From the moment it was announced, Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland was predestined to court controversy. Beloved by many and viewed as a predator in-plain-sight by others, this four-hour documentary on Michael Jackson’s alleged child sex abuse and the subsequent damage that he left in his wake has been divisive ever since its premiere at The Sundance Film Festival. Hailed as a harrowing but essential expose by its supporters and a fatuous, irresponsible piece of sensationalism by the Jackson family and the late pop icon’s most devoted fans, the film quickly became a hot-button issue for both parties and has been widely debated in the lead-up to its airing.

Based around the testimonies of famous choreographer Wade Robson and James Safechuck, their detailed accounts were captured over days of filming and paint a picture of Jackson as a conniving and manipulative molester that used his status as a smokescreen. Just as he did during his lifetime, Jackson’s family vehemently deny everything that the film brought to light and public opinion issplit between two extreme sides of the spectrum.

With Reed already laying the groundwork for a sequel, it is important to not give in to social media’s reactionary effects and objectively break down what Leaving Neverland tells us about a life that was shrouded in secrecy. In the interest of clarity, there will be no attempt to confirm or deny the accusers’ testimony as a court of law or jury of their peers would, and will instead focus on examining the common themes and most profound revelations that emerged from the interviews.

Warning: This article will summarise graphic accounts of sexual and emotional abuse as described in the documentary.

The Abuse

Wade Robson at Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial in 2005 – Lee Celano-Pool/Getty Images

Although Leaving Neverland expands on the fallout from their experiences and how it affected them later in life, it would be facetious to start anywhere other than Robson and Safechuck’s apparent first-hand experiences with sexual abuse. When “The King Of Pop” came into their orbits, both believed it was a blessing and, as Safechuck explained, his tight-knit bond with Michael made him feel as though they were “the luckiest boys in the world.”

In the case of seven-year-old superfan Wade Robson, he spoke of how the physical contact began innocuously enough and he felt privileged to receive it:

“His hand on my thigh, hugs. It felt great. Out of all the kids in the world, he chose me to be his friend and he’s holding my hand.”

Split between the hallowed Neverland Ranch and a far more inconspicuous hideout in Westwood, CA, both men spoke of the untainted fun and games that would typify the days before nightfall introduced a far less idyllic side of Jackson’s childlike public image. Awed by the man that presided over a pop music empire, there is a commonality between the stories that Safechuck and Robson presented to Reed. At a base level, they both described how it began with Jackson touching their genitals before encouraging them to reciprocate, gradually progressing to oral sex and the development of a near co-dependent romantic relationship. From then on, both men got more specific and touched upon certain fetishes and fixations that Michael allegedly harboured such as having his nipples stimulated or instructing them to bend over and spread their butt cheeks so that he could masturbate whilst looking at them.

In both accounts, Neverland is portrayed as a labyrinthine fortress for him to perpetrate these deeds away from the glare of the wider world. Complete with alarmed bells, military-style drills on how to get dressed as quickly as possible to avoid detection and a network of secret rooms, teepees and more, they portray his abuse as not the work of an impulsive man but something far more systematic. As their bodies matured, Safechuck and Robson rehashed Jackson’s desire to engage in penetrative sex with them but both claimed that it was ultimately ill-fated. Whilst there are distinct similarities in their confessional interviews, some subtle differences manifest in the way that Jackson established deep-rooted emotional ties with them.

The Indoctrination

Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, shown in 2003 – Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Over the course of many years, Robson and Safechuck maintained bonds with Michael Jackson that teeter more into the realm of romantic relationships than our conventional understanding of abuse. In Safechuck’s case, this eventually culminated in a mock wedding ceremony between the two:

“We did this in his bedroom. We filled out some vows. It’s like we’re bonded forever.”

As he clutched the miniature ring that allegedly symbolized their nuptials, James was visibly shaken and detailed the role that these trinkets played in the abuse: “I was really into jewelry. He would reward me with jewelry for doing sexual acts with him. He would say that I need to sell him some to earn the gift.”

In Robson’s case, he went into great deal about the pet names that he and Jackson gave to one another– such as “Little One” and “Applehead”– alongside providing evidence of faxes and phone-calls between the two that are in keeping with his revelations. For both men, they spoke of how Michael fostered an “us vs them” narrative that pitted them against their parents and caused them to long for his presence. In the doting brain of young Robson, the “fantasy” of a life with the man that he’d idolized “was too good” whilst Safechuck’s juvenile mind saw it as “best buds going on an adventure.” No matter what he did, Jackson insisted that they were “in love” and every sexual encounter was simply how they “bonded” and expressed it to one another. As pure as it may have seemed to them, he’s said to have drilled a mistrust in both boys that taught them they could never tell anyone or they’d all spend the rest of their lives in jail.

The families

Michael Jackson performing on “HIStory” world tour in 1996 – Phil Walter/Getty Images

To be granted regular access to the kids, it was essential for Michael to not only inculcate the children but their bewildered parents. For the Robson and Safechuck families, the notion of a megastar befriending “nobodies” was an honor. Described as the entryway to a “fantasy world” by Joy Robson, the Moms describe how his lavish lifestyle and unprecedented fame left them suggestible and ultimately remiss in their duties. Fuelled by the belief that they were doing “kid things,” Michael’s projected loneliness led to Stephanie Safechuck viewing him as “a son.” In hindsight, she expresses complete remorse over allowing Jackson to intercept their lives, claiming “I had one job, I had one child and I f****d up.”

For Joy Robson, the toll on her family was more overarching and led to unspoken resentment festering for years. After her husband took his own life, Wade’s older brother Shane candidly described how he has never fully forgiven his mom for what she subjected Wade and their wider family to by moving to America. As the documentary draws to a close, it seems clear that their parents and siblings’ deep-seated psychological wounds may never heal.

The Power

Michael Jackson and his father Joe Jackson are seen leaving the courthouse during the child molestation trial in 2005 – Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

When it comes to cultural figures, few have ever encroached upon the omnipresence and commercial success of Michael Jackson. A record-breaker in every respect, both the Robson and Safechuck families spoke of the role that his untouchability played in fostering their relationships. Flanked by mega-stars such as Harrison Ford, George Lucas, Tina Turner, Sean Connery and even royalty in the case of Princess Diana, James described the role of his public persona in leaving them entranced:

“It’s like everybody’s on board. It’s very powerful. You start to think that your parents are bad and that Michael is good.”

Blessed with the finest that life has to offer, one telling insight into fame’s potentially corruptive power came when Jackson asked Joy Robson to let Wade stay with him for an entire year. After she refused, Michael is said to have calmly stated that “I always get what I want.” As the documentary concludes, Safechuck neatly summarises how his parents– whom Jackson purchased a home for after the 1993 Jordy Chandler molestation trial— were overloaded by his worldwide recognition, claiming “it’s all a big seduction.”

The Aftermath

Michael Jackson in Berlin, 2002 – Eric Richard/Getty Images

When Jackson’s character came under fire, he called upon his longstanding allies in the Safechuck and Robson families to testify on his behalf. As both kids still felt beholden to Jackson and “in love” with him, they were “excited” at the prospect of defending him in court and hoped that it would bridge the divisions that had gradually sprung up between them.

After James rebuffed Jackson’s summons for testimony during the 2004 Gavin Arvizo trial, he was declared “an enemy” whilst Robson was eventually coerced into doing so by his mother and described seeing his longtime mentor in “handcuffs” as painful. As the years whittled by and the boys formed romantic partnerships, the mental ties to Jackson weren’t easy to sever and the full scale of their abuse was said to have taken hold after his death. The supposed root of mental breakdowns for both parties, the last portion of the documentary focuses on how their respective wives and families dealt with the revelations and the irreparable damage that it left in its wake. Forever altered by the events of their childhood in one way or another, the documentary concludes with Robson and Safechuck’s Michael Jackson memorabilia being reduced to ashes as Stephanie matter-of-factly brands him a “pedophile.”

While their claims can be rubbished by the letter of the law, their decision to testify on Jackson’s behalf was theorized on by Oprah Winfrey during her “After Neverland” show with Reed and the alleged victims:

“In order for it to work, it has to be someone you know, somebody you admire, somebody you respect or maybe even love… if the abuser is any good, he or she will make you feel like you’re a part of it.”

Wherever the truth lies, Leaving Neverland certainly makes for a compelling and routinely horrifying watch that touches on pertinent topics around celebrity and the potential dangers of unchecked power in our society.

Have you watched the HBO documentary? What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below.