No one wants the Michael Jackson presented in “Leaving Neverland.”
The Jackson portrayed in the two-part HBO documentary is a monster.
He is shown as a mega-star who allegedly manipulated little boys and their families to sexually prey upon the children, using his fame and money to smooth the path to his bed.
It’s a portrayal the family and Jackson’s supporters have been vehemently battling.
No one wants that Jackson, because he is so directly in opposition to the entertainer who moonwalked into our hearts and implored us to be better in songs like “Heal the World” and “Man in the Mirror.”
Despite Jackson’s death in 2009 at the age of 50, his influence on pop culture remains. His music was so consistently powerful in its quality that generations have fallen in love with it.
But the abuse allegations against Jackson have also stood the test of time, and it is painful to bear witness to the accounts laid out in graphic detail in the documentary.
Even if you don’t believe that Jackson was a predator, watching “Leaving Neverland” can’t help but sadden you.
The film examines disturbing claims by James Safechuck and Wade Robson that Jackson sexually abused them over a period of several years when they were children.
Robson, now 36, first met Jackson when he was about five years old in his native Australia. He said he stayed with Jackson at his Neverland Ranch in California on several occasions.
Safechuck, now 41, appeared in a Pepsi commercial as a child with Jackson and said he was also a frequent visitor to the singer’s home.
Both defended Jackson against other allegations of child molestation, but later filed suits – Robson in 2013 and Safechuck in 2014 – against the singer’s estate with abuse allegations of their own. (Jackson’s estate denied the accusations. According to their attorney, their cases were initially dismissed on technical grounds.)
Jackson was previously the subject of two high-profile abuse cases: one in 1993, when a then 13-year-old boy accused the singer of sexually molesting him repeatedly over a five-month period. Jackson paid approximately $25 million to settle the case.
In 2003, Jackson was charged with seven counts of child molestation for allegations from a cancer-stricken boy invited to the star’s home.
The boy said he was 13 when Jackson served him alcohol and fondled him. He was acquitted of the charges.
Jackson’s family has denied the allegations in “Leaving Neverland,” calling the film a “public lynching” and suggesting that the accusers are motivated by financial gain.
His estate has filed a suit against HBO. (CNN and HBO share parent company WarnerMedia.)
HBO told CNN in a statement prior to Sunday night’s premiere that it would not be deterred by the family’s suit.
“Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain unchanged,” the network said in its statement. “HBO will move forward with the airing of ‘Leaving Neverland,’ the two-part documentary, on March 3rd and 4th. This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”
“Leaving Neverland” paints a portrait of a man who was childlike and did not find it strange to have a train set running through his bedroom or sleepovers with children.
So many of us chose to see inappropriate behavior as simply eccentric. Maybe there were always two Michaels.
I saw that firsthand when I covered Jackson’s memorial service for CNN.
As I wept inconsolably over his death, my young colleague, Jacque Smith, then Jacque Wilson, was dry-eyed and seemed confused by my obvious show of emotion.
She didn’t grow up listening to Jackson, whose albums you couldn’t wait to buy, whose moves you tried to emulate and whose posters covered your bedroom walls.
Her Jackson was a man whose star was already dimmed by allegations of sexual misconduct.
My Michael Jackson was more in keeping with his moniker as the “King of Pop.” Hers was what the tabloids had dubbed him: “Wacko Jacko.”
Which is why watching “Leaving Neverland” was draining to me.
Safechuck and Robson are compelling in their storytelling of what they allege happened to them.
If someone else were the target of their allegations, I ask myself, would I feel as predisposed to want to dismiss their claims?
Maybe it’s not possible to separate an artist from their art, a debate our culture has had about several lionized celebrities in recent years.
For many, no one sat on a taller throne than Jackson.
It begs the question if such a space should even exist.