A New Wave Revisits Old Stories

Leaving Neverland is the latest in a series of works that force us to reconsider the past, and the excuses we’ve made to avoid it.

Lorena Bobbitt, Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, Michael Jackson, and O.J. Simpson.
Lorena Bobbitt, Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, Michael Jackson, and O.J. Simpson. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Studios, Neon, Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images, and ESPN Films.

In Leaving Neverland, the two-part, four-hour documentary about two men who claim to have been molested by Michael Jackson as children, one of the victim’s wives describes the revelations of Jackson’s abuse as being “like a bomb that dropped in our lives and exploded. It ripped apart everything that we found sound and secure and safe.” Leaving Neverland is, itself, a bomb dropped into American cultural memory, pushing us to look again and more closely at Jackson, the King of Pop, the moonwalking musical genius and talent beloved the world over, even though we’d almost certainly rather not.

Leaving Neverland focuses closely, intimately, on Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who met Jackson as children, were taken under his wing and permitted to sleep in his bed, and claim to have been molested by him for many years—starting when they were 7 and 11, respectively—often with their parents ensconced in rooms nearby. Theirs are the most comprehensive and convincing accusations made against Jackson, but they are not the first. Jackson was accused of child molestation in a 1993 lawsuit that was settled out of court, and again in 2003, in a criminal case that went to trial and resulted in an acquittal. (Robson testified in Jackson’s defense both times.) That there was something sordid about Jackson’s relationships with young boys has long been discussed, whispered, and joked about, but at a low hum, one that was easy to crank “Billie Jean” over. Leaving Neverland makes it much harder to drown it out.

In returning to the past to show us what we did not, could not, or refused to understand at the time, Leaving Neverland belongs to a recent spate of revisionist history projects—documentaries, podcasts, fictional narratives—that have actively sought to recast our comprehension of high-profile scandals involving famous public figures and people who, due to those scandals, became famous public figures. These works explore the distorting effects of racism, sexism, and fame on events that seemed, at the time, sordid or simple, black holes of media attention and gut feelings undeserving of serious contemplation. Beginning with the commercially and critically successful one-two punch of ESPN’s documentary O.J.: Made in America and FX’s fictionalized account, The People v. O.J. Simpson, this subgenre also includes I, Tonya, the Slow Burn season on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Surviving R. Kelly, and the recently released Lorena.

Taken together, these projects are part of our large political culture, a rejoinder to the MAGA ethos, simultaneously deflating the fantasy of an idyllic past while demonstrating that if we view the past through contemporary understandings of sexism and racism, power and fame, it might actually make more sense. In these historical revisitations, wokeness is not a pose but a better way of seeing, reading glasses for a nation that has long preferred the soft blur of an out-of-date prescription. As with the news about Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, and the revelations of the #MeToo movement more generally, having to see what has always been there can be disturbing. It would be simpler not to know it—to hold on to your opinions about O.J. and MJ, to snicker at Marcia and Tonya and Lorena and Monica, to keep listening to R. Kelly’s music—but the high-profile nature of these projects means that comforting obliviousness now requires active denial.

Many people watched Jackson grow up. His songs and his dancing are so much a part of people’s personal histories, personal joys, that having to view him differently is something they may be unwilling to do. Perhaps nothing encapsulates the depth of affection for Jackson quite like Robson and Safechuck, who both speak movingly about how much they too loved Jackson—how much they still love him, despite all that he has done to them. I was never an ardent Jackson fan, but even I get gooey-eyed thinking about how, after his death, his music poured out of every car, every window, a spontaneous, collective celebration to honor the passing of a cultural giant. Someone recently described this shared moment to me as being a fleeting glimpse of “world peace,” and I knew exactly what she meant. Didn’t America feel great in that specific moment? Can’t we please keep that?

Unlike O.J. Simpson—and, to a certain extent, Monica Lewinsky, Tonya Harding, and Lorena Bobbitt—Michael Jackson is not already disgraced. By disgracing him—or attempting to disgrace him, depending on how the film is received—Leaving Neverland is in some ways the apotheosis of all these projects, the one that most vertiginously reframes the past, sullying it. It operates not just as revisionist history but as a piece of breaking news. Like Surviving R. Kelly—and like the reporting on Cosby, Weinstein, and so many others—it’s trying to shatter a consensus of silence. Made in America and The People v. O.J. Simpson, in contrast, brought a cool wisdom to the still-heated question of Simpson’s guilt. Explicating Los Angeles’ racial history and reframing the case’s gender dynamics, they turned the temperature down and began to transform a scandal into a piece of history that we—black and white, male and female—might be able to agree upon.

Long before these projects appeared, we knew that the O.J. Simpson trial was a mess. (Same goes for the Clinton impeachment, the Bobbitt sideshow, and the Harding circus.) America’s dirty laundry was already out in the street. But with Jackson, it’s always been kept behind closed doors. The decade since his death, in which his present-tense behavior could no longer interfere with the greatness of his back catalog, has made it easier to forget how discomfiting he was. Toward the end of his life, his self-hatred and his self-abnegation, particularly around his racial identity, was written on his very face, in his shaved-down nose, his bleached skin. His childlike manner was widely understood as a symptom of the abuse he allegedly suffered as a child star, an experience that somehow prevented him from maturing into a whole adult. That he died from an overdose of painkillers, trying to numb out the world, made a horrible kind of sense.* But one of the intimations of Leaving Neverland is that in admitting some hard truths about Jackson, we gave cover to even more vile ones. As Katie Couric put it in an interview from 2003 that’s included in the documentary, his habit of sleeping in the same bed as young boys at least established him as a “super weird guy”—an insulting and infantilizing description that is nonetheless nowhere near as damning as what he may have really been: a sexual predator.

That something was “off” with Jackson was obvious. Why didn’t more of us take it to its logical conclusion? One of the complicating factors in Jackson’s case, as in so many others, is fame. Leaving Neverland, unlike the aforementioned documentaries, does not touch, particularly, on questions of gender. It also does not touch explicitly on race. But race is an important part of Jackson’s story, as it is with so many of these other past scandals, and what they tell us about race is complicated.

Innocent black men being presumed guilty of crimes they did not commit is a bedrock American injustice, a disgraceful commonplace. But O.J. Simpson, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson—as well as Bill Cosby and Clarence Thomas—are black men who were presumed to be innocent by significant, often multiracial, portions of the American population. White and black people turned a blind eye to Jackson, Cosby, and Kelly’s behavior. Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court. You might begin to suspect that this is part of the reason these stories became scandalous in the first place: a cultural fascination with the “oddity” of black innocence. But fame plays an even bigger part. For white audiences, fame often deracializes a celebrity, makes them someone who “transcends race,” as though they’ve shed their skin and are no longer a person of color at all—although that transcendence is often provisional, as it was for Simpson, who was “not black, I’m O.J.,” until he was abandoned by his white friends. But for black audiences and other audiences of color, a celebrity’s success is understood as a triumph over a deeply racist society that may still be trying to bring him down, and from which he requires collective protection. Colorblindness and racial awareness can, in these instances, amplify one another instead of canceling each other out.

In both Robson and Safechuck’s cases (as well as those of numerous other men who have never accused Jackson of abuse), young boys were permitted by their parents to sleep in the same bed as a grown man who was not a family member, in a mind-boggling flouting of any and all rules about stranger danger. Leaving Neverland’s explanation—not excuse—for why they did this is: fame. Like almost every other person on planet Earth, the parents believed that Jackson was a child at heart. They had been, to a certain extent, pre-groomed by his public persona as a perpetual Peter Pan. Upon meeting him, they were swept away by his warmth, his houses, his interest in their talented sons and their future careers, and his generosity. (Jackson paid for the Safechucks’ house at a certain point. When Robson’s family moved to Los Angeles from Australia, his mother expected that Jackson would be paying her rent, and was surprised when he wasn’t.) They were thrilled to be in his orbit. They didn’t really want to doubt, to question, to worry, to think twice about what was going on in Jackson’s bed every night.

If Robson’s and Safechuck’s mothers could, knowingly or unknowingly, at the edge of their consciousness or out of it altogether, enjoy all that Michael Jackson had to offer, at the expense of their own children’s innocence, future, and mental well-being—well, is it any wonder that we, who had nothing so serious at stake, would have chosen to turn a blind eye so that we could keep his music, his moves, our memory of the super talented boy who had grown into the world’s biggest superstar right in front of our eyes?

If Leaving Neverland had come out a few years ago, before the election of Donald Trump and the cultural reckoning that his election inspired, before the cultural paroxysms, disturbing revelations, and revisionist documentaries of the past two years, we would likely still be turning that blind eye. Recent events have been near-perpetual reminders of our terrible vision, of how much we don’t understand about what is going on right in front of us, and how long these misunderstandings can last. As awfully compelling as Leaving Neverland is, if it had arrived before all this other work, would we have attended to it? Will we attend to it now?

I recently heard Jackson’s music three times in one day, all of it being played in public places. Hearing Jackson on the radio, in a grocery store, being performed by a street performer—that’s standard. He’s all around us. But on this particular day, each time I heard him, I wondered if it would be one of the last—or if it was deluded of me to even imagine such a possibility. Jackson’s cultural reach is so vast, his work so good, so adored, that it becomes singularly plain how much easier it would be just to apologetically shrug and carry on, to keep doing what we have been doing: telling ourselves the sad story of a genius who could not stop hurting himself, so as not to have to admit to ourselves an even sadder one.

Correction, Feb. 26, 2018: This article originally misidentified the drugs that caused Michael Jackson’s death. Fentanyl was not among them.