The most controversial movie to screen at the Sundance Film Festival was HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” which premiered at Sundance on January 25. The four-hour long Michael Jackson documentary relies soley on the graphic accounts of sexual abuse by two men who made claims that they were “groomed” by Michael Jackson when they were young boys. Wade Robinson alleges that he was sexually assaulted from the ages of seven to fourteen. James Safechuck makes similar claims and also revealed in the film that he wed the King of Pop in a secret private wedding ceremony. Safechuck, 40, showed of a gold wedding ring to the camera. He also states in the movie that Jackson entered into a sham marriage with Lisa Marie Presley to revamp his image after he was accused of molesting minors. The Michael Jackson estate immediately released a scathing statement debunking the claims saying it’s “an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in” on the late singer.
The Neverland Ranch was raided by police in 2003 to investigate claims that Michael Jackson had molested a thirteen-year-old boy at the estate. Wade Robinson, 36, testified when the case went to trial and defended his relationship with the singer. He spoke under oath as a character witness. Jackson was acquitted of the charges in 2005. The two-part documentary screened with a brief 10 minute intermission. Protesters were outside the venue holding signs to defend their idol despite a large police presence at the venue. #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and Blackish creator Kenya Burress were among the people who were left speechless after the screening. The accounts of both men paints a harrowing portrait of sexual exploitation.
Both of the alleged victims were in the audience and received a standing ovation in the theater once they walked across the stage for their Q&A’s. Michael Jackson’s nephew Taj Jackson posted a statement on Twitter defending his late uncle. “My family and I have known Wade and his family since he came to America. Don’t tell me a 4 hour one sided hit job that you watched is more reputable than people who actually knew him and saw his interactions. This is all about money and the desperate need to be relevant again.”
Wade Robeson addressed the controversy during the Q&A. “I don’t feel like there is anything that I need to say to them. Except that I understand. That it is really hard for them to believe. Because in a way, not that long ago. I was in the same position that they were… even though it happened to me. I still couldn’t believe it. I still couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing.”
Director Dan Reed explained his interview process and why the 4-hour runtime was necessary to show the whole story. “Both of them had spoken to lawyers and therapists. I said. You are speaking to the person on the screen. Just speak the story in the simplist way that you can. Don’t worry about any contradictions or any contradictory feelings you might have. Just tell it like it is…” The Jackson estate refers to the film as “the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death.” Their statement continued to doubt the validity of the two accusers.
“The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened twenty years ago and treats them as fact. The two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred. They have provided no independent evidence and absolutely no proof in support of their accusations, which means the entire film hinges solely on the word of two perjurers.
The explosive accusations from the film are being protested by diehard Michael Jackson fans who grew up loving his music and want to preserve his legacy . The Jackson estate argues that “by choosing not to include any of these independent voices who might challenge the narrative that he was determined to sell, the director neglected fact checking so he could craft a narrative so blatantly one-sided that viewers never get anything close to a balanced portrait.” Taj Jackson claimed Robeson and Safechuck were “acting” in the film and blamed the media for “condeming an innocent man”. The film provides documentary support for many who believe that Michael Jackson engaged in pedophilia and had inappropriate sexual misconduct with underage boys. The movie has everyone talking because it allows for each person who sees it to draw their own conclusions.
Director Dan Reed responded to the Jackson estate in an interview with USA Today. “How can you call a four-hour documentary ‘tabloid’? That beats me. It’s pretty much what you’d expect them to say. The statement contains nothing that is of concern and no substantial criticism of the film. They obviously haven’t seen it, and I’m not engaging wit the substance of what they’re saying”. A man who was once friends with Michael Jackson when he was 10-years-old once testified that he never had a sexual relationship with the singer child at Jackson’s child molestation trial.
Brett Barnes defended Michael Jackson on twitter a day after the premiere screening. “So people are getting their facts from a movie now?” Barnes posted. “I wonder how they feel about the documentary showing the great alien invasion of ’96. I think it’s called Independence Day.”
Leaving Neverland” will air on HBO and Channel 4 in the Spring.