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HBO’s Michael Jackson Documentary Deserves Our Attention (Column)

HBO’s two-part documentary “Leaving Neverland” — which has been making news since its first public viewing at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year — is a remarkably effective, methodically built case alleging that the late Michael Jackson was a systematic predator and rapist of young children. And its airing on HBO on March 3 and 4, despite pressure from the Jackson estate, is a moment worth noting and appreciating; though broadcasting the documentary is in keeping with the cabler’s general strategy of provocative and challenging art, it’s also a decision arrived at with a level of gumption unusual for as risk-averse a cultural moment as ours.

In his review out of Sundance, Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman referred to the testimony within the film as “overwhelmingly powerful and convincing”; over four hours, documentarian Dan Reed’s story is focused on the experiences of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who were closely acquainted with Jackson in their early childhood years. Robson and Safechuck became known to Jackson through their entry-level work in show business (Robson, who grew up to be a successful choreographer, danced as part of a contest connected to the singer, while Safechuck acted in a Jackson Pepsi ad). Soon enough, in “Leaving Neverland’s” telling, these innocent forays into the entertainment industry had yielded not just a friendship with its greatest star but a sort of life-consuming intimacy, with parents excluded from the tight circle that included only a living legend and the children he kept around him.

We follow Robson and Safechuck — telling their respective stories with occasional corroboration from family members, who attest to how their home lives were affected and in some ways destroyed by Jackson’s attentions, and with bits of footage of Jackson, off pop-star duty, engaging with the children and their families — from youthful exploitation to painful, ravaged adulthoods. It’s hard not to walk away from “Leaving Neverland” convinced, once and for all, to put an indefinite hold on playing “P.Y.T.” at parties, to rerank Jackson in the canon and quietly slip him out of the Spotify rotation. The film sticks in a way no previous allegation had managed to; it becomes a longform attack on his legacy as it does the job it sets out to do, telling the frank and finally open stories of two men touched by trauma.

But others will read “Leaving Neverland” differently, and, indeed, have already done so before they’ve seen it. As anyone who recalls Jackson’s 2005 trial — at which the singer was ultimately acquitted of charges including molesting and intoxicating a minor — already knows, the adults in Jackson’s orbit are vigorous in their defense of him, and his fans are reflexively outraged by anything about his life being called into question. (The images of Jackson supporters protesting outside his trial, with one fan releasing a white dove each time her idol was acquitted of a charge, remains, to my mind, one of the most potent proofs of the concept that modern fandom is not blind to even very serious criticism of celebrities but is indeed only further catalyzed by it.) HBO faces not merely fairly feeble pushback from Team Jackson — a camp that is briskly ignoring the fact that a dead person cannot legally be libeled, and that has put forward a letter charging the network with putting forward “an admittedly one-sided, sensationalist program.” It runs up against a fan base with the vigor and motivation to make the months up to and after “Leaving Neverland’s” broadcast extremely irritating. Those who defend Jackson, professionally or out of the more complicated obligations of stan culture, have, after all, weathered far more and remained on his side.

And professional hacks and flacks share more with superfans than either camp might like to admit. The letter presented by Jackson’s estate would seem to exist less to provide legal guidance to HBO (there are no real actionable claims within it) than to put forward a set of arguments to Jackson’s fans. It is inflected with tones familiar to anyone who’s spent time observing the behavior of hardcore fans online. Consider the openly adversarial and gratuitously mean-spirited accusation that any critic is a hater losing at life, as seen in the concern-trolling note that HBO is only airing this program because it “is facing serious competitive pressures from Netflix, Amazon and other more modern content providers,” or the niggling, needling obsession with a rigorous sort of fairness that could only really be satisfied by not broadcasting this program at all. The Jackson camp points out that they successfully batted off legal claims by Robson and Safechuck, even as the reasons why those claims fell short is a meaningful part of the documentary’s second half, and even as a verdict in a court of law does not make illegal sharing one’s story. This isn’t a cease-and-desist. It’s a red flag waved in front of fans, whom I expect with grim resignation to tweet at me precisely along the lines set forth by Team Jackson.

Jackson’s estate isn’t asking with any seriousness for HBO to pull the documentary, and HBO has been full-throated and matter-of-fact in its support for the program. Little wonder: The documentary unit built by former chief Sheila Nevins is the industry’s gold standard, and HBO, competition from Netflix and Amazon or no, has a legal department and is run by people intelligent enough to know to use it. Still, the HBO broadcast model hinging upon giving every subscriber one program they absolutely must keep paying in order to watch has a flip side; it does them material harm if they air a program that drives motivated, frustrated viewers to call their cable providers and cancel. It’s hard to imagine HBO pulling “Leaving Neverland” from their schedule. And it’s easy to imagine a world in which, out of the limelight, a decision was made early on that this project, a documentary that is not likely going to be the one thing that gets anyone to keep their HBO account active, wasn’t worth the long aftereffects. As we’ve seen so many times over — with, looking only at cases from this still-young year, the worst charges against R. Kelly receiving attention from only the most devoted of journalists before their eventual airing on a Lifetime documentary series, or with long-murmured intimations about the alleged sexual crimes of “Bohemian Rhapsody” director Bryan Singer being too explosive for Esquire, whose journalists delved into his story before publishing elsewhere — it’s easy for gatekeepers to decide to allow others to do the work. It spares headaches, and time-consuming pestering within or adjacent to the legal system, and fan campaigns, and dropped subscriptions.

HBO deserves credit for broadcasting “Leaving Neverland,” and, more crucially, the film deserves to be seen. This ongoing era of reckoning with the misdeeds of our icons, often already half-known to a public that refuses to metabolize them, requires both outlets with the nerve to broadcast and an audience willing to do the similarly difficult work of engaging, even as walking away would surely be easier for both parties. If the Jackson estate’s letter has done anything at all, one hopes that it has been to perform the so-called Streisand Effect — to call greater attention to a story kept under wraps for too long. It’s the sort of story that takes real guts, and a strong footing in something as painful as reality, to broadcast, or to truly absorb.

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