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Michael Jackson's legacy clouded by dark documentary

Michael Jackson's legacy clouded by dark documentary

March 6th, 2019 by Associated Press in News

FILE - In this March 2, 2005, file photo, pop icon Michael Jackson waves to his supporters as he arrives for his child molestation trial at the Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria, Calif. A new documentary on HBO, "Leaving Neverland," is about the abuse allegations of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who had previously denied Jackson molested them and supported him to authorities and in Robson's case, very publicly. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Can the memory of Michael Jackson survive "Leaving Neverland"?

After all, it has bounced back before. The superstar's image was tarnished by allegations of sexual abuse that shadowed him throughout much of his adult life and even stood trial on child molestation charges in 2005, for which he was acquitted. His untimely death in 2009 seemed to wash that stain away in an outpouring of public love and a resurgence of sales of his always popular music.

Now, 10 years later, the HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland" has aired detailed and disturbing stories from two men who said Jackson groomed them for sex and molested them when they were just little boys.

It has cast a spotlight on Jackson's unsavory history at a #MeToo moment when old allegations against stars have been taking hold, and taking them down.

So far, there has been no evidence of major damage to Jackson's music or his estate, which has made an estimated $2 billion since his death. His music has been featured in commercials and is the subject of a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas. A play about his life by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage is due out on Broadway next year.

And it may not. After all, Jackson is dead now, which means he can't be charged or put on trial, keeping the story in the headlines for months or years to come.

And there is Jackson's nearly unparalleled star status — starting out as a cherub-faced 11-year-old sensation with the Jackson 5, then catapulting into a global phenomenon with the world's best-selling album of all time, "Thriller," to his credit and hits adored by multiple generations.

"It's hard to compare someone of Michael Jackson's caliber to anyone else," said Danny Deraney, a publicist who often handles crisis management. "I don't think we've seen anything like it."

Still, Oprah Winfrey, with her vast influence, may have heralded a shift in public attitudes just by hosting the special "After Neverland," in which she interviewed the documentary's subjects, James Safechuck and Wade Robson.

"I hope we can get beyond Michael Jackson the icon, stop staring into the sun, and do what is necessary to help our children and ourselves," Winfrey said in front of an audience of sexual abuse survivors and their supporters.

She did not directly condemn Jackson. But she praised the film, treated its assertions as truth, and said she was expecting an earful from Jackson's defenders.

"I'm gonna get it," Winfrey, who interviewed Jackson before the allegations emerged in 1993 and his family after his death, said at the end of the show that aired Sunday and Monday on HBO and OWN just after the documentary.

And she did. Even before the special taped, she was subject to fierce criticism by some who left disparaging comments on her social media account.

It could be that Jackson's fandom is so pervasive, especially in countries that don't follow his personal news closely, that the documentary and renewed allegations will just make a small dent.

"For Michael Jackson's fans, more so probably outside of America, I don't think it will have an effect, because they'll ride or die with Michael," Deraney said.

Robson and Safechuck's allegations didn't emerge until 2013, when they filed lawsuits seeking money from Jackson's estate that have since been thrown out and are under appeal. Both men had previously denied Jackson sexually abused them and had been among his fiercest defenders when Jackson was alive, but say having their own children and Jackson's death led them to confront their truth.

Because of the men's past denials, some Jackson fans have dismissed their testimonies as lies, motivated by money. Some even refused to watch the documentary. Still, after the film began airing, there were casual fans who felt gutted by the revelations, with some saying they could not listen to his music the same way — if at all.

"People have already made the decision one way or the other," Deraney said. "I think when a lot of people think of Michael Jackson they already think 'pedophile,' whether or not there is any proof."

"I think what it comes down to," Deraney added, "is future generations."

Many millennials have only vague knowledge of the Jackson accusations, and are shocked even by facts that are acknowledged by both sides.

"I'm young enough to have not been aware of the allegations about Michael Jackson as they were happening," 31-year-old New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie tweeted while watching the documentary. "It is WILD TO ME that anyone thought his behavior around and constant contact with young boys was remotely okay."