Leaving Neverland — the explosive documentary centering on Wade Robson and James Safechuck, alleged victims of child sexual abuse by Michael Jackson — rocked the Sundance Film Festival in January and was immediately met with intense reactions both from those who believed the accusations and those who doubted them. After its two-part premiere on HBO (March 3-4), the discussion went wide: “It takes days to recover from this documentary,” tweeted director Judd Apatow. “Five minutes in you will think to yourself ‘oh my God, every word they are saying is true.’” Meanwhile, Jackson’s nephew Taj came to the singer’s defense: “Since my uncle is not here to defend himself, the credibility of the accusers matter. And Wade and James have none.” But beyond questioning the credibility or intentions of Robson and Safechuck, perhaps the biggest criticism of the film is that it is one-sided. Following the doc’s conclusion, HBO aired an hourlong program, Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland, in collaboration with OWN, which showed exactly why it was so important to focus on Robson, Safechuck and their relatives.
Moderated by Oprah Winfrey before an audience of 200, about 100 of whom were sexual abuse survivors, the show featured a candid and emotional conversation among documentary director Dan Reed, Robson and Safechuck. (Packets of tissues were provided to the audience.) Reed told Winfrey that he didn’t include anyone from the Jackson family or estate in the documentary because Leaving Neverland was not about Jackson, but rather his alleged victims and what had happened to them behind closed doors, alone with the singer. The movie and Winfrey’s program defined — sensitively, in great depth and for a historically large audience — the concept of grooming: how an abuser builds a relationship and trust with a child to lower his or her inhibitions, with the objective of sexual exploitation.
Reed’s aim was to spark a larger conversation about such topics, and Winfrey demonstrated that while also amplifying the conversation. Still, she put Robson, Safechuck and Reed on the spot, asking the tough questions their skeptics have posed.
“If you were abused, why would you continue to be around the person?” she asked.
“I had no understanding of it being abuse,” replied Robson.
Once the cameras stopped rolling, Robson addressed the audience one more time before leaving the stage. “Being a survivor is so isolating,” he said, thanking the crowd for showing up. The day after the taping, Reed told Billboard how necessary it is to have an open dialogue about the cultural implications of such a profound expose — After Neverland was just the start. “Michael was such a big part of the fabric of everyone’s lives and the soundtrack to so many happy memories,” said Reed. “I don’t know how this is going to affect people, but we are in a position to educate them.”