January 23 2020
Capturing Michael Jackson
14 March 2019

Leaving Neverland isn’t just about the King of Pop, but a marvellous breakdown of the modus operandi of child abusers everywhere in the world

On the talk show, After Neverland, which followed a screening of Dan Reed’s documentary, Leaving Neverland, for an audience of child abuse survivors, host Oprah Winfrey said that ‘this moment transcends Michael Jackson’.

You can always trust Oprah to hit the nail on the head. The documentary — which left the 100-odd audience members on the talk show (as well as millions who have watched it since its première) numb and shocked with disbelief — is an account of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two 30-something men who relive the trauma of being sexually assaulted by Michael Jackson when they were kids.

But as Oprah rightly said, the documentary isn’t really about Jackson at all. In fact, Reed made no effort to even get the other side of the story — what Jackson’s inner circle feels about the allegations is immaterial, he believes. It’s something that has set social media on fire since the documentary landed, with Jackson supporters rallying together to question the veracity of the two men’s accounts, which according to them, are ‘one-sided’. Die-hard fans are upset that the music icon can’t defend himself from ‘beyond the grave’.

Whichever side of the argument you may support, Leaving Neverland is undeniably a powerful investigative piece. Reed wisely utilises four hours of screen time (broken down into two parts of two hours each) with the survivors taking audiences through their lives, recounting the early days when Jackson forged a bond with the kids and their families, the absolute awe they felt for the man, the systematic abuse that followed, and the toll it took on their mental well-being. The only other interviewees include Robson and Safechuck’s family members.

Laudably, the documentary never falls prey to sensationalism. At a time when true crime documentaries are a rage, Reed stays away from all the obvious tropes of contemporary non-fiction filmmaking. The use of photographs and video footage is only to establish Jackson’s relationship with the two boys, the background score remains effectively solemn throughout, and there’s no dramatisation of events. Reed and his team were always walking on thin ice, not only because they were taking on one of the biggest superstars the world has ever seen, but also needed to be mindful of how they communicate details of the abuse, and they do so with remarkable sensitivity.

Leaving Neverland, rather marvellously, breaks down the modus operandi of child sexual abusers through the lens of the survivors (unlike, say, Capturing The Friedmans (2003), which remained focussed on the abusers). Befriending the family, showering the child with love, winning the absolute trust of everyone involved, easing the child into sexual acts over time, and brainwashing their young minds to believe that the abuse is nothing more than a display of affection — these are signs of an astoundingly criminal mind at work. Michael Jackson, the documentary shows, was one such man — a psychopath whose crimes against children overshadow all his other achievements.

Whether Jackson’s legacy will be destroyed as the discourse against survivors and abuse picks up steam remains to be seen. But as Oprah so succinctly put it, Leaving Neverland isn’t about one man; instead it blows the lid off child abuse in a way few films have in the past. Mandatory viewing.

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