Hollywood Isn't Ready to "Mute" Michael Jackson
After Leaving Neverland, celebrities are divided on how to handle the musician's iconic work.
Since its HBO debut on March 3, Leaving Neverland has sent shockwaves and sparked a heavy debate over where we go from here.
In the documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck allege that Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children. The men detail the ways in which they say Jackson groomed them with attention and gifts, pulling them into inappropriate “friendships” that ultimately turned abusive. Their stories are stomach-churning and graphic, and hard for fans of Jackson’s iconic music career to take in.
Jackson’s family members have vehemently denied those claims, as have representatives from his estate, which filed a lawsuit against HBO that could cost the network over $100 million, according to Deadline. Before Jackson died in 2009, he had been tried on seven counts of child molestation and two counts of giving a drug to a 13-year-old boy; he was acquitted of all of these in 2005.
But this new documentary is bringing stories like these back to the fore, and this time the impact is harder to ignore. Since Leaving Neverland aired, The Simpsons pulled its Michael Jackson episode, and Jackson’s sales, streaming numbers, and radio airplay have all reportedly dropped. But when it comes to individuals in the industry, and how they’re taking in these allegations and changing how they feel about the man behind some of pop’s most influential music, the answer to “what now” isn’t as clear.
During the NAACP’s 50th Image Awards Luncheon Saturday at the Loews Hotel in Hollywood, we spoke with people in all facets of the industry about whether they’re re-evaluating the role Jackson’s music plays in their own lives. Emotions ran high, and for many, the answers weren’t all as black-and-white as you might expect.
“I definitely think we as a culture have to examine what we allow to proliferate and continue based on a revelry and idolatry we have,” actress Essence Atkins said. “I don’t think we can be blind in our support of things. I don’t think we can turn a blind eye to victims and to their plights and the trauma that was inflicted upon them. I don’t think that that is right either, but I also know that damaged and hurt people without a safe place to go, and without being surrounded by people who hold them accountable is also part of the problem.” As she continued, it sounded as if she wasn’t just talking about Michael Jackson — there may be a bit of an R. Kelly takeaway, as well.
“We are allowed to continue with bad behavior when no one pulls our coats or calls us to the table, and that happens when you’re making money. And it’s not just a family who lets that train continue. It is also sponsors, corporations, commercialism … there’s a lot of people who are conflicted,” she said.
Logan Browning, the 29-year-old star of Dear White People, said she hadn’t seen Leaving Neverland yet, but shared her thoughts on the conversation it has brought up. “I just think we have to take everything as it comes to us in time and we have to be honest with ourselves about our heroes and the art that they’ve given us, also [pay attention to] what really is the truth. And it's not easy. It's not a black-and-white thing. It's difficult and complicated.”
Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph was more concrete. “Michael Jackson is dead. Michael Jackson cannot speak for himself. Michael Jackson was convicted of nothing,” she told InStyle. “So [the alleged victims] want to wait til now? It’s low down and dirty and I don't like it.”
The discussion about separating the art from the artist, Jackson not being alive to defend himself, placing celebs on a pedestal and turning a blind eye to allegations against them has been circulating on the Twitterverse for weeks. Other celebrities like Jason Derulo and Lupe Fiasco have shared their thoughts in interviews and on social media, standing in support of the late artist — or at the very least the art they feel personally connected to.
"Michael was the sole reason I started singing and dancing," Derulo, who had not seen Leaving Neverland, told The Associated Press. "I started this [new single] project because of my love of the performer that Michael Jackson is and the influence that he had on my life as the best performer that ever lived."
Fiasco wrote on Instagram that “every hero has a flaw.” He went on: “Michael was/is my hero. He’s not my God... Championing Michael’s good doesn’t mean you also are championing Michael’s bad. Listening to his songs doesn’t mean you are supporting pedophilia or rape. But let’s call him to task, listen to the alleged victims, [hear] all sides and learn the lessons that need to be learned.”
India.Arie also spoke out in favor of Michael Jackson, saying she sees a difference in the way we should react to the allegations against R. Kelly and those against Jackson. "I think it's too late for people to be saying 'mute Michael Jackson,'" Arie told the AP. "With R. Kelly there's video," she said, referencing a sex tape that allegedly shows the singer's abuse. "With Michael Jackson ... I don't know if it's going to go as far. Not because we love him more, I just think it's a different situation."
Plenty of others have stood up in the survivors’ corner on social media, as well.
“Dear Wade and James, I believe you and I love you. Keep going,” Sia tweeted. Actress Amber Tamblyn shared from her own personal experience in the industry. “As a former child actress, I can’t help but watch this documentary and think about how wrong it is for children to be put in the position of performing for the soul purpose of pleasing adults,” she tweeted. “It’s such a slippery, dangerous, often abusive slope." And Katie Couric tweeted that the documentary was “devastating.” “To see the lifelong trauma and destruction the abuse by Michael Jackson had on these men is hard to imagine, much less watch.”
An outspoken supporter of survivors, as one herself, Rose McGowan had strong words about the courage everyone involved with Leaving Neverland has exhibited “The survivors are brave. @Oprah is brave. The documentarians are brave,” she tweeted. “This is what brave is, folks: standing against the grain, going against the norm, rocking the boat because, sometimes it needs to be rocked. It is hard to hear truth, but that’s what growing pains are."