I've had conversations with friends in which we've wondered if the actual process of watching the documentary is even necessary—we already know what it's about, and we already generally believe that these horrible stories have validity, so do we then need to subject ourselves to the actual experience? After going back and forth on this, I've come to the conclusion that yes, we do.
In a tremendous piece for the New York Times, the always-excellent Wesley Morris writes about how watching Leaving Neverland made him feel, and forced him to reckon with his very deep, lifelong fandom of Jackson. "It’s not a feat of investigative journalism so much as an act of bearing witness," Morris writes, explaining exactly why I think Leaving Neverland should be experienced by someone like me in all its four hours. "Bearing witness" is not something you can do without actually, you know, doing it.
Now, when I say it should be experienced by "someone like me," I mean someone who possesses a curiosity toward the subject matter, a more-than-casual exposure to Jackson's music, and a lack of any past trauma that the documentary might re-trigger. There are people who will not want to—or be able to—watch Leaving Neverland for very good, valid, important reasons. But "oh, gee, it just kinda sounds like a bummer" is not one of them.
The validity of the documentary's stories hardly seems worth debating. While the Jackson estate has attempted to protect its assets by denying any allegations, it's beyond crystal-clear that the singer—as troubled as he was—abused children, time and again. Vanity Fair has a piece called "10 Undeniable Facts About the Michael Jackson Sexual-Abuse Allegations," and it barely scratches the surface.
As to where Jackson's legacy goes from here, I don't think anyone can say for certain. In a piece for Slate, Carl Wilson writes, "It's too late to cancel Michael Jackson, nor would that be going far enough." He's right on the first point, I think, but maybe not the second. We'll still be listening to "Billie Jean" at weddings for decades to come, I'm certain, although "P.Y.T." should probably be relegated to the dumpster-fires of time. We should also probably toss most of Jackson's lesser hits, i.e. everything after Bad (and even some of that album's songs should probably to be torched), simply because it's not very good music. The question is whether we'll remember all of Michael Jackson whenever "Rock With You" comes on, not just the dance moves and videos and irresistible hits, but Jackson's own troubled childhood and the immense damage he caused to children who became close to him later in life. Jackson's gargantuan cultural influence and our awareness of the horror of his actions might indeed help pave the way to a future where sexual abuse of children stays at the forefront of our conversations, and not something we sweep under the rug. That can only be a good thing.
Leaving Neverland airs on HBO in two parts on Sunday, March 3 and Monday, March 4 at 8 pm. Both parts will be available for streaming on HBO Now and HBO Go on Sun March 3.