Every major advance review of HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” gave the impression that audiences would invariably come away from watching it convinced that Michael Jackson sexually abused little boys. That’s not what happened for me.
In fact, after watching, I disbelieve the two men in the documentary. It isn’t hard.
The first half of the film aired Sunday night. It recounts the allegations of Wade Robson, now 36, and James Safechuck, who is 41. Both were friends of Jackson in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and both now say that Jackson kissed them, masturbated in front of them, and engaged in oral sex with them.
The allegations aren’t new. Both men several years ago filed lawsuits against the Jackson estate for their supposed abuse. Their claims were dismissed because of the statute of limitations under California law.
Both men had also in the past stated under oath that Jackson never behaved inappropriately. Safechuck made his statement when he was still a child during the 1993 sexual abuse trial against Jackson, which was ultimately settled out of court.
But Robson’s situation is even more bizarre. He, like Safechuck, said in 1993 that he was never abused by Jackson. He was a child then as well but even as an adult, he testified a second time that there was no misconduct. In the 2005 trial against Jackson, again, for sexual abuse, Robson was in his early 20s. Under oath, and presumably sitting before a plaintiff who had accused Jackson of sexual abuse, he again said that that Jackson had not molested him.
You can imagine that a child, in shame and fear, would refuse to admit he had been inappropriately fondled. It’s even reasonable to imagine adults keeping silent out of the same fear or shame. But why would he go to the length of testifying falsely on Jackson’s behalf in court, under oath, and then continue to maintain that position right up until it was too late to make a real difference?
From the 2005 court transcript:
Counsel: “Mr. Robson, did Michael Jackson ever molest you at any time?”
Robson: “Absolutely not.”
Counsel: “Mr. Robson, did Michael Jackson ever touch you in a sexual way?”
Robson: “Never, no.”
“Leaving Neverland,” isn’t the soul-shaking experience that critics claim it is. If not for journalists still enthralled by the #MeToo movement, it wouldn’t even register.
It’s supposed to be OK to hate Michael Jackson now. He’s dead and he can no longer defend himself. Besides, settling the score on old sexual abuse claims is all the rage. (See “Harvey Weinstein,” et al.) But the media have mistaken the #MeToo movement for a blanket of justice where every accusation of sexual misconduct is presumed true. They can’t all be true.
Like the accusations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh — he was in a rape gang! — the ones against Jackson in “Leaving Neverland” are as believable as you want them to be.
New York Times critic Wesley Morris scandalized readers with a Feb. 28 review, describing a scene in the documentary where Safechuck displays jewelry that he says was given to him by Jackson. “[T]here’s something about the way the filmmakers reserve this scene for the back end of Part 1 that ices your bones, something about the way an adult Safechuck doesn’t seem to want to go back there,” wrote Morris. “But here he is, talking in a TV documentary about the vows he says that he and Jackson exchanged. Here he is, forlorn, holding the ring that he’s kept, all this time, in a handsome box.”
That description did not at all match the scene that viewers were ultimately treated to on Sunday. Safechuck pulled out a box of jewelry. Though he says he doesn’t like looking at it, it’s clear that he cherishes it. He hasn’t let it go in more than 30 years. Why would he? After all, it was only given to him by the man that Safechuck says masturbated while watching him naked, bent over on all fours.
Assume that the jewelry really was given to him by Jackson. I don’t buy that he “doesn’t seem to want to go back there.” In fact, throughout the documentary, it’s clear that both Safechuck and Bronson do want to “go back there.” They recall at length being friends with the biggest star the world has ever seen, the perks of being so close to Michael Jackson.
They both discussed how they were flown around the world to appear with him on stage during his concerts. Robson was in Jackson’s music videos. Safechuck was featured in one of his iconic Pepsi commercials. Both men recount their friendships with Jackson in vivid, exciting detail: the hotels, the flights, the life.
It’s only when they describe the coming end of their time with Jackson that they seem upset.
They’re wistful. They remember no longer feeling like they were his “favorite.”
I don’t believe Robson or Safechuck.
“Leaving Neverland” doesn’t look like an expose on sexual abuse. It looks like a break-up story, with additional accusations thrown in and legitimized by the #MeToo era.