"Leaving Neverland" forces audience to reevaluate its relationship to Michael Jackson

NYT's Wesley Morris on "Leaving Neverland"
NYT's Wesley Morris on "Leaving Neverland" 05:57

"Leaving Neverland," a documentary which features detailed accusations from two men who claim Michael Jackson sexually abused them when they were children, premiered on HBO Sunday night, drawing criticism from Jackson's family and forcing fans to confront difficult questions about the late pop star's behavior.

In his New York Times article, "Michael Jackson cast a spell. "Leaving Neverland" breaks it," critic-at-large Wesley Morris writes: "It's not a feat of investigative journalism so much as an act of bearing witness. … 'Leaving Neverland' is about one man's possible contribution to the ruin of two families and the anguish that still disturbs them and, in some way, how that ruin and anguish should disturb us."

On "CBS This Morning" Morris, who's also co-host of the Still Processing podcast, described how he approached the two-part documentary. "It's not that I didn't want to see it, but you don't want to have to deal with what seeing it — if the movie convinces you — is going to leave you with," he said.

New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris. CBS News

"We've all lived with what it meant to have Michael Jackson be accused of child molestation; he was tried, he was acquitted, he settled out of court. But this movie is convincing. It's you as an audience member sitting here watching these two men and their families talk about what it meant to have Michael Jackson in their lives. Setting aside the child molestation accusations, this is a person who was very much in the lives of these two people."

And why does he believe the two men interviewed — James Safechuck (who was befriended by Jackson at age 10) and Wade Robson (at age 7)? "I think some of what makes it credible is just the degree to which their stories are similar, and the amount of time that Michael Jackson was alone with them," Morris said. "Now, I know that's going to lead to all these other questions about who was responsible or what role the parents had in all of this stuff, but that's the way we treated every other accusation against Michael Jackson.

"According to James and Wade, Michael Jackson seemed to understand the moral barrier that sort of made whatever was going on between him and James, and then him and Wade, wrong."

The Jackson family has denounced the film and said it is suing HBO. In an interview with "CBS This Morning" last week, the family said Jackson's friendships with kids were "very innocent." 

Jackson family responds to "Leaving Neverland... 06:22

"The film itself is presenting these stories without a lot of editorial dissent," Morris said. "This isn't James and Wade sort of saying that Michael Jackson did this and [then] you hear from the family, or you hear from lawyers. This is simply a laying out of a story that goes very neatly into the stories that we have been talking about with Michael Jackson."

Compared to other celebrities who have been accused of or charged with abuse — Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Matt Lauer — Morris said, "Nobody has had the cultural impact that Michael Jackson has had."

Co-host Gayle King asked, "How do you separate the man who's accused of these allegations and his music?"

"That's the question you always ask in these situations: 'What do you do with the work the person has made, and how do you separate that from the horrible thing the person has done?'" Morris said. "I think it's impossible to answer, for one thing. In the case of Michael Jackson, what do you do? I'm going to get on the subway later, there's going to be somebody playing guitar, and it's going to be 'Billie Jean.' This person doesn't know about this documentary and doesn't want to know.

"I feel like the real question to ask is, how do we prevent things like this from happening again? I think the real question in all these situations, whether it's the priesthood or celebrity, is how much power we give people and how much faith we put in them.

"Fame is a disease; celebrity is kind of a religion. And we have to reconcile what we want our relationship to be with those two things."

Part 2 of "Leaving Neverland" airs Monday night. The film is available for streaming on HBO Now and HBO Go.

"Leaving Neverland" director on new documenta... 07:42
  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.