What you should take away from watching ‘Leaving Neverland’

The four-hour documentary has sparked immense controversy. 

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Warning: this article discusses sexual assault and abuse.

When Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January, its claims that Michael Jackson had sexually abused young boys were hardly shocking – rather, they simply added to a pre-existing set of rumours. Yet the four-hour documentary set a chain reaction into motion which has seen Jackson's estate and fans of the late king of pop reeling. The film, which was deemed so disturbing that counsellors were on hand at its premiere, has since screened on HBO and Australia’s Network 10 and it leaves little room for deniability.

Due to the film’s run time, it's split into two parts, though it’s worth setting aside four hours to watch Leaving Neverland in a single sitting. Part one details the relationships of Michael Jackson and alleged victims James ‘Jimmy’ Safechuck and Wade Robson, who each claim they were molested by the singer from ages ten and seven, respectively.

The first two-hour instalment of Leaving Neverland paints a vivid picture of sexual grooming and coercion, with both the alleged victims and their families describing the allure of Jackson.

“I think at that age, you want to be important and you want to be noticed and loved,” said Safechuck who met Jackson while shooting a Pepsi commercial together and would soon find himself touring the world with him.

While Safechuck wasn't initially a fan of Jackson’s music, Brisbane-born Robson was obsessed. From the age of five, Robson lived and breathed Michael Jackson, an admiration which lead him to pursue dancing and even perm his hair in a bid to mirror his idol.

Safechuck and Robson each describe the alleged sexual nature of their relationships with Jackson in excruciating detail, depicting the acts performed and how the abuse escalated over time. Safechuck recounts each exact location within the expansive Neverland ranch in which he and Jackson allegedly had intercourse. Robson reveals he and the singer had a secret wedding ceremony and, with trembling hands, presents the wedding ring along with pieces of jewellery Jackson supposedly gave him in exchange for sexual acts.

The level of grooming mentioned is as unsettling as it is difficult to comprehend. Not only did Jackson allegedly manipulate these young boys into explicit acts, but he also befriended their parents in a way that guaranteed him absolute trust and access to their children. It’s difficult to imagine a parent leaving their child with a man they’d met mere hours ago – in Robson’s case, he and his sister shared a bedroom with the singer within just four hours of having met him – yet Jackson’s charisma, childlike personality and star power persuaded parents to let down their guard.

Part two focuses on the lawsuits against Jackson by fellow alleged victims Jordan Chandler and Gavin Arvizo, the detrimental effects of Safechuck and Robson's abuse and their reasons for not coming forward sooner. It's here that the complex nature of abuse and trauma becomes apparent, making for very uncomfortable viewing.

In 1993, Safechuck and Robson each vehemently denied having experienced any inappropriate behaviour from Jackson after the Chandler family sued the singer for child abuse. The matter was eventually settled out of court. Come 2004, Jackson faced another lawsuit when Arvizo accused the singer of sexual abuse. Robson again came to Jackson’s defence, though Safechuck refused to testify on the singer’s behalf this time.

As young children, it was impossible for Safechuck and Robson to understand the situations they were allegedly subjected to. Both boys idolised Jackson and felt privileged to have been chosen by him. Not only were they supposedly threatened into believing they'd be punished if anyone found out about what was happening, they believed what they were doing was an act of love. It's completely understandable that they would remain silent for so long. 

These men were both privy, perhaps more so than anyone bar the plaintiffs, to the level of public criticism and sheer character decimation that came as a result of speaking out against Jackson’s abuse, so the accusations now coming from the Jackson camp that they're fishing for a payout seems weak at best.

Montages of fans outside courtrooms flood the final scenes of Leaving Neverland, wielding picket signs declaring Jackson’s innocence. When a judge rules Jackson not guilty in the second lawsuit, a woman is seen releasing doves as fans cheer. It's extremely doubtful that anyone would willingly subject themselves to this if justice was not their primary motive.

Not only did both victims go on the record to deny having experienced any sexual misconduct at the hands of Jackson in prior trials, irrevocably muddying their own cases, but neither of the previous two lawsuits against the singer also amounted in a guilty ruling. Simply put, the odds are significantly stacked against Safechuck and Robson, making it hard to believe this is a ploy to squeeze money from Jackson's estate.

If their stories were fabricated, it would be incredibly bold to publicly lay out such detailed stories to be nit-picked and scrutinised in a four-hour documentary. In fact, neither party even received payment for their part in the film as they didn't want money to be seen as their motivation. 

It's frankly disturbing that anyone could watch Leaving Neverland and contest Jackson’s guilt, which raises a broader question of what we're willing to ignore for the sake of art. Instead of asking why it took so long for Safechuck and Robson to come forward, ask yourself why it took so long to listen. 

If this article has raised any issues, you can speak to a trained counsellor anywhere in Australia on 1800RESPECT.