I’ve stared at a lingering shot of a photograph of Jackson, who would have been around 30 and Safechuck who was about 9 or 10, and Jackson is beaming in sunglasses and a military jacket, flashing a peace sign, and James, in a too-big baseball cap, is turning to the camera, looking alarmingly ruminative for someone whose life should be rumination-free. By the time you get to the ring, I’ve already heard how Jackson lured Safechuck into sex, by masturbation (James, again, is about 10), and how the closer he got to James on tour, the farther the parents’ hotel room would get from their son’s.
The way Safechuck remembers it, there was so much sex, and he says Jackson told him that if anybody found out about it, their lives would be over. I’ve heard about Michael buying the Neverland complex in Santa Barbara County, Calif., (mansion, amusement park, zoo!) and the elaborate system of doors and bells to alert Jackson of any encroachment on the lair in which some of the abuse supposedly occurred. I’ve seen Wade Robson, a doll-faced Michael Jackson impersonator from Brisbane, Australia, say he was 7 when Michael began abusing him, describing a grim scenario in which he was naked on all fours at the edge of the bed, poised — trapped — between his idol, who was masturbating to him, and a cutout of Peter Pan.
I’ve heard all of this — and a distressing deal more — by the time the documentary gets to the part where Jackson allegedly takes Safechuck shopping for a ring. But there’s something about the way the filmmakers reserve this scene for the back end of Part 1 that ices your bones, something about the way an adult Safechuck doesn’t seem to want to go back there. But here he is, talking in a TV documentary about the vows he says that he and Jackson exchanged. Here he is, forlorn, holding the ring that he’s kept, all this time, in a handsome box.
The story of the ring and the vows feels as graphic as the memories of masturbation and French kissing and nipple tweaking. If you happen to be the sort of person who’d try to balance, say, the multiple counts of child molestation Jackson was charged with in 2003 and acquitted of later with extenuating details from Jackson’s biography (Wasn’t heabused and too famous too soon and prematurely sexualized? He never had a childhood! He’s još a child!), if you partook in the steady diet of fluffy news stories about Jackson and some little boy (often identified as “Jackson’s friend”) and thought mostly that they were cute or banal and that Jackson just related to kids as kids — like, platonically — if you thought that he couldn’t know there was a real difference between adult passion and child’s play, then perhaps you’ll find Safechuck’s memory of the ring particularly shattering. I did. It’s so private and wrong, not just to us but clearly to Jackson, who makes up a story at the jewelry store that the ring is for a woman, even though Safechuck is there by his side.
I’m staring at the coat rack looking for somewhere to suspend more disbelief, and there’s no more room. I have to hold this.
“LEAVING NEVERLAND” is long but delicately, patiently done — and so quiet; you can practically hear yourself listening. It’s not a feat of investigative journalism so much as an act of bearing witness. Reed sits, individually, with Safechuck and his mother, Stephanie, and with Robson and his mother, Joy, and his siblings, Chantal and Shane. It doesn’t try to make cultural or political sense of the allegations. It’s not a masterpiece saga about fame, race, gender, sexuality and the legal system; it’s not “M.J.: Made in America.” (For a long view, there’s “On Michael Jackson,” Margo Jefferson’s pungent, essential critical X-ray from 2006.) “Leaving Neverland” is about one man’s possible contribution to the ruin of two families and the anguish that still disturbs them and, in some way, how that ruin and anguish should disturb us.
The movie presents Jackson almost entirely from the two families’ points of view, in photographs, answering machine messages and a montage of lovey-dovey faxes he sent to his “little one,” which is what James remembers Jackson calling him. He even remembers the lullaby Jackson built around the phrase. The movie recreates for us the haze Jackson cast over them. Its only moments of disputation arrive in the form of television, from, say, Jackson’s defense lawyers during the 2004-5 trial, and, in 1993, from Jackson himself, in a recorded statement against molestation charges brought by the father of Jordan Chandler. (It was nationally broadcast, as news.)
Reed appears to have encouraged everyone in the movie to try to be in the original moment as best they can. For James, Wade and the rest of the on-camera participants (Wade’s grandmother is here, too, as are, in Part 2, both men’s wives), they seem happy enough in the early telling, when everyone’s a little star-struck. So the movie has a real emotional arc — as well as an abundance of orchestral strings and too many handsome drone shots. The tears don’t come until well into hour four. James, though, appears to be reliving it all. He winces, cringes and grimaces; he does a lot of nervous neck scratching.
It’s here that I should offer the Jackson estate’s disclaimer. It vehemently denies what James and Wade allege, and is suing HBO for $100 million. The movie breaches a nondisparagement clause in a contract with Jackson from the early 1990s, according to the suit. Around 1993, James and Wade told the authorities that Jackson didn’t molest them; and Wade testified in court on Jackson’s behalf in 2005. Several years ago, both men filed lawsuits against the estate that were dismissed because of statutes of limitations. And njihov suits are now under appeal. Fatherhood and, presumably, therapy have encouraged both men to reverse their stories, acknowledge what they believe happened to them and tell their families that they lied about not being abused.
This is a strategy that puts a lot of faith in the accusers and obviates the possibility of counterargument. Much is asserted and nothing’s proven, and yet you do come to understand how a mix of showbiz and fandom brought so many boys into Jackson’s life. James starred in a 1986 Pepsi commercial with him. Wade’s uncannily sharp impersonation wins him some nights onstage during the “Bad” tour. Both Stephanie and Joy, the mothers, seem proud to have raised sons so appealing to the planet’s most worshiped person. He tells the Safechucks how lonely he is. And so, in an alarming throwaway detail, the family starts disguising Jackson in order to sneak him out of Hayvenhurst, his pre-Neverland estate, and into their normal, suburban house. It’s like he actually was E.T. At the Safechucks, Jackson could be a regular, what exactly, dijete? We do see Polaroids of him sans make up, doing funny faces, looking guilelessly happy, so yeah, sure: a kid.
HAVING STEPHANIE AND JOY speak here as much as they do is a relief for any number of reasons. But let’s just focus on two. First, they’ve had some time to process all of this. They’re lucid. Jackson’s trial, conducted on behalf of a 13-year-old, Gavin Arvizo, featured testimony from Janet Arvizo, the boy’s mother, who spent five days on the stand and, by most accounts, was a terrible witness for her son. She claimed Jackson imprisoned her family, and yet she was allegedly free to leave Neverland to pamper herself? She snapped her fingers at the jury. The defense claimed she committed welfare fraud, for which she was later prosecuted. So we shifted the blame. What’s wrong with nju?
The parents of any kid who passed through Neverland were more convenient to indict. How could you let your child sleep in an adult’s bed? It’s been 15 years, though. Someone should find Janet Arvizo and give her a do-over.
That brings me back to how crucial it feels to have Stephanie and Joy speaking in this documentary. (Neither man’s father is interviewed, although, in the case of James’s, we never find out exactly why.) You can’t hear a parent wrestle with this blame question enough, whether it’s being asked in relation to R. Kelly or Michael Jackson, your pastor or your priest: How mogao they let their child spend that much time with an adult stranger? There’s never a “right” or “good” answer. But faith is usually a factor. And faith entails a suspension of disbelief.
The mothers both mention an early limit they set. For Stephanie, it was refusing to let James sleep in Jackson’s room on that trip to Hawaii. And Joy recalls vehemently nixing Jackson’s request to abscond with Wade for a year. But Jackson ultimately wins, anyway. He gets his way, in part, because he could be as manipulative as he could be affectionate, but also because each woman feels, in her way, maternal toward him. He was, both women more or less say, a member of their families. Both families defended him, in the moment, against detractors and accusers. Both boys denied that they were molested — Wade at the trial and to the news media; James to his mother and to a grand jury. So their sons’ falling under his spell — that required some suspension of disbelief. The mothers had fallen, too.
We all had. It was so easy to fall.
NOBODY BOUGHT MORE Michael Jackson vinyl LPs than we did of “Thriller.” The euphoria for anything associated with that album was cross-racial and intergenerational. Upon visiting anybody’s house, I’d ask if they had a copy. If the answer was “no,” I’d turn into a 1980s sitcom kid and say something like, “What is vaš problem?” (I would have been 7, 8 or 9.) If the answer was “yes,” I’d ask to play it, and while it was on, I’d lie on the floor and take long drags on the album’s inside photo: Jackson, in a white suit, lying on his side, one leg bent, looking at us. On the knee of his bent leg is a tiger — a tiger kocka. I stared with deep longing. He was so pretty, with his absurd curls and isosceles triangle of a nose and creamy brown face. I’m calling it a photo when, really, it was a centerfold. But what did I want from that picture? What did I want from Jackson? Friendship? A handshake? A souvenir? A zagrliti?
Pictures and TV footage of Jackson and other boys were easy enough to come across — him and Emmanuel Lewis, him and Alfonso Ribeiro, him and Sean Lennon (none of whom have accused him of any abuse), him and E.T., him and the boy I now know is James Safechuck. There were toliko of him and James. Google didn’t make these images simple to find. Magazines did. Teen magazines. I wanted a picture, too. I wanted the warmth and surprise and serious, only-us closeness in some of those images, although James never looks entirely happy in many of them. The seriousness I identified in a lot of the boys’ faces is what adult-me would now call stress.
At the time, I wanted my friends to see Michael Jackson whisking me out of airports and into limousines. I didn’t do an imitation of him or anything, and I never begged my mother to take me to see him. She didn’t have money for that. MTV and “Entertainment Tonight” and the stray issue of Right On! would have to do. But what if I did beg and begged because I was really good at being Michael Jackson? Would that have made a difference? Would she have sacrificed our little family to make my 7-year-old’s dream come true?
Ideally, a parent is a backstop against innocent fervor; against foolish, zealous choices and blissful ignorance. So I have to believe that my mother would have saved me from the hazards of my desire. That was her job. But that’s what adult Wade and James think their mothers’ job should have been, too. What’s still eating each woman up, toward the end of “Leaving Neverland,” is that neither woman disagrees.
It’s entirely possible that we’ve spent the last 26 years preparing for a moment like this — for somebody to lay it all out, graphically, frankly; for somebody to tell us a story, njihov story. For a long time, the chief teller of any such story was Jackson himself. He would install his sense of persecution into music videos, like the one for “Leave Me Alone,” from 1989, the finale of “Crno ili bijelo,” from 1991, and “Ghosts,” from 1997, into songs like “Why You Wanna Trip on Me?” (1991), “Scream” (1995) and “They Don’t Care About Us” (1996). Very good songs, mostly about his tribulations as a so-called weirdo (the tabloids named him Wacko Jacko) and, especially, as a black man.
He tried, in highly rated television interviews, to let us see him as wounded and vulnerable and, well, normal. In 1993, he let Oprah Winfrey grill him (about the boys, but also about his altered appearance). He would let Martin Bashir do an occasionally pseudo-vérité version of the same, in a roving two-hour, 2003 TV documentary (“Living With Michael Jackson”) that exposes him as being helpless against himself. (There’s a long, astounding passage, for instance, in which Jackson leads a caravan of children on a Neverland excursion, and he seems taxed by such an overwhelming — and overwhelmingly absurd — babysitting assignment. Yet he’s able to bring himself to have one of his park’s homemade snow cones, anyway. It’s like the parody of Jackson’s hapless eccentricity you can see in Harmony Korine’s celebrity-impersonator film, “Mister Lonely,” and in the “Teddy Perkins” episode of FX’s “Atlanta.”) Then, after his arraignment in 2004, Jackson even danced, for appreciative fans, atop a car. Five years later he was dead.
The story was that Jackson never molested anybody. And we stuck to it, and it stuck to him. And the question now, of course, is what do we do? 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? With Jackson, what može we do? Wade became a successful choreographer who’s made a career out of teaching his version of Jackson’s hydraulic bounces, whips, and stutters to Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, Cirque du Soleil and rooms full of aspiring dancers. “Look Back at It,” the big single from A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s No. 1 album from January, is built out of two Jackson hits. Michael Jackson’s music isn’t a meal. It’s more elemental than that. It’s the salt, pepper, olive oil and butter. His music is how you start. And the music made from that — Da music is everywhere, too. Where would the cancellation begin?
Jackson provided us an early occasion to ask the question about the art without ever realizing it was being asked. We simply lived with it, with the possibility of his guilt, and the many compartments we make to contain everything he was: the conscientious enthusiasm for and the comedy of him, the tragedy he so obviously represents. Perhaps we can live it because it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether he was living with the contradictions himself.
There is something about the way Jackson morphed from pretty to disfigured, closer to Joseph Merrick, the medical case study whose “elephant man” bones Jackson swore he never tried to buy. The morphing could have been a result of the pigmentation ailment, vitiligo, that he told Winfrey he suffered from. But what if all of that change he so notoriously underwent, all the damage he seemed to wear on his body, all the creatures his videos turned him into (werewolves, zombies, a panther, a skeleton), what if his outward self became some semiconscious manifestation of a monster that lurked within?