In “Leaving Neverland,” the testimony of Robson and Safechuck is overwhelmingly powerful and convincing. And one reason it’s more powerful than anything we’ve previously encountered on the subject — though plenty has been reported about it, beginning with an in-depth Vanity Fair article in 1993 — is that the two don’t just describe the sexual activities that Jackson subjected them to. They describe, in abundantly articulate and deeply emotional detail, how the abuse took place within the context of what appeared (to them) to be a relationship of hypnotic warmth and trust.
How could any sane parent have gone along with this? That’s an obvious question, and one’s initial response is to say: It’s enraging, and unforgivable, that the parents allowed any of this to happen. They are certainly to blame. But without letting them off the hook (and I don’t), “Leaving Neverland” captures how the parents found themselves under the spell, and the Mob-like pushiness, of Michael’s celebrity. They thought he was creating opportunities for their children that might otherwise be taken away. And once inside their homes, he seemed the soul of gentleness. So they pulled the wool over their own eyes and enabled him.
What happened behind those closed bedroom doors was hideous and criminal. But Robson and Safechuck describe, with great intimacy, the way it happened, and their feelings about it as kids, and that’s part of the the revelation of “Leaving Neverland.” These children felt close to Michael Jackson, and to use their own words they felt a kind of love for him; they wanted to do what it took to please him. The movie captures one of the towering evils of child sexual abuse: that the victims may not experience it, at the time, as “wrong.” They are children who’ve been raised to please adults — and Michael Jackson wasn’t just any adult. The movie captures how he began to crowd out the boys’ parents, and to effectively replace them. That’s how devious he was.
Premiered at Sundance. UK TV in March. Coming to HBO layer this year.