The predictable backlash against Michael Jackson came fast and furious after the Sundance Film festival and then the HBO screening of “Leaving Neverland.”
First, several radio stations pulled Jackson from their playlists. Next, a museum in Britain removed Jackson’s statue. Then a cast of celebrities led by Oprah Winfrey, who knew Jackson, either turned their backs on him or voiced deep doubts about Jackson’s relations with children.
Almost certainly the repercussions from the fresh charges that Jackson routinely molested children will continue to snowball and put Jackson’s name, image and legacy in mortal peril. In fact, given the magnitude of the claims, it is no stretch to say that he borders shakily on the edge of the same disgrace that permanently taints Bill Cosby, R. Kelly and legions of other bigger-than-life personalities who have fallen from grace.
There was good reason then that the instant a promotional screening at the Sundance Film Festival of “Leaving Neverland” was announced in early 2019, the Jackson family loudly screamed foul. The family called the film a lie.
The “lie” was the claim by Wade Robson and James Safechuck that Jackson molested them. Jackson’s defenders, along with the family, went down a checklist of facts about the pair that made their decades later claim of abuse seem the “lie” that the family charged it was.
However, the protests of Jackson’s family were maligned bumped up against some bitter facts. One was that it is not legally possible to sue, shame or slander a dead man. Another was that Jackson is that dead man and he can’t speak or fight back.
The bitterest fact of all, though, was that during Jackson’s life, and in the years after his death in June 2009, legions never stopped believing that Jackson was indeed the child molester that the pair claimed they were victims of. This made it easy to hype the documentary, and their subsequent appearance on a panel of sexual abuse survivors on an Oprah Winfrey special, made the pair credible and ensured that the taint on Jackson as child molester would remain firmly emblazoned on his name, dead or not.
The truth is that Jackson has always remained an inviting target of both fascination, speculation and outright attack in death as in life. While the buzz and controversy around “Leaving Neverland” will come and go, the controversy around Jackson will not.
The film was not just another cheap shot attempt to capitalize on the Jackson mystique, even if it means slamming someone from the grave who can’t fight back and defend himself. It’s about not being able to accept the fact that after legions of investigations, mountains of media speculation and a trial in June 2005, where he was acquitted of child molestation, it has never been proven that Jackson was a child molester.
In fact, prosecutors, police departments and investigators in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara spent millions of dollars, convened two grand juries and probed nearly 200 witnesses that included 30 children who knew Jackson to try to substantiate the charges of molestation. Not a single corroborating witness was found.
Yet, the Jackson name and the issue of child molestation hung heavily as a damning indictment that fed the gossip mills and gave an arsenal of ammunition to Jackson detractors. This was not a small point.
The child molester claim doesn’t rest on Jackson’s trial and clean acquittal on multiple child abuse charges. The claim of Jackson as child molester never hinged on evidence or testimony to substantiate it. It hinged on the prurient fascination with a celebrity that in life and death took on preternatural stature.
This fascination in turn was fertile ground for any salacious, titillating morsel of gossip, no matter how disgusting. There’s still more to the latest Jackson beat down.
No charge stirs more disgust, revulsion and pricks more emotional hot buttons than the charge of child molestation. The accusation stamps the scarlet letter of doubt, suspicion, shame and guilt on the accused that can never fully be expunged. There is simply no defense against it.
Under the hyper intense media glare and spotlight that Jackson constantly in life remained under, the allegation, no matter how bogus, would have been endless fodder for the public gossip mill. This would have wreaked irreparable damage on Jackson’s ever-shifting musical career and personal life.
Jackson and his attorneys knew that when it came to the charge of child molestation, the presumption of innocence or even actual innocence is tossed out the window.
Jackson’s family is properly outraged by this latest slap at him. They have called the documentary a “public lynching” and “character assassination.” It is that.
But then again, it’s Michael Jackson, so should we really be surprised at any charge that anyone would make against him, even with him in the grave?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the new eBook, The Second Death of Michael Jackson (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.