The explosive new documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” takes a highly critical look at one of the most controversial aspects of Michael Jackson’s life and legacy—the persistent rumors that he abused children, specifically young boys. The documentary’s two protagonists, both young boys who had befriended the mega pop-star, allege that Michael Jackson began grooming them and their families for what would turn out to be years of sexual abuse spanning into their middle teens.
The men have also been doing the media rounds, including exclusive interviews by Oprah Winfrey (who has believed privately for decades that Jackson had some deeply troubling issues) and Gayle King, in which they allege that Michael Jackson’s family and inner circle created an atmosphere of intimidation and lies that protected the star against allegations of child sexual abuse going back for decades.
Of course Michael Jackson’s legion of rabid fans are having none of it. They have taken to social media to attack the beloved Oprah as well as Jackson’s accusers in the most vile of terms. In the age of #MeToo, there seems to be a specific carve-out for Michael Jackson, whose legendary status has placed him somewhere on the pop pantheon between saint and god. They have basically accused the two men of being money-seeking leeches who lived off Jackson’s largesse while he was living, and only now are bringing forth these tales of abuse in order to siphon even more money off Jackson’s estate. For their part, the men say that their efforts to bring attention to Michael Jackson’s abuse has nothing to do with money and are all about seeking justice and preventing this type of unbridled star worship from harming children in the future.
The question that begs asking, of course, is: can all of the above be true? Can Michael Jackson be both a saint who cared for children and donated tens of millions of dollars to child charities, and at the same time a serial child sex abuser? Could the young men at the center of “Leaving Neverland” have been both victims of Michael Jackson, and money-grubbing opportunists seeking to tarnish the star’s legacy for personal gain? The answer plainly is yes. One thing does not preclude the other.
The difficulty in parsing the complicated life and legacy of Michael Jackson arises because he has been in the public eye as a beloved figure since he himself was an innocent child. We all remember the Jackson 5, and how innocent and pure Michael Jackson was at the time. We watched him morph from that child into a somewhat awkward teenager. We saw him languish amidst his childhood crushes over Diana Ross and then supermodel Brooke Shields. We saw him fawn over actress Elizabeth Taylor as only someone with a deep ambition to embody such iconic status would do. We were all hypnotized by Michael’s unlimited brilliance as an entertainer. Because he grew up with us, we felt we knew him and understood him, and we loved what he stood for.
Michael Jackson’s legacies of artistic achievement and humanitarian contribution are unrivaled in the annals of modern pop stardom. He touched literally billions of fans over his five decades in the public eye. But Jackson, despite his desire for public adulation, was fiercely defensive of his own privacy. He sometimes walked around in surgical masks and pajamas in an often futile attempt to dodge the paparazzi that dogged him at every turn. He kept his private life and relationships with his children deeply secret and personal. And we never got to see his dark side – although there were certainly hints for all to see.
Jackson’s skin bleaching regimen—he became progressively whiter over his lifetime—and his excessive plastic surgeries created an almost grotesque mask that bore almost no resemblance to the childhood star many had grown to know and love. The tabloids nick-named him ‘Whacko Jacko’—a label that stuck with him as he veered further and further into a cocoon of fantasy and excess that ultimately destroyed him. At one point in his life he was a devout Jehova’s Witness and strictly vegetarian teetotaler. He died in the most depraved of circumstances, deeply in debt, hounded by creditors after having squandered a fortune estimated at over half billion dollars. He was revealed to have a desperate and debilitating opioid addiction that ultimately killed him.
Michael’s Jackson’s legacy is definitely complicated, but not that unfamiliar from many pop stars who have lived amidst public adulation and deep personal struggles. The list goes on and on, including Liberace, Whitney Houston, Elvis Presley, and even Prince. Nothing can take away from their sheer genius, not even their sheer madness. In fact, it seems that with such talent often comes such burdens of conscience and spiritual turmoil.
I do not doubt the painful and truly deeply disturbing sadness of abuse the two young men in Leaving Neverland recount. I believe their stories. However, I still question the motives of a Hollywood industry that uses people up and spits them out, leaving them a soulless shell of themselves. Certainly when we place people on the altar of celebrity we seem to also demand of them an ultimate sacrifice.
Armstrong Williams is manager/sole owner of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the year. Watch Right Side Forum every Saturday Live Newschannel 8 TV 28 in DC, 10:30 a.m. – 11 a.m. and repeats 6:30 p.m. est. Follow on Twitter @arightside and visit online atwww.ArmstrongWilliams.com