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Michael Jackson: An uncomfortable legacy

Michael Jackson: An uncomfortable legacy
© Jacques Soffer/AFP/GettyImages

The documentary “Leaving Neverland” takes a critical look at one of the most controversial aspects of Michael Jackson’s life and legacy: the persistent rumors that he abused children, specifically young boys. The documentary’s two protagonists, young men whom the pop star befriended when they were boys, allege that Jackson began “grooming” them and their families for what would turn out to be years of sexual abuse spanning into their middle teens.

The men have also been making the media rounds, including exclusive interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. They allege that Jackson’s family and inner circle created an atmosphere of intimidation and lies that protected the star against allegations of child sexual abuse for decades. Jackson’s family told King on “CBS This Morning” that the documentary is “a one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda.”

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Jackson’s fans are having none of it. They have taken to social media to attack Oprah and Jackson’s accusers in vile terms. In the age of #MeToo, there seems to be a specific carve-out for Michael Jackson, whose legendary status has placed him somewhere on the pop pantheon between saint and god. His fans accuse the two men of being money-seeking leeches who lived off Jackson’s largesse and only now are bringing forth these tales of abuse in order to siphon more money from Jackson’s estate. For their part, the men say that their efforts to bring attention to child abuse has nothing to do with money and are all about seeking justice and preventing such a situation from happening again.

The question that begs asking, of course: Could all of the above be true? Could Michael Jackson have been both a “saint” who cared for children and donated tens of millions of dollars to child charities and at the same time a child sex abuser? Could the young men at the center of “Leaving Neverland” have been both victims of Jackson and be money-grubbing opportunists seeking to tarnish his legacy for personal gain? The answer is yes, perhaps. One of these things would not preclude another.

The difficulty in parsing the complicated life and legacy of Michael Jackson arises because he has been a beloved figure in the public eye since his own childhood. We all remember the family band, “The Jackson 5,” and how innocent and pure Michael seemed at the time. We watched him morph from that child into a somewhat awkward teenager. We saw him languish amidst his childhood crushes on singer Diana Ross and supermodel Brooke Shields. We saw him fawn over actress Elizabeth Taylor as only someone with ambition to embody such iconic status would do. We were hypnotized by his unlimited brilliance as an entertainer. Because he grew up with many Americans alive today, we felt we knew him and understood him. We loved what he stood for.

Michael Jackson’s legacies of artistic achievement and humanitarian contribution may be unrivaled in the annals of modern pop stardom. He touched literally billions of fans over his five decades in the public eye. Yet, despite his desire for public adulation, Jackson was fiercely defensive of his privacy.  He sometimes walked around in surgical masks and pajamas, trying to dodge the paparazzi. He guarded his personal life and relationships with his children. When allegations of a dark side emerged, he was acquitted of at least one accusation of child abuse in a 2005 trial.  

Jackson’s vitiligo, which caused his skin to become progressively lighter, and his excessive plastic surgeries created an almost grotesque mask that bore no resemblance to the childhood star many had grown to love. The tabloids nicknamed him “Wacko Jacko” — a label that stuck with him as he veered further and further into a cocoon of fantasy and excess that ultimately destroyed him. At one point in his life, he was a devout Jehovah's Witness and vegetarian teetotaler. He died in the most depraved of circumstances, deeply in debt, hounded by creditors after having squandered a fortune estimated at more than a half-billion dollars. His addiction to painkillers became public after his death.

Jackson’s legacy definitely is complicated — but not that dissimilar to many stars who lived with public adulation and developed personal struggles. The list includes Liberace, Whitney Houston, Elvis Presley and Prince. Yet nothing can diminish their sheer genius as artists and performers. In fact, it seems that such talent and exposure to the world often brings burdens of conscience and spiritual turmoil.

The two men featured in “Leaving Neverland” are courageous to recount what they allege to have happened, if indeed it is all true. Some will believe them; some will not. As for Michael Jackson’s life, I question the motives of a Hollywood industry that uses people up and spits them out, leaving them a soulless shell of themselves. When we place people on the altar of celebrity, we seem to demand of them an ultimate sacrifice.

Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is the owner and manager of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. He is the author of “Reawakening Virtues.”