Right before my screening of Untouchable began, just as the lights were about to go down, I heard a woman in the row in front of me loudly sigh — like she was steeling herself for something horrible. I understood that instinct: Here at the Sundance Film Festival, the documentary about Harvey Weinstein was expected to be a difficult sit. A film that chronicled the former movie mogul’s rise and fall — with an emphasis on his legacy of sexual assault — Untouchable was highly anticipated but not in any excited kind of way. Festivalgoers dreaded the movie, but out of a sense of duty — or out of respect for his victims who were brave enough to tell their stories — they felt they needed to see it.
Strangely enough, Untouchable wasn’t the first film at this year’s Sundance that elicited such a response. The day before, I absorbed all 236 minutes of Leaving Neverland, a documentary that gives two men a platform to share their detailed accusations of being sexually abused by Michael Jackson when they were minors. Leaving Neverland was a hot ticket — celebrities like musician/filmmaker Boots Riley were in attendance — but nobody in the 318-seat Egyptian Theatre was buzzing before the screening. As a film critic colleague said glumly as he sat down, “Welcome to four hours of hell.”
I can understand why people would want to avoid these films. They’re about tough subject matter and filled with survivors explaining with alarming specificity what happened to them at the hands of powerful men. But both Untouchable and Leaving Neverland are more than just “important” films — they show us a pattern of how this sort of abuse operates. Harvey Weinstein and Michael Jackson would seem to have little in common — not even the people they preyed on were the same. But watching these two documentaries within the span of 24 hours, I was struck by how similar these men’s monstrousness worked. If you can’t stomach the idea of watching these documentaries, here’s a guide to how Weinstein’s and Jackson’s modus operandi overlapped…
They were supremely talented and successful in their professions, which garnered them plenty of admiration.
Both Untouchable director Ursula Macfarlane and Leaving Neverland filmmaker Dan Reed go out of their way to make the case that these assaulters were (at least creatively) geniuses. In Untouchable, we hear from plenty of former Weinstein coworkers who explain the allure of being around him. Even one of the women he allegedly assaulted tells Macfarlane that she was charmed by what a nerdy, passionate film lover Weinstein was. Whether it’s Untouchable detailing how seismic Weinstein’s Miramax Films was for independent cinema of the 1990s or Leaving Neverland’s survivors Wade Robson and James Safechuck mentioning just how huge Jackson was to pop music in the 1980s, we come to learn that these abusers couldn’t have done the terrible things they allegedly did if people didn’t first admire them as titans of their industries. Before they could be chronic assaulters, they had to earn their world’s trust and respect.
Their attention meant something to their victims.
Robson and Safechuck give lengthy sit-down interviews in Leaving Neverland, and although they’re adults now, they have no problem recalling how meaningful it was as boys that Jackson, the world’s biggest superstar, took an interest in them. Likewise, several of Weinstein’s alleged victims talk about the initial wave of euphoria that came over them when Weinstein befriended them. Erika Rosenbaum, an actress who moved to L.A. from a small town in Quebec to pursue her Hollywood dreams, was thrilled by Weinstein’s approval. After all, he was a major operator: If he liked you, you could become a star. With both abusers, they knew that their approbation was a lure — people the world over wanted to curry favor with them. Jackson and Weinstein used that knowledge as a trap.
They preyed on those who were too inexperienced to know better.
Robson and Safechuck were, respectively, 7 and 10 when Jackson came into their orbit. Children tend to be trusting in general, but what also made them ideal targets for an accused pedophile is that they simply didn’t have the life experience to realize that Jackson’s alleged behavior was inappropriate. (And Leaving Neverland is filled with descriptions of such alleged inappropriate behavior — the most chilling of which is that Jackson supposedly had children bend over and spread their butt cheeks so he could see their anuses. Even more disgusting, he would allegedly sometimes put his tongue inside them.) For Robson and Safechuck at the time, though, it didn’t seem wrong: It was always explained away as just innocent playtime fun.
By comparison, the adult women that Weinstein allegedly pursued were adults, but several of them that speak in Untouchable admit that they submitted to his strange demands — like giving him massages or taking off their shirt — because they assumed that this was the way things worked in the movie business. Weinstein’s authority, paired with these aspiring actresses’ naivety about the industry, made them just as susceptible as Robson and Safechuck.
They counted on their victims’ silence.
It’s common when people hear about assault or abuse that happened long ago to wonder, “Why didn’t they tell anyone?” Untouchable and Leaving Neverland demolish this thinking, hopefully permanently. The women Macfarlane interviews explain that they resisted speaking out, either out of fear of making an enemy of Weinstein or because they figured no one would believe them. As actress Paz de la Huerta mentions, putting her story out into the world would just lead people to assume she was a whore.
If anything, Jackson’s tactics for ensuring his victims’ silence were even more insidious. In Leaving Neverland, Robson and Safechuck talk about how the singer made them believe that they couldn’t trust anyone — not even their parents. The impression Reed’s documentary leaves us with is that Jackson got his alleged victims to be quiet by filling their heads with suspicion about everyone else around them — and convincing these boys that no one understood them as much as he did. One of the reasons Robson testified on Jackson’s behalf during his 2005 trial was that, at the time, he didn’t consider the abuse that happened to him to actually be abuse — he thought Jackson’s accusers were just out to get him. Weinstein bullied, while Jackson brainwashed.
There was a system around them that enabled their behavior.
Plenty of bad bosses sexually harass their underlings, but to get to the level of a Weinstein or Jackson, you needed a well-funded, expertly executed operation that allows you to get away with your alleged crimes.
In Untouchable, we hear from former colleagues, all male, who admit they didn’t do enough to look into the “rumors” they’d heard about Weinstein’s bad behavior. Sure, he was a chronic tantrum-thrower, and most knew he cheated on his wife, but the idea that he was allegedly raping women wasn’t widely known. And Weinstein was shrewd, having women who complained about his aggressive advances sign NDAs when they got financial settlements. But as Kathy DeClesis, a former Bob Weinstein assistant who quit after learning of a complaint against Harvey, says, many chose not to look into his behavior because they were benefiting from Harvey’s success. Why risk jumping off the gravy train?
For Jackson, Leaving Neverland suggests that there was a whole infrastructure devoted to ensuring his stardom kept running smoothly, and apparently no one at Neverland Ranch or elsewhere thought to question his tendency to have young boys spend the night. Add to that the performer’s legion of fans, who remain fiercely loyal and refuse to believe any molestation charges. (Before Leaving Neverland’s Sundance premiere, it was believed that there would be droves of protesters descending on Park City, which necessitated increased security inside and outside the theater. Turns out, only two people showed up, although the Jackson estate has condemned the film, dismissing it as “tabloid character assassination.”) But either because of others’ crass self-interest or blind devotion, Weinstein and Jackson had the wiggle room to keep committing their alleged crimes.
Their downfall left their victims with mixed feelings.
Both films build to cathartic endings in which the alleged abusers are finally laid low — albeit in very different ways.
Untouchable concludes with the devastating exposés printed in October 2017 in The New York Times and The New Yorker that featured on-the-record testimonials from women who claimed to have been assaulted by Weinstein, leading to his banishment from the film industry, and later, his his arrest. One might guess that Leaving Neverland would close on Jackson’s death, but his demise actually opens the door to the film’s lengthy, and intensely moving, actual ending, which explores how Robson and Safechuck finally come to terms with their alleged abuse and admitting what happened to them to their families and friends.
While Safechuck’s mother Stephanie admits to dancing for joy when she learned of Jackson’s death — she was so happy he could never abuse anyone else, not realizing that the same thing had allegedly happened to her own son — the men were deeply saddened and conflicted by his demise. Safechuck mentions that Jackson’s death made him realize he’d never get to see him again and maybe find some closure. But once Jackson had died, then came the hard work for the two men: They had to accept that they’d been abused, which led to a wave of anger and sadness among those closest to them who had never known.
Leaving Neverland wants us to focus on these survivors, acknowledging that it’s not just assault that’s traumatic — it’s the long, difficult path toward healing afterward that can be equally fraught. This feels like a crucial message for all of us to absorb as more films like this (and more stories of assault and abuse by others) come to light. Near the end of Untouchable, journalist Rebecca Traister notes that society’s tendency is to think “mission accomplished” when a predator is arrested — as if the societal system that allows such monsters to thrive has been simultaneously eradicated. But it’s not that easy: As Leaving Neverland and Untouchable argue, identifying the assailants is merely the first step. Changing our culture and caring for survivors are equally crucial — and just as challenging.