Wednesday 13 March 2019

Michael Jackson: Chilling film forces America to confront singer's legacy

Jackson is accused of sexually abusing boys, prompting fresh soul-searching in what could be a national reckoning

In 1993, Oprah Winfrey visited Michael Jackson at his Neverland ranch for a television special – Jackson’s first interview in 14 years, watched by more than 90 million people worldwide.

This week, Winfrey hosted an hour-long show about the King of Pop with a very different tone, in front of a studio audience of sexual abuse survivors.

The show aired on US screens on Monday following the concluding episode of the two-part HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, which has hurled America into a fresh bout of soul-searching over Jackson’s cultural legacy, his estate’s financial future and whether his music is too good to be muted. More broadly, it is also the latest test for the nation’s attitude towards stars accused of sex crimes.

“For me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson,” said Winfrey, who has said she was sexually abused as a child. “It is much bigger than any one person. This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity and it’s happening right now.”

Commentators are again grappling with the question of whether it is acceptable to enjoy
art regardless of its creator’s conduct. Photograph: Michael Caulfield Archive/WireImage

Winfrey interviewed the film’s central figures: James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who accuse Jackson of sexually abusing them when they were both boys, and the documentary’s British director, Dan Reed.

“It takes days to recover from this documentary,” the film-maker Judd Apatow said on Twitter. “Five minutes in, you will think to yourself, ‘Oh my God, every word they are saying is true.’”

After years of defending Jackson, actor Corey Feldman, who was a friend of his as a boy, shifted his stance following the release of the documentaries.

“I don’t want to be perceived as I’m here to defend Michael Jackson, because I can no longer do that. I cannot in good [conscience] defend anyone who’s being accused of such horrendous things,” he said.

Leaving Neverland, which aired in the UK on Channel 4 on Wednesday and Thursday, focuses on interviews with Safechuck, Robson and their families. The men claim that Jackson groomed them as children, invited them to Neverland, contrived to separate them from their parents, initiated sexual contact, convinced them it was a normal loving relationship, and brainwashed them into secrecy.

 Five minutes in, you'll think to yourself, ‘Oh my God, every word they are saying is true'
Judd Apatow
Reed has suggested the film could prompt “America’s [Jimmy] Savile moment”. Savile, a longtime BBC DJ and presenter who died in 2011, was found to have serially preyed on children years after accusers were brushed aside, prompting a national reckoning in Britain.

The Jackson-Savile comparison comes with contrasts, not least the level of the subject’s fame. Leaving Neverland also lands less than 18 months after the New York Times published an article detailing allegations against the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein which catalysed the #MeToo movement that has torn down dozens of powerful men in showbusiness, politics and the media who appeared to act with impunity.

Abuse victims Wade Robson and James Safechuck with the Leaving
Neverland director Dan Reed. Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP
That one-time symbol of wholesome family values, Bill Cosby, was convicted last year of sexual assault, while, in the wake of January’s broadcast of a six-part television documentary, the singer R Kelly was charged in Chicago last month with 10 counts of sexual abuse, including against three minors, which he denies.

Among these figures, none have had more influence over American popular culture than Jackson, whose legacy is also worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Michael Jackson’s legacy is bigger than Michael Jackson, right?” said New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris on the Daily podcast. “We can’t cancel Michael Jackson because cancelling Michael Jackson means cancelling America in some way. Not just our love of [the] music, but our sense of who we are as a people.”

Jackson family members issued a statement calling Leaving Neverland a “public lynching” and a “tabloid character assassination” that revisits previously rejected claims. Jackson was cleared of child molestation charges by a California jury in 2005. The Jackson estate is now suing HBO for $100m for allegedly violating a non-disparagement clause related to a contract the network signed in 1992.

Meanwhile, a vast global army of fans have mounted defences on social media. Jackson supporters have flooded the internet with rebuttals to the documentary, questioning the credibility and motives of Robson and Safechuck.

Commentators are again grappling with the question of whether it is acceptable to enjoy art regardless of its creator’s conduct. Yet while radio stations in the UK, Australia and New Zealand dropped Jackson’s songs from their playlists this week, no major American network or streaming platforms have announced bans.

According to figures provided to the Guardian by the Nielsen analytics company, radio airplay in the US dipped by 20% on Tuesday and Wednesday compared with the same days a week earlier. But US sales and on-demand streams of Jackson’s music were not significantly affected.

A Chicago run of a new musical featuring Jackson’s songs, Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough, was cancelled last month with the producers citing scheduling problems, but a Broadway stint is still planned for next year.

The biggest of the Jackson-themed shows playing in Las Vegas is a Cirque du Soleil spectacle, one of several lucrative official ventures to surf a wave of public sympathy in the years after his death aged 50 in 2009.

With tickets that cost between $75 and $250 in a 1,085-capacity theatre, few seats remained available for either performance on Saturday. A Cirque du Soleil spokesperson declined to comment on sales or the future of the show.

A 1991 episode of The Simpsons featuring Jackson’s voice is being removed from streaming services and TV broadcasts, the show’s executive producer told the Wall Street Journal on Friday.

“This was a treasured episode,” James L Brooks said. “There are a lot of great memories we have wrapped up in that one, and this certainly doesn’t allow them to remain.”

He added: “I’m against book burning of any kind. But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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