Michael Jackson’s #MeToo moment – Jon Allsop, CJR
In January, as the Sundance Film Festival aired Leaving Neverland, a four-hour documentary by Dan Reed, police patrolled outside, and healthcare professionals waited in the lobby in case anyone in the audience needed to talk.
The film centres the testimony of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim, in horrifying detail, that Michael Jackson abused them when they were children. At the end, Robson and Safechuck came on stage to a standing ovation; one audience member recounted his own experience of molestation and thanked the pair for coming forward.
“The energy in the room hovered somewhere between queasiness over what we’d just witnessed and the sense that some sort of turning point about how these accusations play into Jackson’s legacy had been reached,” Rolling Stone’s David Fear wrote at the time. “It was hard not to feel like a bombshell had been dropped.”
Rolling Stone’s David Fear
Last night, HBO broadcast the first part of Leaving Neverland; the second part will follow this evening. It’s an exceptionally tough watch. Robson and Safechuck—whose accounts are remarkably similar—say Jackson performed sex acts with and in front of them in various locations in his Neverland complex, including, Safechuck says, in a closet rigged with a system of doors and bells to alert Jackson to intruders.
Robson says he was seven years old when the abuse started; Safechuck, who Jackson “married” in a mock wedding ceremony, says he was 10. According to Robson, Jackson told him he loved him, but that if Robson told anyone about what was happening, “he and I would be pulled apart, and that we’d never be able to see each other again, and that he—and I—would go to jail for the rest of our lives.”
Allegations of child sexual abuse have long tracked Jackson: during his lifetime, he settled one case against him, then was acquitted of a second. Leaving Neverland, however, marks Jackson’s first meaningful entry into the broader discussion sparked by the #MeToo movement.
Lately, the sexual abuse of minors has become a bigger part of that conversation: brought to the fore, for example, by Julie K. Brown’s investigation of Jeffrey Epstein for The Miami Herald, and by Dream Hampton’s Lifetime series, Surviving R. Kelly.
Tonight, following the second part of Leaving Neverland, HBO will air an interview Oprah Winfrey taped last week with Robson, Safechuck, and Reed in front of over 100 survivors of sexual abuse. Winfrey, herself a survivor, says Reed was “able to illustrate in these four hours what I’ve tried to explain in 217,” referring to 217 past episodes of her show that she dedicated to the topic. “This moment transcends Michael Jackson,” she adds.
There are other reasons why Leaving Neverland looks a particularly significant development in the history of #MeToo. One is the sheer scale of his fame. Another is that Jackson is dead. That doesn’t void the film of sharp, ongoing consequences. Jackson’s legacy is highly lucrative—his estate has sued HBO and called the film a “public lynching”—while many of his fans have vigorously defended Jackson and accused Robson and Safechuck of lying. Unlike the reporting on Harvey Weinstein and so many other powerful people accused of abuse, however, Leaving Neverland will not put a stop to continuing predatory
The media buzz around the film has included a conversation about how Robson and Safechuck’s claims should influence our interactions with Jackson’s artistic legacy. That’s not a function of Jackson’s death: since #MeToo began, similar conversations have tracked artists who are alive, and, in many cases, still working. In Jackson’s case, it’s especially hard to separate the art from the allegations. “Children and childhood loom enormously over the whole of Michael Jackson’s work. No other adult pop star has ever been so blatantly preoccupied with children and childish things,” Slate’s Jack Hamilton writes. “Children are everywhere in Jackson’s audiovisual oeuvre, deployed incessantly as sidekicks, props, and foils.”
As important as that debate is, however, it’s not the central prism through which to view Leaving Neverland. The #MeToo moment has allowed victims to tell their stories, and—as in the cases of Robson and Safechuck—start to try to process them. Leaving Neverland shows, with absolute clarity, that victims are central whether their abusers are held accountable or not. As Amanda Petrusich writes in The New Yorker, “It feels important that these men are able to tell their stories, however many years later, in whatever way they choose.”
Below, more on Michael Jackson and #MeToo:
- Michael Jackson: “The question now, of course, is what do we do?” Wesley Morris asks in The New York Times. “It’s the question of our #MeToo times: If we believe the accusers (and I believe Wade and James), what do we do with the art?” Jackson’s music, Morris notes, is everywhere. “Where would the cancellation begin?”
- R. Kelly: Last week, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan explored the power of the documentary film format in amplifying the abuse allegations against R. Kelly. “Some of what has happened was simply the power of how the story was told in the TV series, and whom it reached—a younger, more diverse audience than that of traditional journalism, told in text, whether on newsprint or online,” she writes.
- Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein: Pretrial hearings begin today in a sexual assault case against Kevin Spacey. A pretrial hearing in Weinstein’s case is expected on Friday, though his trial was recently moved back from May to June.
- Jeffrey Epstein: The press may be barred from covering parts of this week’s New York court hearing related to Epstein’s alleged trafficking of underage girls. The Miami Herald’s Brown reports that a lawyer for Alan Dershowitz, who is involved in Epstein’s case, suggested media should be excluded from oral arguments around the release of sensitive documents.