Leaving Neverland is exactly the kind of horrifically detailed, gut-churning documentary that I can very well believe may be sued off the internet. It isn’t exceptional in terms of its quality—in the sense that it’s another very well-made HBO documentary (Dan Reed at the helm), with understated, tight-shot interviews and deftly seamless editing. Essentially the viral documentary consists of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, both now about forty, calmly and deliberately recounting, in detail, the years of sexual abuse they both suffered as young children at the hands of Michael Jackson.
The level of celebrity is what makes the documentary shine—and sting. Celebrity is what makes these notorious cases of abuse possible. The raw facts of the abuse dominate the first episode; the fallout of trauma, distrust, depression, and finally honesty drive the second. But with honesty comes pushback. Wouldn’t it be nice if these kinds of stories weren’t reliably greeted by death threats against the victims and their families? Sadly, that’s not the world we live in. The sniggering fans hurling hatred at Wade Robson—as he launches his first foray into truth-telling after nearly a lifetime of keeping Jackson’s secret—become a perverse continuation of the narrative that’s dominated the two men’s emotional lives.
It is extraordinarily difficult to sit through the documentary’s final hour without hearing the echoes of attacks hurled at Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and numerous other women whose stories have surfaced against men of power and been brushed away. Having watched the #MeToo movement spread from entertainment across numerous professional fields, it’s tough not to see an extremely recognizable cruelty rear its ugly head in response to Leaving Neverland. Cruelty that sounds like how dare you, you’re tarnishing a great man, you only want the attention. Leaving Neverland ends on that very sour, painful note: that while the victims’ emotional healing may be finally underway, the die-hard Jackson fans are ready to take on the job of hating and condemning them in lieu of Jackson himself.
Oprah hosted the two men for an interview following the documentary’s premiere. Oprah, also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, opened the conversation with a warning: You know it’s going to get so much worse now, right? The response: Oh yeah, I got another death threat this morning.
The cruelty and threats, which so often greet stories of abuse as public and horrific as this one, appear on screen in Leaving Neverland. Alongside the adoring Jackson fans weeping outside the hospital, there is footage of an anonymous, adult man staring into his webcam calmly and venomously telling Robson exactly how much he is hated. That vitriol, the documentary implies, is as much a part of Jackson’s legacy as his superstar-status calls for love and peace.
The day after I watched the second part of the documentary, I reported for jury duty. Cue the agonizingly slow pace of the day. The solemnity and potential for high-flying words and calls to carry out justice. There were also the tight, closed faces of people regarding each other across years of bitterness and escalating pushback. And both parties know the end of that seemingly endless cycle of blame and backlash is coming soon. The emotional tension of that about-to-be, edge-of-your-seat story is hard not to be invested in.
That tension is what is so painfully absent in Leaving Neverland’s story. As long as the story is something that exists in the public sphere, it’s never going to have an ending. Even before the credits roll, we have a strong sense of the willingness of so many people to do these men harm. Dr. Ford has had to move her family multiple times since her testimony. I imagine Robson and Safechuck will be forced into something of a similar pattern.
Ultimately Leaving Neverland succeeds in all the ways you would expect. It is exceptionally disturbing and it is crystal clear and it is convincing. But it’s also a distressing mirror in a way true crime narratives rarely achieve. The documentary isn’t only showing us something horrific that happened to someone else. It’s bringing to the front of the narrative the additional horror that is the fans’ determination to have no share in this story, even if it means terrorizing the survivors. Robson and Safechuck’s courage in the face of that all-too-predictable backlash is a stunning reminder, like Dr. Ford’s, of the force of character and conviction that go into making these stories public at all.