Leaving Neverland (2019) and After Neverland (2019) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Leaving Neverland (2019) and After Neverland (2019)

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Leaving Neverland, directed by Dan Reed, details how Michael Jackson groomed Wade Robson and James Safechuck for years of sexual abuse by his hands.

The deepest cut from Leaving Neverland comes from an expected medium but not the obvious source - the music by Chad Hobson. Michael Jackson's tunes play incidentally, part of the footage, commercials, and old behind-the-scenes bits that provide context to Dan Reed's film. But as Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck detail the years of sexual grooming and abuse Michael inflicted on them, Hobson's score joins with a helicopter shot over Jackson's Neverland Ranch in a tune eerily reminiscent of Disney's iconic theme before dropping into darker tones. The allure is right there, the initial pull, and if you don't watch or listen closely enough you'll be mired in darkness before you understand how you got there.

Reed's direction of Leaving Neverland doesn't have that problem. If anything, we've been flooded with information about Jackson's grooming process for decades and chosen not to care about it. I write choose because, even before Leaving Neverland, Jackson's grooming of future sexual abuse victims hasn't even been an open secret. It's been something we've decided to laugh about, making horrible jokes to keep the abuse at a comfortable distance while we jam out to whichever Jackson album we decided made the abuse okay. Reed's job with Leaving Neverland then isn't to put everything that we know into total context, examining the system that allowed Jackson to get away with this from top-to-bottom, and instead to provide as clear an image as possible for the two victims ready to tell their full stories.Leaving Neverland isn't an exciting watch from a visual front. Reed's direction is functional, not splashy, and you're not going to get a Michael Moore-esque confrontation between those willing to defend Jackson and the survivors. This is the right choice. Further sensationalizing or pulling documentary moves like reenactments or graphical timelines into Robson and Safechuck's stories would only detract from the power of their telling. When Reed cuts away from Robson, Safechuck, and their families (more on them in a moment) he sticks to the record - stills of the numerous letters exchanged between Jackson and his victims, an alarmingly high number of photos with Jackson holding children's hands, and recordings of Jackson building the egos of Robson and Safechuck up so that they'd confide back in him. Divorced of the sexual abuse, Reed would already have a strong image of a grown man creepily invested in touching and grooming children.

But there's no divorcing Jackson from the sexual abuse. None for Robson and Safechuck, to say nothing of Jackson's other victims, and none for us as we experience their accounts. Leaving Neverland is a brutal experience because of how thoroughly Robson and Safechuck go through their grooming and, more importantly, how they felt through each step of the process. What might have been lost in a fancier documentary is preserved in their faces and heard in their voices. No matter what Jackson's continued defenders do afterward cannot take away from the traumatic document Leaving Neverland exists as. Safechuck, in particular, leaves a strong mark of conflicted emotional guilt.

If there are any conflicting stories worth discussing in the context of Leaving Neverland, it's what Robson and Safechuck's families told themselves to make Jackson's already predatory behavior acceptable.  That's where Reed's inclusion of Robson and Safechuck's families is crucial. Reed cuts to direct contradictions, Safechuck's mother telling us how well she was hiding her marital problems with Safechuck telling us how he and Jackson would listen in on the arguments, not as a strict logical problem of who knows what but of emotional disarray. It's not just children who need validation and comfort, and for someone of Jackson's power it was just as easy to throw Robson and Safechuck's families into the web of grooming as it was his eventual sexual victims. The parents were there, Reed reinforces that they were just in the kind of daze that Jackson's continued supporters find themselves in today.

Accompanying Leaving Neverland is After Neverland, an interview conducted by Oprah Winfrey after screening the film where she asks some of the questions skeptical viewers might have. Normally I wouldn't consider this kind of show part of the overall product, but so much of what Jackson was able to get away with had to do with how effectively they spun a specific image of him for his audience and Reed, Robson, and Safechuck took the brave step of not ceding ground to Jackson's continued defenders in this arena. If Leaving Neverland is uninviting and often brutal, After Neverland is a precisely constructed direct challenge from the director and victims guided by the hand of a seasoned pro at navigating the arena they're about to find themselves in.After Neverland's also where my doubts at how effective Leaving Neverland is going to be dropped off. Even with the painful weight of Reed's film fresh on my mind, I know that Jackson's continued supporters are going to find every way to deny what he did. After all, I didn't believe Jackson was a sexual abuser for years either.  After Neverland at least suggests that the struggle they know they're part of isn't going to go away in a week and none of them are expecting it to. Together, Leaving Neverland and After Neverland present the brave step of victims who know they will be in the public eye for the rest of their lives and are preparing themselves to deal with the consequences.

Which disgusts me to write, because we always present the victims as people who need to be fearful of consequences instead of the abusers. So as a way of ending this on my own moral stamp, I've read "Why did they wait until Jackson was dead?" as a response to Leaving Neverland quite a lot. Better question, why didn't we do more to stop Jackson from raping children when he was alive? We were all blinded by the star, and it's long passed time to stop giving benefit of the doubt to the powerful in the wake of the many traumatized children and families Jackson left in his wake.

Leaving Neverland (2019)

Directed by Dan Reed.

Posted by Andrew

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