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‘Leaving Neverland’ leaves viewers with troubling memories

March 2, 2019

‘Leaving Neverland’ leaves viewers with troubling memories

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Early in the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” Wade Robson recalls the magical Michael Jackson he first met as a five-year-old fan in Australia. He describes the enormously popular singer-dancer as gentle, kind, generous, loving and caring.

James Safechuck recalls meeting Jackson when filming a Pepsi commercial with the pop icon. He describes him as giggly, quiet and childlike.

Put all of those adjectives together and you have the general image of Jackson that held sway though those heady “King of Pop” years of the ’80s and early ’90s: a childlike entertainer whose eccentricities were explained by the loss of his own childhood.

But Robson and Safechuck also describe Jackson as a pedophile who sexually abused them for several years. “Leaving Neverland,” which debuts on HBO at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 3, and Monday, March 4, shatters the old image and replaces it with a horrific one made grimly credible over the four hours of this two-part documentary.

This Michael Jackson, we are told, even if he was victim, used manipulation, influence, mind games and deceit to rob his victims of the very thing he often claimed was denied him – a childhood.

Producer and director Dan Reed’s highly detailed and deeply disturbing interviews with Robson, now 36, and James Safechuck, 40, make the haunting “Leaving Neverland” a grimly riveting experience. It’s often difficult to watch, no doubt, yet it’s even more difficult to look way.

And it’s even tougher to dismiss. Having demanded your attention, the documentary then commands it. Reed’s straightforward approach builds a convincing case with a slow build, deliberate pacing and an absence of sensational flourishes.

“How do you explain Michael Jackson?” Safechuck says in “Leaving Neverland,” summarizing the overwhelming challenge facing the documentary and us.

If you believe Robson and Safechuck, and it’s abundantly clear that Reed does believe them, then the explanation is that Michael Jackson was, in the director’s words “a criminal sexual predator.”

There are, of course, challenges to this view, and those have been made frequently and loudly during the days leading up to the HBO premiere of “Leaving Neverland.” Jackson’s brothers Jackie, Marlon and Tito, along with Tito’s son Taj, appeared Wednesday on “CBS This Morning,” telling co-host Gayle King that they believe the abuse claims by Robson and Safechuck are motivated by money.

Michael Jackson and James Safechuck in an image used in the two-part documentary “Leaving Neveralnd,” airing March 3 and 4 on HBO.  HBO

There is much to consider here, too. Both men have denied in the past that Jackson molested them. Both sued the Jackson estate, only to see their lawsuits dismissed because of the statue of limitations. They are appealing.

Marlon Jackson said that “there has not been not one piece of evidence that corroborates their story.” The brothers also say that Reed didn’t include any interviews with Jackson defenders.

In an attempt to block the documentary from airing, the Jackson estate has filed a suit against HBO, calling the film “a public lynching.” A statement released by the estate characterized “Leaving Neverland” as “a one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda to shamelessly exploit an innocent man no longer here to defend himself.”

So “Leaving Neverland” arrives with our uncomfortable realization that there are only two possibilities, both monstrous. Either Robson and Safechuck are lying or they’re telling the truth.

Why did Robson and Safechuck once deny they were abused by Jackson? During Jackson’s 2005 trial for sexual abuse, Robson not only took the stand, his testimony was credited with helping win an acquittal. And Safechuck defended him to investigators.

Robson and Safechuck say Jackson kept telling them that, if the truth was known, they’d go to jail and “both of our lives would be over.”

Why are they know saying Jackson abused them? Both men say it was the birth of a son that prompted them to confront their pasts.

“Leaving Neverland” presents their memories, their struggles and their reasons, along with the testimony of relatives, including their mothers. It’s a complex journey, and a harrowing one. And the journey doesn’t end when the final credits roll Monday night. The suggestion here is that the discussion will continue . . . that it must continue, no matter what conclusions you reach.

It will continue at 10 p.m. Monday night, since, HBO and OWN will simulcast “Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neveralnd.” Winfrey will lead a discussion with Robson, Safechuck and Reed before an audience of survivors of sexual abuse.

Conclusions may differ. Memories, no matter how unsettling and heartbreaking, may be dismissed as not being evidence. But the devastating “Leaving Neverland” asks that you first hear what Robson and Safechuck have to say. You must hear what they have to say, Reed argues.

Leaving Neverland, the riveting documentary argues, means leaving behind silence and darkness and pain. And, even more importantly, it means moving toward some glimmers of light.