'Leaving Neverland' and Michael Jackson's legacy

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Who: Michael Jackson, his family and estate, the alleged abuse victims of his abuse, and his fans.

What: A new HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland” features two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck – both former child performers who worked with and befriended Jackson — who allege the star sexually abused them over a period of several years when they were children. Safechuck starred in a Pepsi commercial with Jackson in 1988, when he was 10 years old. Robson – a dance prodigy – first caught Jackson’s attention when he was 5.

Jackson’s family has vehemently spoken out against their claims, criticizing the film as a “public lynching” and calling Robson and Safechuck “admitted liars.” Both Robson and Safechuck had previously defended the star when he was accused of crimes and had testified in court that the singer had never touched them or behaved in any way that was inappropriate. They both now say it took them years to fully realize they had been victims and only as adults are they able to grasp and articulate the truth.

Fans of the singer are left to reconcile the details of the most recent accusations, as well as earlier ones that dogged Jackson in his career, with the late star’s contributions to music.

When & where: The 4-hour documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The festival director warned attendees before the screening that the film might be upsetting, so mental health professionals were on hand. HBO aired the documentary in two parts on March 3-4, and it has generated strong reactions from Jackson’s family and friends, as well as celebrities and fans.

Why: Jackson’s legacy is at stake. While his impact on the music world is undeniable, the detailed claims of child sexual abuse in HBO’s latest documentary, and the power of the #MeToo movement, have forced new scrutiny on the singer’s personal life and his public persona.

Jackson’s family members have been vocal in their criticism of the film and in their defense of the late star. “You think if Michael was here they would be doing this? No way,” said the star’s oldest brother, Jackie Jackson, an original member of the Jackson 5. “My brother’s not here. So he’s an easy target.” Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris, 20, has taken to Twitter, telling people that despite the “injustice,” to calm down and look at the “bigger picture” instead of “acting out of rage.”

Oprah Winfrey, who has a long history drawing public attention to the issue of child sexual abuse, sat down with Robson and Safechuck for an interview. Winfrey acknowledged that the interview, which triggered debate on social media, would anger Jackson’s fan base. “I hope we can get beyond Michael Jackson the icon, stop staring into the sun, and do what is necessary to heal our children and heal ourselves,” Winfrey said.

Various others who knew Jackson have commented, including former child star Corey Feldman, who said although he can no longer defend the pop star, he doesn’t want to judge him either. Other people weighing in are a former nanny to Jackson’s three children, who said “I never saw or experienced anything that led me to suspect that he was capable of child sexual abuse” and various women in Jackson’s life.

What’s next: Michael Jackson’s estate has filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO over the film, claiming the cable network broke a 1992 contract agreeing not to “disparage” the singer, who died in 2009. “Michael Jackson is innocent. Period,” states the complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. The Jackson estate is seeking damages “which could exceed $100 million should HBO succeed in the damage it is intending to cause to the legacy of Michael Jackson.”

The future of the Jackson estate’s earning power is in question with fallout from the latest allegations. The negative reactions to the documentary may affect a deal between the estate and Sony Music Entertainment, the longtime home of Jackson’s recorded music and catalogs that generate millions of dollars each year. “There’s nothing good from this documentary for the estate and their ongoing significant licensing opportunities,” said Howard King, an attorney who represents the estate of Tupac Shakur. “Endorsements, licenses — the prices of those, I would think, have plummeted, or they’re not available now.”

Upcoming projects are now in peril now, including a musical titled “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” whose pre-Broadway run in October was abruptly canceled before the documentary aired. Several radio stations in Canada, New Zealand and Australia have dropped the singer’s music from their playlists, citing a change in public opinion as the reason. And the producers of the “The Simpsons” TV show have pulled from all platforms a 1991 episode featuring Jackson.


Jackson’s musical legacy is tarnished — it’s impossible to separate the art from the artist.

“Michael Jackson’s music is still with us, but it may not survive the impact of what people will see on HBO. A few days ago, I found myself changing radio stations and stopped on a golden oldie by Jackson. I think it was “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” It was a reminder of how good the vocals were, and the melody and the beat. Then I thought about “Leaving Neverland.” And as much as I used to love that song, I don’t want to hear anymore.” — Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press

“I understand the fans desperate to deny what seems so undeniable; I used to do the same. He means so much to people, especially black people, no matter how complicated his relationship to his blackness was. Still, enough already. “Leaving Neverland” has forced me to confront the conclusion that has long been dormant in the back of my mind; it should do the same to everyone. It’s long past time to let go of the cognitive dissonance, to stop making excuses and to see Michael Jackson for who he was in totality.” — Michael Arceneaux, NBC News

“To watch this film is to contemplate our own Neverlands — especially the paradisiacal fandom zones where adults wallow in the pleasures of nostalgia, roused to fury only by the thought that their hero might be less than heroic. To prioritize our own comfort over others’ pain is to choose Neverland. Time to grow up.” — Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

“Similar abuse allegations have followed Jackson for decades. But the power of national television, amplified by internet outrage and the #MeToo movement, appear to have brought a new reckoning for the superstar’s legacy almost 10 years after his death. … It’s a wrenching dilemma. Should we stop playing Jackson’s songs? Does enjoying his music in 2019 make you a bad person? How do we separate the art from the artist?” — Brandon Griggs, CNN

Die-hard fans will continue to support the King of Pop.

“People think Michael Jackson fans defend him blindly, that isn’t the case at all. We care & admire the man enough to do research and understand that this man is innocent of all the terrible things he’s accused of. Victim of extortion all his life. #MJInnoccent” — Ricky Nardella tweet, courtesy of USA Today

“Jackson’s hardcore fans have also assembled against ‘Leaving Neverland.’ As the New York Times reports, they have coordinated attacks against the documentary, doing everything from flooding the #LeavingNeverland hashtag to streaming Jackson’s catalogue on as many platforms as possible. They have been encouraged by Jackson’s nephew, Taj, who recently set up a GoFundMe page to buy ads on London buses proclaiming his uncle’s innocence. The ad features a photo of Jackson and a message that reads: ‘Facts don’t lie. People do.’ The word ‘innocent’ is emblazoned across the singer’s mouth, and there is a link to a website further proclaiming his innocence.” — Yohana Desta, Vanity Fair

“I’m hoping the truth prevails. The Michael Jackson I knew would never abuse any child. I don’t know if I will watch [the film]. Part of me is curious, but part of me does not want to dignify it by watching it.” — Thomas Mesereau, lawyer who successfully defended Michael Jackson on child sex abuse charges in 2005, USA Today

The victims’ stories shine an important light on issue of child sexual abuse.

“Perhaps even more difficult to digest than the very explicit details of the abuse Robson and Safechuck describe in ‘Neverland’ are the indelible effects that persisted into adulthood. In ‘Living With Michael Jackson,’ the way Jackson speaks about the physical abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father, Joseph, only lends more credence to Robson’s and Safechuck’s stories. The three seemed to process their individual traumas in similar ways.” — Aisha Harris, New York Times

“It’s a relief, then, that ‘Leaving Neverland’ makes the plight of survivors paramount. The two-part film … offers damning evidence to support the longstanding child molestation accusations against Michael Jackson. Even more indelible is the way director Dan Reed … and his two disarmingly open subjects demonstrate how complicated the relationships between young victims and their abusers can be — and how they can poison the child’s life regardless.” — Judy Berman, Time

Documentaries are powerfully shifting people’s perceptions on accepted narratives.

“Three recent true-crime docuseries about well-known figures — Amazon’s “Lorena,” HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” and Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” — have transcended the voyeuristic nature of the genre to become catalysts for change. A combination of timing, filmmaking style and the many hours used to tell these stories has catapulted Lorena Bobbitt, Michael Jackson and R. Kelly to the forefront of the cultural conversation and rewritten stories we all thought we knew. — Kelly Lawler, USA Today

“It is admittedly difficult, while watching ‘Leaving Neverland,’ to hold in mind two contradictory but equally imperative ideas: that victims should be believed, and that the accused are innocent until proved guilty. The first is wildly crucial if we wish to protect the disenfranchised from egregious abuses of power. The second remains the crux of the American criminal justice system. Can these two ideas coexist? Right now it feels as if they have to, which means that we are sometimes required to make personal choices about how we accept or dismiss the information made available to us.” — Amanda Petrusich, The New Yorker

“HBO deserves credit for broadcasting ‘Leaving Neverland,’ and, more crucially, the film deserves to be seen. This ongoing era of reckoning with the misdeeds of our icons, often already half-known to a public that refuses to metabolize them, requires both outlets with the nerve to broadcast and an audience willing to do the similarly difficult work of engaging, even as walking away would surely be easier for both parties.” — Daniel D’Addario, Variety