In the’80s, Michael Jackson’s smiling face could be found on nearly every poster, cereal box and advertisement across the nation. With an exceptional stage presence complemented by his hypnotizing dance moves, Jackson solidified his status as the “king of pop.”
Considering his avid following — just as large today as it was three decades ago — it’s no surprise that the recent HBO documentary regarding Jackson’s sexual assault allegations, “Leaving Neverland,” is shrouded in controversy. This has resulted in a schism within the fan base. Some ardently defend his legacy, while others have turned their backs on their former hero.
Since the documentary’s release, an onslaught of questionable news has arisen, making it clear that while “Leaving Neverland” touches upon a disheartening issue that needs to be acknowledged, it shouldn’t be automatically accepted as fact.
“Leaving Neverland” is a 2019 documentary directed by British filmmaker Dan Reed. The primary focus of this controversial documentary is two adult men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Jackson at the ages of 7 and 10 during his musical peak.
The documentary initially premiered at Sundance on Jan. 25, which resulted in a protest in the streets outside of the theater and users changing the film’s name on IMDb to “Liar, Liar 2: The Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck Story.” It’s perceivable from these brash actions that fans were in denial over Jackson’s posthumous allegations, claiming that Robson and Safechuck were merely fame-seeking pretenders.
Most of this argument’s leverage stems from how Robson and Safechuck defended Jackson back when he was facing child molestation charges in 2005 while they were adults. They claimed that while they had slept in his bed, nothing further had ensued. Robson continued to vocalize his devotion to Jackson in the years that followed. Following Jackson’s death in 2009, Robson was deeply mournful.
“Michael Jackson changed the world and, more personally, my life forever,” Robson said. “He is the reason I dance, the reason I make music, and one of the main reasons I believe in the goodness of humankind.”
All of Robson’s praise for the king of pop came to an abrupt end in 2011 when he had a nervous breakdown due to his crumbling choreography career. In a desperate attempt to get back on track, he sought out a job as a choreographer for the prospective Michael Jackson Cirque Du Soleil show. When this never came to pass, he had a second mental breakdown in April of 2012, and it was only a month after when his allegations against Jackson finally surfaced.
This timeline certainly eliminates heaps of credibility from Robson’s claims, which made the outcry following the “Leaving Neverland” premiere seem justifiable. Robson himself even admitted that he was unsure as to whether his memory of the incident came from his recollection or if it was told to him by another.
The documentary’s legitimacy solely rests on the words of two men, and therein lies the primal issue people hold with “Leaving Neverland” — it picks and chooses what it wants the viewers to know. Jackson’s family was incredibly disappointed when Oprah Winfrey, who interviews the accusers in the documentary, neglected to reach out to them to get their take on the matter.
Another aspect of the story that “Leaving Neverland” chose to omit is that Jackson’s niece, Brandi Jackson, dated one of the accusers during the period the molestation allegedly occurred. Brandi herself made the claim that the accusers were fame-seeking opportunists in pursuit of money. Yet for whatever reason, director Dan Reed glossed over such a substantial claim. All of this gives “Leaving Neverland” a biased, one-sided quality.
While many continue to dispute the authenticity of “Leaving Neverland,” it’s been quite detrimental to Jackson’s legacy. A few examples are the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis no longer featuring the artist’s iconic white gloves and fedora in exhibitions, and rapper Drake dropping his Jackson-featured song, “Don’t Matter to Me,” from his setlist.
Sexual assault is a real issue that burdens the lives of thousands in the modern day, yet it’s a topic that should be approached with absolute truth. When the public immediately jumps to conclusions over claims that could be false as easily as they could be true, this lends less credibility to those who have actually endured such horrendous circumstances. While “Leaving Neverland” could very well be true, the information is presented in far too biased of a way for one to truly accept its lofty claims as fact.
Ian Welfley is a sophomore media arts & design/communications double major. Contact Ian at email@example.com.