When Leaving Neverland premiered at Sundance, I saw “four hour documentary about the Michael Jackson molestation allegations” on the program and almost immediately mentally marked it with a giant red stamp — NO THANKS. That just didn’t sound like something I wanted to sit through, a film to be endured rather than enjoyed.
The film was released on HBO this week, where it’s since become the network’s third-most-watched documentary in 10 years. I finally broke down and watched it, and while it turned out to be every bit as hard to watch as I’d imagined, it was even harder to turn away. Call it the new “cringe and binge” phenomenon. But certainly, it’s more than that.
I tend to resist watching movies that depict things I know are horrible simply in order to know that those things are indeed horrible. What Leaving Neverland offers isn’t just the notion that child sexual abuse is bad, repeated ad nauseam, it’s the promise of being able to at least start to understand the issue in its full complexity. And that’s just as compelling as it is “important.”
The two survivors it profiles — choreographer Wade Robson and computer programmer James Safechuck — aren’t shattered people, despite their trauma, and Jackson, even if we take the film at face value (and I mostly do), isn’t a perfect monster, despite having done some truly horrifying things.
It seems apparent now that our conception of child sexual abusers has been limited by our own understandable reticence to discuss child sexual abuse. If guilt and shame are at the root of the trauma from sexual abuse, we owe it to abuse survivors to be up to that discussion, to be game to acknowledge abuse in all its awful detail, no matter how much doing that sucks. Acting as if it’s too taboo to even think about only adds to their shame. It’s a credit to Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed and HBO that they were willing to go there, and to Wade Robson and James Safechuck for being able to recount their own abuse stories so earnestly and so coherently. That they were such compelling, relatable characters is one of the most powerful aspects of the movie.
In not only existing but becoming a phenomenon, what we used to call a watercooler topic, Leaving Neverland represents a collective step forward in how we see abusers and survivors, even from just a few years ago. It’s been little more than three years since the release of Spotlight, a story about the Boston Globe team that uncovered systemic sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, and even that best picture-winning movie consisted of about 95 percent investigating sexual abuse and maybe 5 percent the actual abuse, with a minimum of talking to abusers and survivors. There’s exactly one scene, where the team knocks at an old priest’s door, and he makes an offhand remark about how he was abused as a child, that even broaches the subject of how abuse is passed from one generation to the next. The matter is quickly dropped, never to be discussed again. (That lack of discussion being in itself a comment on how the pattern of abuse self-replicates).