America has a long and sordid history of lynching or unfairly convicting African-American men based on the false allegations of white accusers. The names known to history echo loud and long — Robin White, Emmett Till, Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Andrew and Leroy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Willie Anderson, Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams (the latter nine known collectively as “The Scottsboro Boys”) to contemporary names such as Vincent Patton, still serving time in Angola Prison despite the fact that his white accuser later confessed that “all black men look alike” to her and therefore she could not even say with certainty that Patton had raped her. And these cases do not even begin to include the many whose names have long been lost to history; those who paid the ultimate price for the paranoid fears of a Jim Crow-era America. “We currently live in a world of fake news and alternative facts,” wrote Martinzie Johnson in an excellent think piece titled “Being Black in a World Where White Lies Matter.” Martinzie then states, “white lies have tangible consequences.”
Martinizie wrote this piece a few days after a bombshell confession by Carolyn Bryant, the young white woman whose accusation of Emmett Till fifty-two years prior resulted in the 14-year-old boy being kidnapped from his uncle’s home and murdered by her husband and brother-in-law. It took half a century for Bryant to finally admit to biographer Timothy B. Tyson that“nothing that boy did justified what was done to him.”
The current hype that has been built around Leaving Neverland, a film directed by Dan Reed and funded and distributed by HBO in the U.S. and Channel 4 in the U.K., may appear deceptively at first as an important film for the #MeToo era, highlighting the alleged sexual abuse that Michael Jackson inflicted on two young boys who idolized him and fell-by grand and parental design-into his circle. At least, that is according to the hype that has been drummed up around it. But a closer look reveals many disturbing reasons to argue that this agenda-driven film has little to do with either journalistic integrity or concern for sexual abuse victims. Instead, there are many justifiable reasons to argue why this film is simply a new twist on the age-old concept of lynching a black man based on white lies. The fact that it is a black man who also just happened to be one of the most beloved and powerful figures in entertainment is, of course, the very matter at the heart of the film’s controversy, along with the fact that we are into the tenth anniversary of his passing. At a time when Michael Jackson’s life should be the subject of fond remembrances and reflections on his artistic legacy, we instead get this, the equivalent of a posthumous, 21st century lynching based on nothing but the uncorroborated testimonies of two men whose civil case against his estate has already been dismissed, not once but twice.
Why is the “woke” crowd so determinedly asleep at the wheel on this? And an even more troubling question: Why are so many of the most influential journalists in the U.S. and U.K. enabling it? Dan Reed’s controversial film has indeed accomplished one positive goal even before its scheduled broadcast, although it may not be the goal he intended.
For sure, the film has helped shed much needed light on the underbelly of #MeToo, revealing some startlingly dark truths about who the movement is designed to protect-and who it is willing to sacrifice.
But first, let’s back up and look at the key players in this drama. We have Michael Jackson, whose story has already passed into the realm of an American mythical figure, a poor black kid who worked his way up from nothing to become one of the most legendary musical figures of all time. This was a man who worked non-stop from the age of five to build his legacy. In the 45 years of his life that he gave to the public, he managed to break records, to achieve what few black artists before him had done (including owning, at one time, half the Sony-ATV catalogue), and to build a legacy that is intricately woven into the fabric of U.S. pop culture. But beyond that, he became a world icon in a way that only a very few American artists have achieved.
This is all a long way of saying Michael Jackson worked hard — damn hard — — to build what he achieved. And before we start trying to dismantle that legacy based on nothing but the words of two white men who joined his long list of hangers-on, we’d better be looking long and hard at the facts. That is, if we want to be able to live with ourselves in the aftermath.
But herein lies at least some of the problem. Most who have already followed the story to any degree are already at least superficially aware that there are inherent issues with the claims of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the two subjects of this documentary. It is widely known, for instance, that Wade Robson-as a 23-year-old adult- testified in Jackson’s defense at his 2005 trial, swearing under oath and penalty of perjury that nothing sexual ever happened between them. But the inconsistencies, as well as problematic and ever changing timelines in their stories, goes much deeper.
On February 7 2019, the estate of Michael Jackson sent a strongly worded letter to HBO CEO Richard Plepler, followed by another a couple of days later to Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon. The letter to HBO outlined, in painstaking 10-page detail, the long, problematic history of Robson’s and Safechuck’s claims (coming from attorneys who have spent the better part of the last six years battling these very allegations in court), while the letter to Channel 4 specified that the program is in direct violation of the channel’s guidelines for ethical journalism, citing a clause which states that any program making “significant allegations” must allow “those concerned” to be “given an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond.” Both letters were explicitly detailed, powerful complaints against the two accusers, highlighting the many various flaws and inaccuracies with their stories. Collectively, they revealed a dark history of two opportunists who took advantage of Jackson’s generosity and friendship.
Interestingly, what Dan Reed chose to leave out of his film is as interesting as what he chose to leave in. While I have not seen the film, I know sources who have, and who have been able to describe to me in detail what it represents. It is, quite frankly, a one-sided film in which only two voices are heard-that of Robson and Safechuck. Now, let’s make an analogy. Suppose you had to decide a court case based only on hearing the prosecution’s case presented? Suppose there is no defense, no cross examination, no presentation of exculpatory evidence, no opening statement and no closing argument? You would no doubt find the story as presented only through the voice of the prosecution and their witnesses quite compelling. It is only under cross examination that those stories often start to crumble, raising what we might call reasonable doubt. And it is only through exculpatory evidence that we can actually weigh an accused person’s guilt, or lack thereof.
Leaving Neverland is essentially the equivalent of sitting through a four-hour testimony of two prosecution witnesses offering their sales pitches, without benefit of cross examination. Entertaining? Possibly, if you consider four hours’ worth of extremely graphic descriptions of sexual acts against children entertaining. Truthful? Hard to say, except we know the track record of the accusers. Fair or ethical? Absolutely not, especially given that the accused subject of the film is deceased.
Which brings us back to Channel 4’s weak defense when confronted by the estate. Their claim is that the film contains denials Jackson made in his own lifetime. However, these would have been denials Jackson raised against the accusations made against him in 1993 and 2005. He did not have the opportunity to “deny” the accusations made by Robson and Safechuck, who waited four and five years after his death, respectively, to bring them.
As for HBO, their only response-after having it outlined for them in 10 excruciatingly detailed pages exactly everything that was wrong with the stories these two men are claiming- was that it was “powerful.” In other words, what they were actually confessing is that ratings matter more than truth, fairness, or accuracy.
This truly begs the question: Would HBO have been so quick to fund and support this project had its subject been any celebrity other than Michael Jackson? Moreover, would the immediate condemnation of the media have been as swift to rush to judgment without at least raising a question mark or a demand for vetting of the film’s accuracy? My guess is that the answer would be no.
Of course, if we raise that question, it would also be fair to acknowledge that Jackson’s legacy is one that many feel is already tainted by doubt. After all, he was accused by the parents of Jordan Chandler in 1993, and ten years later, the Arvizo allegations resulted in a grueling 5- month trial which ended in his acquittal on 14 counts. It would be understandable to have doubts and questions, as I did back in 2009 when I first began researching the allegations made against Jackson. For many, those lingering questions remained even after Jackson’s death. At the time, public sentiment largely fell into three camps: Those who always believed, unequivocally, in his innocence; those who said, “Whatever may have happened, it’s past; let him RIP” and then those few who continued, with dogged determination, to unearth his corpse and prop it up for re-trial in the court of public opinion. It may go without saying that those who are standing behind and supporting this project fall into the latter category. But unless we accept the naïve explanation that this project is all about “justice for victims,” there are bigger questions that need to be addressed: Who is really behind this? Also, why now, and what are they really hoping to gain from it?
It is astonishing beyond belief that no one in the mainstream media — not one serious investigative journalist — seems willing to raise these questions.
What many fail to realize is that Jackson became a target for a racist driven agenda. What appears, deceptively, as a case of “smoke and fire” was actually a long and quite convoluted history of “smoke and mirrors.” The first accusation grew out of a personal dispute between Jackson and the first boy’s father, Evan Chandler, when Jackson refused to finance Chandler’s trilogy of film projects. Although Jackson eventually settled that case out of court, the civil settlement did not preclude a criminal trial. Rather, two Grand Jury hearings failed to bring an indictment. However, because Jackson did settle the case, opening the door for financial gain to be made at his expense, a cottage industry of accusing Michael Jackson was thus born. Every accusation made since then, including those of Robson and Safechuck, has come down to an issue of money. It is, after all, easy to make up a convincing story, and in the case of Michael Jackson, all they had to do is study the details and patterns of previous stories. A little known fact is that Janet Arvizo consulted the same attorney who had represented the Chandlers (a pattern that has continued, with both Robson and Safechuck represented by the law firm Manly, Stewart & Finaldi ). Many of these shadesters were convinced that the best case scenario was that they might hit a financial windfall on a par with the Chandlers. But at the very least, even when they knew their bogus stories would never hold up in a court of law, they could always count on the tabloids, some of whom were known to shell out as much as six figures for any potential dirt on Michael Jackson. The 2005 case against Jackson was, in reality, an absolute travesty of justice that should never have gone to trial, another case of a family that took advantage of his generosity and then tried to “get back” when the friendship soured. However, if there was at least one positive aspect that came from it, it was the fact that this also served as the trial by jury that Jackson did not receive back in 1993. Tom Sneddon, in his gloating determination to “get” Jackson at all costs, actually reversed then current California laws against bringing in prior allegations. This meant that questions, evidence and witnesses from the 1993 case could also be introduced.
Jackson, in essence, was not only exonerated from the claims that the Arvizo family made against him, but those of the Chandlers as well. It seemed in theory, at least, that he had finally gotten the chance to fight those accusations in court just as he had initially wanted to back in ’93.
Dan Reed’s film only scratches the surface of the Chandler and Arvizo allegations, which may be understandable from a narrative standpoint if his focus is on the stories of the Robson and Safechuck families, but seems nevertheless a puzzling omission for a film whose entire context comes out of these two past sets of allegations.
What is more damning, however, is the fact that his film also only scratches the surface of the two more current claims that it is purporting to be about. The film presents only the subjects themselves telling their alleged side and their alleged stories of abuse, while purposely choosing to omit any counter narratives or rebuttal testimonies. In the Q&A that followed the film’s premier at Sundance, Dan Reed appeared to dodge this very specific question when asked.
Given the very serious nature of the allegations being waged in this film, to purposely omit any kind of rebuttal testimony (especially on behalf of a deceased individual) is beyond unethical.
While Dan Reed, HBO, and Channel 4 have continued to hide behind the mantra of the oft-repeated“let the viewer make up their mind” the film itself offers no such opportunity.
Furthermore, the film seems to purposely omit details that would obviously raise questions in the viewer’s minds regarding Robson’s motives. For example, why did Robson continue to defend Jackson and to speak glowingly of his friendship with him right up until 2013, when he was denied the chance to direct the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil show?
Why did he lie, claiming under oath he had no knowledge of the Jackson estate in 2013 when, in fact, it is on record that he met with John Branca to discuss the Cirque gig in 2011? Why do they claim that Robson’s and Safechuck’s stories are completely independent of each other, when the reality is that both have been represented by the same attorneys since 2014? Why is Safechuck allowed to blatantly lie in the film about Jackson contacting him to defend him in 2005, when attorneys involved in the case have specifically stated that the decision was made that Safechuck’s testimony would not be needed, and that Jackson would not have been allowed to personally contact potential witnesses?
Why did early press releases attempt to hide the identities of the two men in question, even though Jackson’s family, the Estate, and fans who had followed this developing story for seven years had absolutely no doubt who the two men in question were? The obvious answer was a well-planned strategy to “blind side” by preventing these entities (particularly Jackson’s family and Estate) from having time to prepare an adequate response or counter strategy.
When the first letter from the Estate to HBO went unheeded, the Estate followed through on its threat and filed a one hundred million-dollar lawsuit against HBO. In that letter, there was mention of a man named Victor Gutierrez who has long been associated with Jackson’s name and has long been suspected as a “source” for the allegations made against Michael Jackson. The story goes that Gutierrez, a Chilean reporter who came to Hollywood in the mid 1980’s envisioning himself as an investigative reporter, infiltrated a number of NAMBLA meetings (and even gained membership). It was reportedly at these clandestine meetings that Gutierrez heard whispers about certain celebrities suspected of being “in the closet” pedophiles. The alleged goal of NAMBLA was to “out” these celebrities in a desperate attempt to “normalize” their cause. But there was an issue, since often these names were circulated about with no concrete proof. Rumors and innuendoes were enough. Michael Jackson was one such name that popped up, largely because at the time Jackson was cultivating his “Kid Power” image. Those within NAMBLA’s ranks who were responsible for starting and spreading those rumors failed to take into account that “Kid Power” was part of a two-fold PR plan for Jackson, 1: Because he truly and genuinely believed in the ability of children to heal the world, and 2: As someone who himself had been scarred by childhood stardom, he sought to “give back” by empowering and serving as a positive role model for children in the industry, as noted by his long-time friend and supporter Corey Feldman.