused of sexual crimes—and there’s no shortage of apologists and stans willing to quarantine themselves from factual evidence that those celebrities, almost always male, may have actually been responsible for the heinous acts of which they’re accused.
Racial opportunists ranging from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to R. Kelly to the team behind convicted rapist Bill Cosby have exploited the term as a smokescreen. Now, in the past month, Michael Jackson’s family defended the late singer from Leaving Neverland’s torrent of allegations by labeling the film a “public lynching.”* If the allegations presented in Leaving Neverland (or any other allegations about Jackson) are true, then Jackson’s legacy should be posthumously subject to the full set of consequences we would apply to anyone who committed such reprehensible acts. Michael Jackson was one of the most brilliant, era-defining artists of the 20th century, but I’m not of the mind that he deserves any special treatment if he committed the crimes.
Misuse of the “lynching” metaphor, however, shouldn’t deter us from the all too real history of the unjust persecution of black people—from the Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till to Lena Baker to the Groveland Four and far too many others to name. It is a statistical fact, not the presentation of some disingenuous “race card,” that black Americans are far more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes than their white peers. For a reminder of just how persistent this reality is, we need look no further than the current occupant of the White House, who took out newspaper ads calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, and still refuses to apologize for it or to admit he was wrong (even after the men were released, and another man both confessed and was connected to the scene via DNA evidence). Not to mention that the same 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. occupant went on to lead another disproven and racist smear campaign against the nation’s first black president.
But instead of addressing its relationship to this torturous history, Leaving Neverland treats race as invisible, even negligible—it’s a lens unworthy of consideration. As such, the documentary is ultimately either ignorant of the history in which it implicitly traffics—or worse, it’s indifferent to that history.
In contrast, consider Surviving R. Kelly, the docuseries that lifted the lid off allegations of abuse that have been swirling for decades around the R&B superstar. Unlike Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly offered essential context from cultural critics like Jamilah Lemieux and Ann Powers, whose on-screen contributions helped put Kelly’s career and crimes in multidimensional focus. While the two victims in Leaving Neverland are white, Surviving R. Kelly foregrounded the often-ignored voices of Kelly’s black female victims—an essential course-correction given that part of the failure to indict R. Kelly, despite decades of allegations, had long been that his black female victims didn’t elicit public sympathy in the same way they might have if they were white.
Because Michael Jackson was also an intersectional artist deploying his music and short films to destabilize conventions around race, gender, and sexuality, there’s another identity angle that Leaving Neverland fails to fully contextualize. Whereas R. Kelly’s alleged victims have all been female, Jackson’s accusers have been exclusively male. Because it never comments on this same-sex component or provides any context, Leaving Neverland surfs on still all-too-prevalent stereotypes about queer men being pedophiles, even as statistics remind us that most pedophiles are, in fact, straight. Whether or not the allegations presented in the film are true, and whether or not it ever intended to do so, Leaving Neverland dangerously reinforces the gay-folks-are-predators stereotype—if only because it never acknowledges that such a stereotype exists in the first place.
Film scholar Ed Guerrero once argued that because representations of black men in mainstream pop culture are so circumscribed, black men are often left oscillating between two poles: We’re either perceived as criminals and brutes, or as heroes and saints, and there’s only an empty space in the middle. Because Leaving Neverland refuses to engage with the racial context in which it traffics, it falls into this trap, simply shuffling Jackson from one pole to the other. In the worthwhile effort to bring attention to the plight of Jackson’s alleged victims, the documentary depicts Jackson in a monodimensional way: as a demon. In contrast, Surviving R. Kelly chose to highlight Kelly’s backstory as a victim of child molestation, and in the process it did a far more effective job of showing how unresolved personal trauma may reproduce itself through cycles of abuse (even as statistical evidence shows this isn’t always the case).
None of which is to say Leaving Neverland ever intended to do any of this. It’s entirely possible that the filmmakers thought they were exposing Jackson’s litany of alleged abuses to as wide an audience as possible, in as compelling a format as possible, in the relentless pursuit of justice. It is also possible that no one involved in the documentary ever intended to engage in a racialized spectacle invoking the history of false accusations by whites against black people (or stereotypes about LGBTQ people as predators). However, the opposite could be true as well. Perhaps by invoking issues of race and sexuality, but refusing to address them openly, the filmmakers implicitly understood that doing so would make for more persuasive and more sensational television.
Whatever the case, history shows us that good intentions, whether in everyday interpersonal interactions or prestige HBO documentaries, will never dismantle or put a dent in the machinations of white supremacy. I’m hardly the first person to argue that we should be less concerned about liberal good intentions when it comes to race and far more concerned about effects. But just like people should know by now that it’s disingenuous to pretend to “not see race,” we should demand that our documentaries—even when they’re about subjects as sensitive as sexual abuse—meet the same standard.
Correction, Feb. 27, 2018: This article originally misstated that Michael Jackson’s estate called Leaving Neverland a “public lynching.” Those words came from Jackson’s family.