Two different portraits of Michael Jackson were available on the Internet on Sunday night.
In one, an audience in Bucharest, Romania, howls as the entertainer bursts from beneath the stage in a jet of sparks that seem to ricochet off the silver iridescent fabric of his military jacket. “It ain’t too much, it ain’t too much for me to jam,” he chants. Here is Jackson — smooth and seductive — in the video “Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour,” which captures his appearance in October 1992 before a sold-out audience of 90,000.
In another, two men tell of being sexually assaulted by the entertainer beginning when they were boys. “Everybody wanted to meet Michael or be with Michael, and then he likes you,” recalls James Safechuck, now 41, who first met the singer on the set of a Pepsi commercial when he was 10. Here is Jackson — still seductive but now also allegedly predatory and abusive — in “Leaving Neverland,” the four-hour documentary that has revived allegations of child molestation against the pop superstar and international icon who died in 2009.
After a $100 million lawsuit failed to prevent the documentary’s release on HBO, the entertainer’s estate resorted at the last minute to counterprogramming that showed the pop star at the height of his power, surrounded by thousands of besotted fans.
Twenty minutes into Part 1 of “Leaving Neverland,” which ran on Sunday evening, the estate’s Twitter account directed fans to a limited-time video of the Bucharest concert on YouTube. It is 2 hours and 2 minutes long, the exact length of the documentary’s first installment. On Monday evening, when Part 2 airs, the estate plans to release a second video, “Live at Wembley July 16, 1988.” It shows Jackson’s performance at Wembley Stadium in London to a sold-out crowd of 72,000 that included Princess Diana and Prince Charles.
Neither portrait negates the other. The documentary, whose high-profile champions include Oprah Winfrey, hardly denies Jackson’s global appeal. Meanwhile, the magic of his Dangerous Tour does not address the danger that may have existed behind closed doors at his Neverland Ranch in Los Olivos, Calif.
“This for me was never a film about Michael Jackson,” the documentary’s producer and director, Dan Reed, told Billboard. He said the project was instead about Safechuck and Wade Robson, 36, in addition to Jackson’s other accusers. The two men once denied that the “King of Pop” had mistreated them but later pursued legal claims against Jackson’s estate, which were thrown out because they had not been filed soon enough after the alleged misdeeds. Both have appealed, according to Rolling Stone.
Similar claims against Jackson were settled out of court in 1994, and a jury acquitted Jackson of child molestation after a trial in 2005. Robson’s testimony vouching for Jackson was a centerpiece of the defense.
Though the allegations in “Leaving Neverland” are not new, they have gained currency in the era of the #MeToo movement, which has held powerful figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby to account. Accusations had trailed the R & B singer R. Kelly for years before the six-part documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” broadcast on Lifetime in January, led to his indictment last month in Chicago.
Jackson’s case is more complex because he is no longer alive to face the scrutiny. “Michael’s not here to defend himself,” his brother Jackie Jackson protested in an interview last week on “CBS This Morning.”
Instead, his advocates were left to dredge up old videos of the performer, in an apparent attempt to remind viewers of the man they loved — or else simply to say, “Hey, look over here.”
The tactic underscored the bitter contest over the film’s release, which has been condemned by the singer’s family as character assassination promoting efforts to extort money from the estate, whose beneficiaries are Jackson’s mother and his three children, as well as numerous charities. “They’re still in court with the estate, suing them for hundreds of millions of dollars,” Marlon Jackson told CBS of the accusers.
Relatives have found prominent allies in their criticism of the project, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose leader invoked the memory of the group’s co-founder, Martin Luther King Jr., in asking HBO not to air the documentary.
"I am voicing these concerns at the behest of the loyal supporters of the Jackson Family,” Charles Steele Jr., the president and CEO of the African American civil rights organization, wrote in a letter last week to the television network. “In the spirit of Dr. King and his nonviolence philosophy, we ask that you reconsider your decision to air this documentary.”
One of the singer’s nephews, Taj Jackson, kept up the public relations campaign as the film aired Sunday evening. He took to social media to discredit the accusers.
And even though the entertainer died before he could answer the latest accusations against him, his supporters wielded video footage of Jackson deriding those who criticized him. “He became too powerful and could no longer be ‘controlled,’” his nephew wrote, sharing an undated clip of the performer complaining of the backlash that had followed his record-breaking success: “Overnight they called me a freak. They called me a homosexual. They called me a child molester. They said I had tried to bleached my skin. They did everything to turn the public against me.”
The pop star dismissed the claims as a “complete conspiracy.”
In their updated form, packaged as part of the searing accounts of two men taken under the singer’s wing, the allegations proved difficult for some to dismiss, even as catchphrases declaring the singer’s innocence trended on social media. TheGrio, a news site geared toward left-leaning black readers, saw inconsistencies in the tales of abuse. Among its considerations as it prepared for Part 2: “The allegations. Questionable timelines. Motives. It was ALOT to absorb in the moment.”
Others had already made up their mind from Sunday’s viewing. “The love affair is over,” reported Kierna Mayo, a senior vice president at the media company Interactive One and a former editor in chief of Ebony.