Film is a visual medium and our eyes are starving.
Feature-length documentaries, such as the four-hour Leaving Neverland, are often seen as the definitive version of the truth given that we fancy our eyes as the most compelling instrument for truth seeking. The best documentaries are able to put an image directly in front of those eyes of ours and as the light reaches rods and cones, they say “See! See! There’s the truth you were looking for.”
What makes Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland so atypical for a documentary, and ultimately so devastating, is that it can’t defer to the viewers’ visual appetites. In telling the story of two adult men’s tortuous history with Michael Jackson, all Leaving Neverland really has is those two men sitting in front of a camera, illustrating their pain as best they can. Their wardrobes and the lighting of the rooms in which they’re being interviewed don’t even acknowledge the passing of time. It’s a story in suspended animation. All story, nothing but story, so help us, God. And it’s excellent.
The two men in question in Leaving Neverland are James Safechuck and Wade Robson. Through the film’s four hours (the first two of which debut on Sunday, March 3 and the next two on March 4), Safechuck and Robson separately discuss their eerily similar stories of the childhood sexual assault they endured at the hands of Michael Jackson in exhaustive and excruciating detail.
Born in Brisbane, Australia, Robson met Jackson in 1988 when he won a Michael Jackson dancing competition at the mall. Jackson was delighted by the five-year-old’s moves and invited him to a concert to dance onstage. Shortly thereafter Jackson would become a presence in the family’s life, eventually staying overnight at the Robsons’ new home in LA and at Jackson’s properties, including Neverland Ranch. Safechuck has a disturbingly similar story of meeting Jackson as a young boy when filming a Pepsi commercial. The two quickly became close friends (Safechuck’s mother says in the doc that she viewed Michael as another son).
Both Safechuck and Robson tell a common story about how their childhood friendship with Jackson evolved into a platonic love, then a twisted romantic obsession, followed by persistent sexual abuse under the guise of consensual experimentation. Their accounts are credible and devastating.
When approaching Leaving Neverland, it’s important to keep in mind first and foremost what it isn’t. Despite its chronological alignment close to the “other” legendary performer/serial abuser of children documentary, A&E’s Surviving R. Kelly, Leaving Neverland is most certainly not that. Unlike Surviving R. Kelly, Reed’s film isn’t an exhaustively researched piece of journalism. It isn’t the “full” story of the Michael Jackson assault allegations, nor does it claim to be.
Instead Leaving Neverland opts for a far more intimate approach. The documentary is simply Safechuck and Robson’s stories, nothing less, nothing more. Prior to the premiere of Leaving Neverland, no meaningful, substantial hard evidence against Jackson had ever been uncovered. And that will mostly remain the case following Leaving Neverland’s debut. Though the film does procure some truly stomach-churning fax and answering machine messages from Jackson, none of them rise anywhere close to the level of a Robert Durst-ian bathroom confession.
Still, despite that lack of a smoking gun, or perhaps even because of it, Leaving Neverland is more riveting than many true crime documentaries covering similar subjects. The reason why comes down to those damn eyes of ours and the brains they’re connected to. Despite ample evidence to the contrary in current events, human beings really are empathetic creatures. And it’s impossible not to empathize with Robson and Safechuck as they speak their truth.
The pain is written all over the duo’s faces. The details they share largely corroborate each other’s stories and are filled with believably minute and disturbing details. While the first half of the documentary covers nearly the entirety of their respective experiences with Jackson, it’s the second half that brings the most pathos and presents the most convincing case. With the benefit of hindsight and a healthy dose of therapy, Safechuck and Robson are able to really articulate the damage that trauma, followed by years of repression, does to the soul.
Leaving Neverland interviews family members of Robson and Safechuck as well, and in the second half their contributions really hammer home the longlasting effects of this level of abuse. Not only that, but the inclusion of Robson and Safechuck’s respective mothers goes a long way to answering the increasingly troll-y question of “you let your kid sleep in the same bed as Michael Jackson?? How?!?” It’s a question asked as though there were another similar case to compare it to. As though there were a second time the most famous man in the world, who also happens to have the mind and mannerisms of a child, wanted to become friends with your child. To say this was an unprecedented scenario would be an understatement and the narrative presented by both the Robson and Safechuck families proceeds with a kind of grim, understandable logic.
That’s not to say from the outside looking in that any of this looks normal. Among Leaving Neverland’s tertiary evidence and uncomfortable imagery is a series of paparazzi photos of Jackson walking around hand-in-hand with his young companions, looking disturbingly like the candid photos of we often see of celebrities holding hands with their significant others. Should Michael Jackson really have been a predator, as these two men now believably claim, we all bare some responsibility for watching it happen.
Therein lies the rub though: Leaving Neverland can’t definitively lay claim to THE truth about the Michael Jackson’s sexual assault and child rape allegations. Likely no documentary ever will be able to do so. Leaving Neverland, however, wisely sets its eye a little lower than absolute objective truth. It presents James Safechuck and Wade Robson’s respective truths and it does so sensitively, fairly, and believably enough that it seems that theirs may be the best truth we ever get.