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'There's no longer any doubt at all': Critics say the new Michael Jackson documentary is deeply disturbing

HBO and Channel 4 produced a four-hour-long documentary on the allegations against the singer.

AT THE START of January, the entire internet’s attention was focused on R&B singer R. Kelly after the release of the explosive documentary, Surviving R. Kelly.

In fact, the best part of a month later, people are still talking about the R. Kelly documentary, which shed some light on some of the allegations and accusations made against 52-year-old Robert Kelly since early on in his career. 

Now, as January comes to an end, it looks like attention might be beginning shift back to the late Michael Jackson, a pop-star who was well-known for his very unconventional lifestyle. Towards the end of Michael Jackson’s career and life, the singer was plagued with accusations of sexual abuse against minors, which he strongly denied. Despite his denial, many members of the public viewed him unfavourably, and he became the subject of many jokes and allusions. For some time during the early 2000s, Michael wasn’t known for his music, but rather, the allegations that were made against him.

After Jackson’s death, it seemed as though the public were more willing to forget about these allegations, and frame him as a hero, and somebody who revolutionised pop music. He was memorialised through countless films and documentaries about his career and life.

Jackson Geller Book Launch Source: PA Archive/PA Images

After victims of sexual assault and harassment used the #MeToo movement to empower themselves and speak out about some of the atrocities they experienced in show business, it looks like the people who had their voices were drowned out in the early 2000s with allegations against the likes of R. Kelly and Michael Jackson are trying to be heard once again. 

In a new four-hour-long documentary produced by HBO and Channel 4, British filmmaker Dan Reed focuses on Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck – two of the individuals who claimed that they were sexually abused by Michael Jackson throughout their childhoods.

The film describes how Jackson allegedly began relationships with the two fans aged 7 and 10, and their families, before interviewing the two men, their mothers, wives and siblings, in order to paint a portrait of how the abuse they claim to have sustained has troubled and affected everybody involved in the situation for nearly 26 years, since the accusations were first made public. 

According to critics who saw the film at the Sundance Film Festival, it is not an easy watch, by any means. 

2019 Sundance Film Festival - Day 2 Source: Danny Moloshok

Although Robson and Safechuck have received abuse and threats from fans of the singer, they received a standing ovation from the audience at Sundance. The Jackson estate released a statement in response to the film, in which they aired their fury over the film’s release:

This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson… Wade Robson and James Safechuck have both testified under oath that Michael never did anything inappropriate toward them. This so-called ‘documentary’ is just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations.

2018 Sundance Film Festival - Leaving Neverland Premiere Source: Danny Moloshok

However, critics seem to have found the documentary chilling, uncomfortable, upsetting and convincing. The Hollywood Reporter said that the documentary “shows why sometimes it takes four hours, many years and some missteps to finally tell your truth.” 

The documentary doesn’t shy from the fact that Robson was suing the Jackson estate as recently as four years ago, nor from the fact that both men told authorities and/or swore under oath on multiple occasions that Jackson didn’t molest them. 

The documentary demonstrates how these things aren’t always “black and white when it’s your story.” 

Reed knows that Leaving Neverland isn’t going to “win”. Jackson is dead. His supporters remain fanatical. What Reed wants to do is give Robson and Safechuck a safe place to share their experience as they want to and if that required four hours of screen time, so be it. 

The Telegraph wrote that Safechuck and Robsons’ “devastating testimony is convincingly backed up by albums-worth of archive photographs of them, as boys, with the pop icon off-duty and seemingly relaxed, recordings of messages from Jackson, and in Robson’s case, hundreds of faxed filled with love and affection for the boy he called ‘Little One’.”

The Telegraph also said that the interviews with the families of these victims constructed a narrative of a “structured, sophisticated and well-practiced campaign of grooming by Jackson, not only of his alleged young victims, but of their entire families.” 

US singer Michael Jackson Source: PA Archive/PA Images

While some of their testimony is bleak, and depressingly recounts the consequences they still live with today after years of alleged abuse, much of the movie is downright disturbing, with the men reliving their stories in extremely graphic and upsetting detail, which left many viewers sick to their stomachs. 

The first two hours of the documentary are spent detailing how, according to Variety, “Jackson would tell the two boys, repeatedly, that they couldn’t reveal any of what went on; if they did, Michael said, both he and the boys would go to jail for life.” 

He struck a note of primal terror and diseased loyalty in them, so that they couldn’t reveal it. The boys lied to their parents, to their future wives, and to the courtroom. [...] Leaving Neverland reveals that this level of denial at all costs is, infact, an intrinsic element of the horror of child sexual abuse. It always starts off as a terrible secret, and quite often remains so. The compulsion to cover it up – out of fear or shame, or both – is part of the insidious nature of it.

Indiewire said that this film will leave viewers without “any reasonable doubt.” 

There’s no longer any doubt at all. Not only do the documentary’s two main subjects perfectly corroborate their separate accounts in all of the most tragic ways, but they do so with a degree of vulnerability that denies any room for skepticism. 

Even the content relayed through the voice of critics who saw the film at Sundance is deeply upsetting, and graphically recounts some of the completely unthinkable things that Robson and Safechuck have had to come to terms with. 

The first part of Reed’s film grows so hard to stomach that it’s hard to imagine what the second might have in store. Mercifully, the latter part of Leaving Neverland is more concerned with the two trials that put Jackson’s behaviour in the public sphere, and the psychic fallout that the Robson and Safechuck families are still fighting to survive.

The second two hours of Leaving Neverland look at the ways in which Robson and Safechuck finally faced their trauma and took the first steps to begin recovering from it – and how this was something they could not do until after Jackson’s death. Variety powerfully ended their review by writing: 

There’s one element of Leaving Neverland that remains largely unexamined: what was going on in Michael Jackson himself. It leaves us to speculate as to what made him a predator. That said, it’s hard to escape the feeling that his untimely death, which resulted from his use of a sleep anaesthetic he was warned could kill him, may have grown out of the years he spent as an abuser. The way he died – so reckless, so unnecessary – counts as an unconscious act of self-destruction. It may be the one true expression of the guilt he couldn’t let himself feel. 

The two-part movie will be broadcast in the UK and Ireland on Channel 4 at the end of February. 

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Kelly Earley

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