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HBO’s ‘Leaving Neverland’ will finally make us reckon with Michael Jackson

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The film horrified critics at the Sundance Film Festival.

This post contains depictions of child molestation.

Friday during the Sundance Film Festival, a controversial Michael Jackson documentary horrified critics and attendees.

Director Dan Reed’s (FrontlineLeaving Neverland is coming to HBO this spring, and its mainstream streaming distribution means that Americans will re-litigate Jackson’s legacy in the court of public opinion, just as we have, on and off, since the early ’90s. This time, however, it seems those who grew up on and adore Jackson’s music won’t have the benefit of plausible deniability.

According to early reviews, the film offers detailed evidence that the King of Pop groomed and sexually assaulted two boys, Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40, in chilling detail. (Robson was 7 years old at the time of the alleged child molestation, and Safechuck was 10, according to USA Today.) According to early reviews of the film, Jackson would reportedly install elaborate alarm systems at Neverland Ranch and conduct fire drills with the boys so he’d never get caught abusing them. He befriended their respective families and convinced them it was OK to spend time alone with their sons. He’d reportedly make the boys spread their buttcheeks while he masturbated. He’d reportedly offer porn and alcohol to the boys. He’d reportedly give Safechuck jewelry in exchange for sex. He reportedly staged a mock wedding four years into his relationship with Safechuck.

The Jackson estate told USA Today that the project is “tabloid character assassination.”

Jackson fans, myself among them, have used legal acquittals, circumstantial evidence, and cognitive dissonance to dismiss the idea that one of the world’s most beloved and philanthropic entertainers is a serial abuser. He’s a repressed child who was himself victimized in his youth, we’ve used to explain away Jackson’s public and frequent befriending of boys, besides he wants to heal the world and make it a better place. This detached thinking is unlikely to continue following a film that should eclipse this month’s R. Kelly documentary—also about a famous musician who is an alleged abuser and pedophile—in cultural weight.

According to IndieWire, the “devastating” movie “proves Michael Jackson sexually abused children.” It adds that “You’ll never listen to Michael Jackson the same way again. In fact, you may never listen to Michael Jackson again at all.” As the Daily Beast notes, Leaving Neverland “indicts so many people: the Safechuck and Robson families, the people in Jackson’s camp, Jackson’s fans, the media, and all of us. This was happening in plain sight.” Mara Weinstein of Us Weekly tweeted, “Feel sick to my stomach after watching Part 1 of #LeavingNeverland doc. Michael Jackson witnesses/sex abuse victims coming off very credible. It’s so sexually explicit that counselors are in the lobby.”

In an era where we’re thankfully reconsidering abuse that went underreported and ignored by powerful men in recent history, Jackson’s global legacy, and how we consider it, looms large.

If you are a victim of sexual assault or want more information on sexual assault, contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Ramon Ramirez

Ramon Ramirez

Ramon Ramirez is the news director, and formerly the Dot's entertainment editor and evening editor. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Grantland, Washington City Paper, Austin American-Statesman, and Austin Monitor.