Nearly 10 years after his death, the Michael Jackson brand is stronger than ever.
Jackson’s digital catalog shows no signs of fatigue. A number of unannounced deals are in the works from his estate and in October performances of a Jackson musical, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” are set to begin in Chicago before it bows on Broadway.
But here at the Sundance Film Festival, where the two-part docu-series “Leaving Neverland” premiered Friday to a packed audience at Park City’s historic Egyptian Theater, Jackson’s brand has already experienced a significant blow.
Directed by British documentarian Dan Reed, the project unpacks in explicit detail the allegations of two adult men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who allege they suffered years of sexual abuse at Jackson's hands when they were boys.
Robson claims the abuse began at age 7. Safechuck says he became sexually active with Jackson at age 10. Both men testified on the pop star’s behalf in a 1993 sexual-abuse case brought by a different boy, and claimed at the time that Jackson never did anything inappropriate.
They now say they were lying, motivated by love and loyalty for Jackson, and were only able to face the truth after they each had young children of their own. Their stories, supported by their wives, mothers and, in Robson’s case, multiple other family members, are detailed, specific and — for viewers who have seen the film at Sundance — credible.
HBO won’t air the docu-series until an unspecified date in March, and how the public will view Jackson’s music after watching the film remains to be seen. But if the Jackson estate and his fans have any say, “Leaving Neverland” will come and go.
Only a couple of protesters turned up at Sundance. But online, a storm was brewing. Hardcore fans were at the ready on Twitter, directing an onslaught of messages at any of the festivalgoers who walked out of the Egyptian and posted about what they had seen.
“Basically, to believe Wade Robson’s allegations, you have to believe that he is a liar to a great degree,” said Sara Richards, a 26-year-old student who lives in the United Kingdom and is the co-owner of MJJLegion, one of the many Twitter fan pages that has dedicated its feed to discrediting the accusers.
“To believe him now, you have to believe that he was lying for the last 20 years, including under oath,” she continued. “I hear people saying you must believe the victims, which I strongly agree with. But when you’ve been faced with a situation where someone has been lying for 20 years straight, you can’t take it at face-value. … This is obviously bringing a lot of attention and fame, and eventually, down the road, I’m sure they’ll be able to make money somehow.”
Richards, like most ardent Jackson fans who have been rallying online, is echoing the position of the Jackson estate, which has dismissed the “so-called ‘documentary’” as a rehash of “dated and discredited allegations.”
In part because Robson and Safechuck defended Jackson years ago, the film has come under intense scrutiny by the estate, which has accused the film’s subjects of being motivated by money.
The estate, and Jackson’s fans, are encouraging the public to see the film as nothing more than a smear campaign against a singer who was vilified his entire life and innocent of all allegations against him (Jackson was acquitted on charges of child molestation and of administering an intoxicating agent to a minor in 2005; he paid $22 million to settle a civil case with another accuser in 1994).
“The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact,” Jackson’s estate said in a lengthy statement issued after “Leaving Neverland” premiered.
“These claims were the basis of lawsuits filed by these two admitted liars which were ultimately dismissed by a judge. 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 … despite all the disingenuous denials made that this is not about money, it has always been about money — millions of dollars.”
“From the get-go, there was no money ever offered and we never expected anything,” Safechuck said after the film’s premiere. “It was really trying to tell the story and shine a light on it. To give people [who have survived abuse] the same connection and comfort we’ve got going through this.”
The idea for the documentary began with Reed, who had been looking back in 2016 for his next nonfiction project: Something big and investigative, an iconic American story that had the power to engage audiences on a global scale. During lunch with an executive at England’s Channel 4, he suggested Michael Jackson: Was he or wasn’t he guilty of sexual abuse?
Upon learning of Robson and Safechuck’s complaints, Reed reached out to the legal teams for the two men and expressed his interest in interviewing them. Though the filmmaker felt “it was a real long shot,” the accusers agreed to participate.
“We agreed that the sexual abuse had to be described exactly as it happened,” he said. “We had to go graphic, because there’s no point making a film like this and just saying, ‘Well, then the bedroom door closes,’ and we skip ahead.”
Once Robson explained that he’d loved Jackson as a boy, “everything suddenly crystallized” for Reed — and he understood why Robson had come to the singer’s defense for so long.
“This is difficult to say but he had a fulfilling sexual and emotional relationship at the age of 7 with a 30-year-old man who happened to be the King of Pop,” said Reed. “Most people imagine the kid kind of being forced — that’s not what happened, and Wade makes that very, very clear.
“If you’re really going to understand what oftentimes child sexual abuse is like, you have to understand that the abuser creates an authentic relationship that if the person was aged 18 or older would be completely normal. The problem is that the child is 7, and a 7-year-old can’t make those decisions.”
Reed — who said he believes there are “dozens of men” still out there who were sexually abused by Jackson — said he doesn’t think there needs to be a #MuteMJ campaign that calls for fans to stop listening to his music the way protestors implored the public to stop supporting R. Kelly. Kelly’s long history of alleged sexual-abuse crimes with young and underage girls recently resurfaced with the release of “Surviving R. Kelly,” an explosive, six-part series that aired on Lifetime this month.
Both artists are signed to Sony Music, which dropped Kelly after the documentary. The company did not return a request for comment regarding Jackson. The forthcoming Broadway production based on Jackson’s work also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“I don’t think the answer is to start a war about Jackson’s music,” Reed said. “I think this film is going to get people going #MeToo, and a lot of people will come out and will feel they’re able to talk because Wade and James broke the biggest taboo of all — the biggest silence of all. People who have had the same experience but not with a very famous person will feel empowered to speak.”
Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, attended the “Leaving Neverland” premiere and in an interview two days later said she was still processing the film. While she noted that her campaign has dealt with child sexual abuse — she herself is a survivor — she acknowledged that boys and men have not been at the center of the conversation.
“I think ‘Leaving Neverland’ will help shift the idea away that this just happens to women,” said Burke. “This film is going to drop like a bomb and shock a lot of people, having people questioning things they believed for so many years.”
Hours after “Leaving Neverland” debuted in Park City, Burke met with Robson and Safechuck to offer her thoughts on how to deal with the public backlash that may emerge in the coming months.
“I am in the center of a lot of that criticism on a daily basis, and as a survivor, it’s hard to hold that,” she said. “One of the things we talked about is that there’s going to be so much more support than there is criticism. They said that being here, this is one of the first times they’ve ever felt supported in their allegations.”
Online, the Jackson fan response has been swift and aggressive, with hundreds of individuals who have yet to see the docu-series jumping to the late star’s defense. “It’s [a] modern day lynching,” one fan tweeted in response to The Times’ coverage. “[I]t’s a biased & obviously fabricated film! You can talk about what you’ve seen but we’re asking rightfully so, to be critical & research the accusers.”
“It’s a sort of cult, isn’t it?” Reed said of the King of Pop’s army of fans. “Because he projected this image of innocence and a connection with children and a purity, I think there’s something in people that wants to worship that. And if you say that actually the opposite was true — that instead of loving and cherishing children, he harmed them — you’re blasphemous. It feels like we’ve committed blasphemy, and the MJ fans have launched a fatwa against us.”
There are still a handful of men who spent time with Jackson as boys who insist they were never abused by the musician. Brett Barnes and actor Macaulay Culkin are featured in the film, with archival footage showing them spending time with the singer in their youth; they both also testified on Jackson’s behalf in his 2005 trial.
Earlier this month, Culkin, now 38, said in an interview on the podcast “Inside of You With Michael Rosenbaum” that Jackson befriended him because they both understood how isolating child fame could be.
"It's almost easy to try say it was like weird or whatever, but it wasn't, because it made sense," Culkin said. "At the end of the day, we were friends."
When asked by The Times via email if Culkin wanted to respond to the film, his publicist replied “no thank you.” Barnes did not respond to a request for comment.
As fans and the estate continue to push back, Jackson’s nephew, Taj Jackson, is raising funds to release a counter-documentary series that he says will expose “media and showbiz corruption” and reveal how his uncle was “betrayed, entrapped, and extorted” because of his “unique” relationships with children.
"After having their abuse allegations dismissed by the court, the two men who are subjects in this film have turned to HBO, the UK's Channel 4 and the Sundance Film Festival to tell their stories. I'm extremely disappointed in Sundance. Enough is enough. Michael Jackson died an innocent, vindicated man. It's time to take a stand, and I'm fighting hard for the truth,” he said in a statement. He’s raised more than $30,000 of his $777,000 goal.
Richards said the reason the Jackson fan response has been especially vehement has to do with the film’s proximity to the 10-year anniversary of his death.
“A lot of people think fans are blinded by their devotion and unwilling to accept anything,” she said. “But we know more about the case than most people. So the idea that fans just can’t accept the truth is extremely frustrating when we’re dealing with people who see a headline with shocking details and buy it.
“People just want him to be able to be left alone, essentially. There’s been so many predators who have been revealed this year with the #MeToo movement, and we’re focusing on a man who has been dead and already went to trial for these exact crimes. What will it take for people to let this go?”
Whatever comes next, Reed said that Robson and Safechuck are ready for the next step. And he remains optimistic that by sharing their stories, the film could spur a larger conversation.
“There’s a tremendous energy for them in getting this out there,” he said. “This thing happened to them, and there’s nothing they can do about it and it [messed] up their lives for a good while. But now it has a purpose. Their experience can be transformed into something that can help other people and give permission to victims of child sexual abuse to speak out.”