Published on March 7th, 2019 | by Craig Silliphant0
HBO’s Leaving Neverland was promised to be the final nail in the coffin of Jackson’s guilt, but while compelling, it feels like dressed up manipulation.
Let’s start with a disclaimer. Michael Jackson is a topic that causes heated debate, especially in the era of #metoo. Actually, nuts to that, it’s caused intense clashes since the allegations first came to light. There hasn’t been a trial in the 20th century that was filled with more media sensationalism, shocking facts, lies, manipulation, and hysteria. Was Michael Jackson a pedophile? Or an eccentric man-child who was a star too soon and was trying to recapture his childhood, strangely, but innocently?
Here’s the disclaimer: I am not attempting to determine that here today. I am simply looking at the documentary Leaving Neverland in terms of how convincing it is either way, and more especially, how well it works as a film. And as we saw with Won’t You Be My Neighbour, a documentary can be intensely compelling and watchable, while still having quality issues.
I went into Leaving Neverland with an open mind and some anticipation of what the filmmakers might have learned after covering the story to make the movie. I wondered if it would have the impact of this year’s other rock star abuse doc, Surviving R. Kelly, which was a surprise stroke of damning brilliance. Leaving Neverland focuses on two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who allege they were sexually abused by Jackson when they were kids.
Let’s get it all out there right now; there is some brilliance in Leaving Neverland, as well as powerful and absorbing moments. But I found the movie lacking — and even manipulative to a fault.
The movie, even at four hours long and rife with filler, still manages to leave out (or at least, gloss over) massive and crucial details in the story. For starters, it glosses over the fact that the men are suing the Jackson Estate for over a billion dollars. If Safechuck and Robson were molested by Jackson, then suing the estate back to the stone age is totally reasonable. But it’s an important detail in their credibility and being up front about it makes the most sense to me. So why does the movie bury that information? Answer: So it can have us form empathetic opinions about the two men without bringing the vulgarity of money into it. That’s not a move a credible documentary makes — that’s spin from the activist doc playbook.
However, the most egregious skimming that the movie does is over the details of both Jackson’s court cases and the investigation itself. They give you a brief look at it with no details or discussion of evidence. For a movie that’s supposed to be a damning indictment of Jackson to ignore all but cursory details of the investigation, is insane.
They also conveniently leave out the fact that Macaulay Culkin and Brett Barnes deny any sexual abuse happened in their experiences with Jackson, right up until the end of the first episode (in fact, Barnes is suing HBO). They bury that information on a title card as the episode fades to black (it is brought up briefly in episode two). Again, up until the end of episode one, by not laying its cards on the table, the movie is building two hours of sympathy for Robson and Safechuck, under somewhat false pretenses — when there’s no reason to do so if the filmmaker trusts the power in the truth of what they’re saying.
Director Dan Reed has said he didn’t bother to approach Culkin, because Culkin has made it clear he supports Jackson. Does that sound like objective reporting to you? Kieran Culkin and Corey Feldman have also supported Jackson and deny any abuse. Which is even more complicated if you know that Feldman has spoken publicly about being molested by others. You could argue the Culkins or Barnes don’t want to admit it because it reflects on them too, but Feldman doesn’t have this issue.
The film also ignores some of the evidence that was instrumental in having the 1993 trials dismissed; for example, actors Chris Tucker and George Lopez both testified that the family of one of the accusers, Gavin Arvizo, had attempted to extort money from them. I don’t say this to argue for Jackson; I say this to illustrate how glossing over crucial details just creates more questions and credibility issues for the film. By the way, any of my complaining here is about the filmmaker’s choices, not Robson and Safechuck. For sharing their story, they are the epitomy of courage.
I could go on and on, and to be fair, to really crack this case open, you would probably need a longer and better researched Making a Murderer-style approach. Even key details, like accuser Jordan Chandler’s drawing of Jackson’s penis, have been mired in half-truth and debate (Chandler committed suicide after Jackson died, which I don’t remember seeing in the film either — something that seems significant if we’re talking about the cost of sexual abuse).
Detractors have called the film propaganda, and in terms of its construction, I’d have to agree. If you know anything about the case, it’s not hard to see that Leaving Neverland feels evasive, very selective with information and one-sided. I’m sorry, but even with the likelihood that Jackson is totally guilty, anyone who says the film is a damning case against him has been taken in. The film presents no evidence of any kind, unlike Surviving R. Kelly (which admittedly, had an easier time of it because Kelly was still in action). Leaving Neverland is simply playing to our emotions over our rational intellect, which is classic propaganda.*
By now you may be shouting at your computer or phone, “You don’t get it, dummy! It’s not about the case — it’s about the human cost!” Sure, I understand that. Again, it has been hailed as a documentary that reveals the undisputable truth, so I think I’m within rights to have that expectation of it.
But let’s say I’m way off and they’re just framing it as, “Look, this film believes Michael is guilty, so this is the story of two boys and how a huge star groomed them for sex using the lures of fame and fortune.” I’d be just as interested to see that movie.
However, that movie wouldn’t need to be four hours long.
Leaving Neverland does indeed do a good job of presenting these men and telling the story of how fame can blind parents (especially stage parents — and I love how it does address how the men feel about their mothers now). The men are open, honest, credible, and heartbreaking. But the movie needs a hard edit.
There’s a whole section on what Wade Robson’s father was doing before he killed himself. (The film again, neglects to mention that Robson’s father also admitted to sexually abusing a child, which seems like a bombshell of information in a story like this). We also see a section where the men meet their wives, which is wholly unnecessary. A simple super that read, “Wade Robson’s Wife,” underneath her would have sufficed. None of these expository clusters add anything to the story — they only serve as useless padding. And if you start pulling at that thread, it becomes baffling that they focus on certain side characters back stories and not others.
Under the column of more brilliant moments, the graphic nature of the men’s description of abuse is harrowing and gut-wrenching. You’ll never think about Jackson the same again, based on these moments alone. The movie itself does have a certain class and elegance to it, considering its subject matter. And it has incredible access to some of the footage of the young boys. (Though, how good the film looks can also add an element of propaganda, in that it’s easier to ignore the deep problems in the movie when it looks and sounds like a professional HBO production as opposed to a shoddy YouTube conspiracy video).
In the end, if you had no expectations of the investigative part of the story, Leaving Neverland is certainly compelling, though some will find it slow and bloated. If you did expect to learn more about the whole mess, the movie feels woefully neglectful and one-dimensional. Leaving Neverland, though showcasing two men opening up their hearts to speak with honesty about what happened, feels sloppy at best, and like a manipulative, shoddy smear job at the worst.
Robson, Safechuck, and the other boys’ stories deserve more than that.
*Propaganda is information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is presented.
– Encyclopædia Britannica.