As the astonishing and controversial documentary Leaving Neverland shakes the world, the question of how we should remember Michael Jackson has become more complex than ever
There was once a time when you could listen to a Michael Jackson song and believe he was truly one of the kindest people to ever moonwalk the earth. On songs like Heal the World, he sang passionately about the planet needing to be a more loving place. In Childhood, Jackson painted a portrait of the life he wasn’t able to have growing up as he was thrust to fame as a six-year-old in The Jackson 5. For many, the pop star’s legacy and work had always centered around his lack of adolescence, a longing for love and a tough childhood as Jackson himself suffered years of physical and emotion abuse at the hands of his own father.
What was never in doubt was Jackson’s love for children – but what form that took came with many caveats, and a slew of sexual abuse allegations that dated back more than 10 years by the time the star died in 2009. Many thought that with his untimely passing those allegations would also be laid to rest. Then HBO announced it would be airing the four-hour, two-part documentary, Leaving Neverland, released in March 2019. The film, directed by Dan Reed, explores claims of serious sexual assault and a more manipulative side to Jackson. It also calls into question a great many aspects of the star’s life and forces us all to rethink how we perceive him, his life, career, and – most confusingly – his music.
The documentary is focused on the stories of James Safechuck and Wade Robson. The two now 30-something-year-olds alleged Jackson abused them as young children and tell chilling accounts of the King of Pop’s manipulative persona. The estate and his family have denied all accusations, and the world seems split into two camps – those who think the two men are lying, publicity seekers looking to make some money, and those who stand by every word. Let’s not forget, Jackson has always been dogged by controversy. Whether it was his skin color change, sexual abuse allegations or dangling his baby out of the window, Jackson was forever tangled in some form of scandal.
Today, the conversation regarding Jackon’s legacy is extremely nuanced and multifaceted. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of his death, and so many of us are left wondering what these new claims mean in the way we regard the singer – and how one goes about holding another accountable when they aren’t alive to defend their actions.
For many of us, this film confirms the dark past we’d suspected. The level of detail in which Wade and James go into in the documentary is horrifying, not to mention the amount of widespread and celebrity support it has received (enter Oprah). For others, the film is an ugly smear campaign aimed at someone unable to defend himself. The question is, how do we separate the artist from the art?
As Jackson is no longer present, it becomes harder to libel the dead and people will continue to support the notion that his art will always be bigger than his actions. Let’s not forget, over his four-decade-long career, he transformed music videos, fostered facial diversity and his contributions to pop music, dance and fashion are unapparelled. Sales of his music increased after the airing of the documentary and thousands of fans came together on social media and rallied around hashtags such as #MJInnocent and #MJFam. In the UK, they even bought adverts on London buses carrying the slogan: “Facts don’t lie, people do.”
“I think his legacy is compromised, but I wouldn’t say ruined,” says journalist Tre’vell Anderson of Out Magazine. “I find it to be important to remember our ancestors as full beings, and doing so means acknowledging that Michael may have molested young men – even if you still love his work.”
The King of Pop’s legacy will continue to live on in the eyes of many of his fans. As the behavior and controversial personal lives of more and more imperfect artists come to light, each individual must choose whether they continue to appreciate the art itself, or if they should now erase his work from their lives (along with R. Kelly, Bill Crosby, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen etc. – the list will, over time, get longer). Indeed, while the film will have an impact on our perceptions of the performer, nothing can erase the cultural implications of Michael’s work.
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