Public Media Arts Hub

‘Leaving Neverland’ tells disturbing stories of child sex abuse

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: A new documentary is reigniting questions about the life and legacy of pop icon Michael Jackson.

John Yang has the story.

And we want to warn you that some may find the details disturbing.

John Yang: Nearly a decade after his death, multiple Grammy winner Michael Jackson's music and showmanship can still cast a magical spell. But questions about his private life can still cast a dark shadow.

In 1994, Jackson paid more than $20 million to settle a lawsuit alleging he sexually molested a 13-year-old boy. And, in 2005, he was acquitted on 10 counts of child molestation, serving alcohol to a minor, conspiracy and kidnapping.

Now accusations of inappropriate conduct are back in the headlines with "Leaving Neverland" a two-part four-hour documentary to be broadcast Sunday and Monday on HBO. The film tells the stories of James Safechuck and Wade Robson.

Robson, a dance teacher who did choreography for NSYNC and Britney Spears, says Jackson initiated him to sex when he was 7 years old, and the pop star was 31. He alleges the behavior continued for seven years.

Wade Robson: And he started talking about how much he loves me. What this is, is us, and how we show our love for each other, that other people are ignorant, and they're stupid, and they'd never understand.

If they ever found out what they were doing about this sexual stuff, that he and I would be pulled apart and we would never be able to see each other again, and that he and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives.

John Yang: Safechuck, a former child actor who appeared with Jackson in a Pepsi commercial, says Jackson abused him over six years, beginning when he was 10.

James Safechuck: Secrets will eat you up. You feel so alone.

John Yang: Their families tell how Jackson won their trust.

Woman: He just came across as a loving, caring, kind soul. It was easy to believe that he was just that.

John Yang: And how they feel about him now.

Laura Safechuck: Michael's gone, but it doesn't change the fact that he destroyed these people, and that the world still goes on loving him.

John Yang: On "CBS This Morning" this week, Jackson's family launched a preemptive strike against the film and the accusers.

Man: We know our brother. And Michael wouldn't do anything like that. And then he waits until after the passing of Michael, 10 years later, just to come out and to state his?

And he's -- they're still in court with -- with the estate, suing them for hundreds of millions of dollars.

John Yang: Jackson's estate is suing HBO for $100 million. It claims the film violates a non-disparagement clause in a deal the network made in 1992 to broadcast a Jackson concert.

In a statement, HBO said: "Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain the same."

To discuss the film, the director, Dan Reed, the director, joins us now.

Dan, thanks so much for your time.

What was your intent? Why did you want to tell this story?

Dan Reed: The intent rose out of an opportunity, which was my accidental discovery of Wade and James, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who I read about as the plaintiffs in a civil suit against the Jackson estate.

So here were two young men who claimed that, as children, they had been sexually molested by the singer. It seemed to me here was an opportunity to try and find out if these guys had something true to say, whether they were genuine. And, if they were genuine, perhaps there was a way to finally delve a bit deeper into this controversy that had lasted for so long.

John Yang: How did you determine or how did you satisfy yourself that they were genuine now?

Dan Reed: Well, the reason why Wade in particular, because Wade was an adult when he testified in Jackson's favor in 2005 during the criminal trial, the reason why Wade changed his story -- and that's what it looks like, and I can understand why people query that -- that story of Wade's awakening is the story of the film.

That's -- you know, it takes four hours to unpack that. And when you reduce it to its simplest, Wade, as a child and as a victim of Michael Jackson, formed a deep attachment to his abuser. He fell in love with Michael, and that relationship shaped his teenage years and his adult life, up to, you know, until his mid-20s.

So he's 22. He stands up in court, and he knocks it out of the park in defense of Michael. And he is defense witness number one, and probably one of the important reasons why Michael was acquitted of the child sex abuse charges of the 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo.

So, why did he change his mind? Well, he didn't want his mentor, his -- the man that he had been in a sexual relationship with, his idol, the man he really admired, he didn't want him to go to jail. And so he lied.

And then it wasn't until a few years later that he had a child of his own, he had a young son, and he describes the moment when he looks at his son, and he imagines Michael doing to his son the things that Michael did to him, to Wade, as a 7-year-old, and becomes enraged, and can't stand the thought.

And then that -- that prompts him to look deeper into the way he thought about his own relationship with Michael. And that's when he started beginning to consider it as abuse, because, up to that point, it was just like a special relationship with Michael that had a sexual component, but was also about a bunch of other things and was deep emotional attachment.

John Yang: We mentioned the lawsuit from the Jackson estate against HBO.

The Jackson estate also complains that you didn't go to them to get their side of the story for any sort of response. What's your response to that?

Dan Reed: Well, let's think about this for more than a second. I don't make any allegations about the Michael Jackson estate in my film. They're barely mentioned.

I don't say that they molested children. So, why would I go to them for comment? They don't know anything of any use about what happened behind a locked bedroom door between, let's say, Wade Robson at the age of 7 and Michael Jackson.

What the Jackson family do admit is that Michael spent many nights, many, many nights, in bed in the company of little boys. You know, they have never really disputed that. And so -- and they have not disputed that Wade and James had long acquaintance -- acquaintances or friendships, if you like, with Michael.

So, there are many, many facts about this story that are easily corroborated. But the central fact is the question of what happened behind those closed doors. That's the central question of the film.

And I don't think that the family or the estate have anything useful to say about that. And they also have a massive interest and a big financial vested interest in trying to cover it up. So, they certainly weren't credible or impartial witnesses in the story.

John Yang: So much of the reason for all this attention to the film is Michael Jackson. But, as a viewer, I found most affecting the story of these two young men and the effect that this had on them and their families.

And I would like to play a little bit of James Safechuck talking about the effect it had on him as an adult.

James Safechuck: One of the weird things is not liking yourself and not knowing why. Like, I didn't know why I had these problems or felt these ways, constant anxiety and depression, and not knowing why you are like that.

John Yang: Now, he could be talking about the effects of something at the hands of a priest, a teacher, a coach. It doesn't have to be a celebrity.

Talk a little bit about that part of the film.

Dan Reed: Well, what this film is really about is two families coming to terms with the disclosure of a long-held and very dark secret, which is there -- the sexual abuse of their sons at the hands of Michael Jackson.

Now, it's not about Michael, it's not about -- it doesn't really matter that this was a pop star. I mean, I guess of course it matters, because this is a story that now is important and significant because of because of Michael's magnitude in our culture.

But this could easily have been a story about an uncle or a priest or any trusted figure, any figure of authority that a mother or father might trust to spend time with their child. And that's how I want people to see this film.

I think it's a -- it's a valuable document which chronicles, over two decades, the story of a family's entanglement with a predatory pedophile.

And that pedophile, as I say, could be anybody. And I think that's what I want people to take away from this film, like, this could be anybody, and this is how it happens. They don't grab you. It's not a guy in a dirty trench coat waiting at the school gates who bundles the child into a van or an alley.

It's your -- it's the man or the woman that you trust with your child. One of the things you need to watch out for as a parent is anybody who takes -- who pays more attention to your child than you would normally do, and anyone who takes -- who seems to have more care about your child than is normal. And he said, that's a real telltale sign.

So I would like people to watch this film and kind of be educated about how child sexual abuse and grooming really happens.

John Yang: Dan Reed, director of "Leaving Neverland," which is on Sunday and Monday night on HBO, thanks a lot, Dan.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
+
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.