HBO’s “Leaving Neverland”: Abuse, Celebrity, and the King of Pop

Brian Foisy, Staff Writer

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This year two major docuseries have been released surrounding sexual assault allegations against celebrities: Surviving R. Kelly on A&E, and Leaving Neverland on HBO. Each details serious allegations of sexual abuse against a major entertainer, singers R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, respectively. These allegations have been floating about for decades, but recent exposure given to each man’s case has brought renewed public scrutiny.  

The most recent documentary, Leaving Neverland, is purported by many to be a film  mainly about sexual abuse, not Michael Jackson. The allegations against Jackson, ‘the King of Pop’, show the hallmarks of perpetrators caught up in the #MeToo movement an admired person using their power to prey on people under them. But is the documentary truly championing and exhibiting the stories and experiences of sexual assault victims everywhere, or cashing in on a celebrity tabloid story?

As early as 1993, Jackson faced multiple allegations of child sexual abuse. The first came from a man named Evan Chandler who alleged that Michael Jackson drugged and raped his son Jordan on multiple occasions since the two had met when Jordan was 12. These alleged assaults took place at Jackson’s Santa Barbara home, the Neverland Ranch. The 2,700-acre ranch included, among other things, a 13,000-square-foot mansion and an amusement park. Named after the place fictional character Peter Pan brought children to, it’s where Jackson spent most of his time for decades. Neverland comes up several times in each of the multiple child sex abuse allegations against Michael Jackson. After 200 witnesses were questioned in a series of lawsuits, no one could corroborate the stories of Jackson’s accusers. The grand juries, located in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, disbanded on May 2nd 1994. With this, the legal side of this series of allegations against Jackson ended.

In 2003 British television network ITV released a documentary entitled Living with Michael Jackson, which depicted the singer’s daily life over several months. In it Michael is seen holding hands with a young boy named Gavin Arizo, and arranged for him to “sleep over.”  When confronted about this encounter in the documentary, Jackson says he’s had young boys over for sleepovers many times, adding,“It’s not sexual, we’re going to sleep. It’s very charming, it’s very sweet.”Arizo happened to be in remission from cancer at the time. The singer apparently had had many children over to Neverland Ranch who were sick. In response to the release of the documentary, in June the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s office opened another investigation into Jackson’s relationships with children. That November, Gavin and his family told police he had been assaulted multiple times between February and March of 2003. The family also alleged Jackson had held their family captive in the Neverland Ranch during that same time period. On November 23, 2003 Michael Jackson was taken into custody at his home, and the following month was charged with seven counts of child sexual abuse and two counts of “administering an intoxicating agent for the purpose of committing a felony.” He was later charged with additional felonies relating to the molestation charges.

Given the notoriety of the person charged the trial was immediately engulfed in a media frenzy. The trial was further muddled by star testimonies from some of Michael’s celebrity friends, including comedian George Lopez and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin. The trial, to many of Jackson’s ardent supporters, was considered a tabloid fabrication. This belief blinded many in the public to the important facts brought up by the prosecution, including fingerprints of the 13-year-old Arizo on pornography Jackson owned, allegations by parents of both the singer’s accusers that Jackson had on numerous occasions attempted to intimidate them and buy their silence, and testimony from numerous members of the Neverland Ranch staff that they had seen ‘the King of Pop’ assaulting young boys, including Macaulay Culkin, on numerous occasions.

With all of this, the jury, confounded by celebrity testimony and the influence of the greatest celebrity of their time, found Jackson not guilty of all charges. Following the trial, though, Jackson’s influence and mental state were never the same. He died four years later at age 50.

Since Jackson’s death, more accusers have come forward alleging Jackson abused them when they were children. Two of them, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, are the subjects of HBO’s documentary Leaving Neverland. Their accounts in the two-part film are gripping and terrifying. The nearly four-hour documentary strays away from documentary conventions, sticking to interviews from Robson, Safechuck, and their families. Nevertheless, this is still a documentary about Michael Jackson.

The Crimes Against Children Research Center, founded in 1998, is a group funded by both the government and private organizations, that publishes their own research as well as law enforcement statistics in an effort to better the lives of children in the United States. Their studies show that one in five girls and one in 20 boys are victims of child molestation. Other studies show that in any one year period in the United States, 16% of youth age 14-17 are sexually victimized. Three out of 4 of those victims say they were assaulted by someone they knew very well. Those who were assaulted in their childhood are statistically more likely to be assaulted again later on in life. The National Crime Victimization Survey finds that minors are far less likely than adults to report crimes perpetrated against them to anyone, and even more less likely to report to law enforcement.

The attempts to right some wrongs by the producers of Leaving Neverland are noble, but while looking at cases of high profile sexual abuse it’s important to examine other children who are victims of sexual assault. Such an assault, had it been perpetrated by a coach, teacher, priest, or family member, would have never commanded the media attention the allegations against Jackson or other high-profile individuals received. No matter how many times the producers and director of this film state their film “is not about Michael Jackson,” the fact remains that it is. Without the King of Pop there is no Finding Neverland, and this sordid story turns into one that is told in silence, if it is told at all. Without Michael Jackson this is just any other story of abuse that far too many Americans choose to ignore.

Correction: An earlier version of the story misquoted, on several occasions, the title of the documentary as “Finding Neverland” the documentary’s title is “Leaving Neverland”

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