HBO's controversial new Michael Jackson documentary "Leaving Neverland" has already left people divided.
The Sundance Film Festival has never been deterred by the threat of controversy. Founded by Hollywood icon Robert Redford, the event has been a stronghold for provocative independent films, ranging from Kevin Smith’s supposedly blasphemous “Red State,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Birth Of A Nation” and the routinely explicit work of Lars Von Trier. With that said, arguably no production has brought as much controversy to Park City, Utah as Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland. Helmed by the Emmy & BAFTA nominated director behind Terror In Mumbai and The Paedophile Hunter, the new documentary has come under fire from Michael Jackson’s most fervent supporters. As a result, the local police precinct has been placed on “high alert.”
Complete with placards emblazoned with the slogan “Seek Truth, Think For Yourself,” the efforts of those in Utah coincide with fans plastering hashtags #BoycottSundanceFilmFestival and #StopLeavingNeverlandNOW across Twitter and Facebook. For hardened MJ fans, the problem lies in what the film has set out to accomplish. “Through gut-wrenching interviews with the now-adult men and their families,” reads the official synopsis, “Leaving Neverland crafts a portrait of sustained exploitation and deception.” Ten years after his death, and fourteen after Jackson was found not guilty of sexual abuse allegations, the documentary has once again shone a light on the rumored perversions that once plagued the Neverland Ranch.
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
Set to be aired in March on HBO, the preamble surrounding its widespread release has given us a good idea of what to expect, the revelations it has yielded and why Jackson’s family and unflinchingly devoted fans are up in arms. For its British director, the origin of Leaving Neverland’s production was a simple desire to disperse the lingering ambiguity around Michael Jackson’s relationship with children. Detailed in a post-premiere Q&A, Reed elaborated on how he found the story of the two alleged victims that would form the basis of the documentary:
“I came across a reference in one of the forums to a court case held by Wade (Robson) and James (Safechuck). I thought ‘that’s strange, I didn’t know about this’ and this might mean that, for the first time, someone might be able to tell the story of what actually happened. About a year later, I found myself sitting in front of them with a camera and this extraordinary story began.”
The stories he’s referring to are that of two men claiming to have been molested by the global icon in the 1990s. Upon the news that screenings of this two-part, four-hour long documentary would come equipped with therapists, it was safe to assume that this would be a no-holds-barred account of the abuse that Robson and Safechuck were said to have been subjected to. Filled with revelations that prompted Indiewire Film Critic David Ehrlich to remark that he’d “need 400 showers to ever feel clean again”, his ensuing review spares no details as to what viewers can expect. Rather than cast any reasonable doubt, Ehrlich presents the film’s content as unequivocal fact, no matter how depraved or unsettling it may be.
Where dispatches from his 2005 trial scratched the surface of his alleged crimes, Leaving Neverland sheds searing light on his infamous “sleepovers,” mock wedding ceremonies and regimented systems of abuse that came equipped with “drills” on how to get dressed quickly should they be interrupted. In the second part, the film moves away from the accusations themselves and focuses on the ramifications that this alleged abuse had on the lives of these kids and their families. When it comes to what the alleged victims are getting out of this, James Safechuck- who first encountered Jackson on the set of a Pepsi commercial- has vehemently denied that it’s some exploitative cash-in. “From the get-go, there was no money ever offered and we never expected anything,” he explains. “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.”
Met by a standing ovation from Sundance audience members, the pair has been receiving commendations for their bravery from viewers and critics alike. Yet Michael Jackson’s estate has portrayed them as far more malicious figures. In the wake of the film’s premiere, the family has unreservedly discredited it as a “public lynching,” making every attempt to undermine the accusers’ credibility by citing the legal proceedings of the past. “The creators of this film were not interested in the truth. They never interviewed a single solitary soul who knew Michael except for the two perjurers and their families,” reads a statement from the Jackson estate. “That is not journalism, and it’s not fair, yet the media are perpetuating these stories. But the truth is on our side. Go do your research about these opportunists. The facts don’t lie, people do. Michael Jackson was and always will be 100% innocent of these false allegations.”
Amid labeling the film as salacious, the estate has also been quick to reiterate that “the two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred.” Elsewhere, many of those close to Michael have come to his defense, refuting the notion that he could’ve been a pedophile. Across podcasts, social media posts and television appearances, everyone from his sperm donor Mark Lester to older brother Jermaine have rubbished the documentary’s findings, with the latter pleading for everyone to leave Michael’s legacy alone in an emotional on-air speech. Left enraged by the film, Tito Jackson’s son Taj has assigned himself the task of exposing the truth about his uncle’s life via an opposing documentary. Envisioned as a way to “conclusively destroy decades of salacious myths which have been told and sold about Michael Jackson ad nauseam,” he has set up a GoFundMe in order to aid his progress; at the time of writing, he has amassed $46,000 of his $777,000 goal.
In a more grassroots campaign, everyday supporters of the legendary artist have rallied behind him through an online petition that calls for the film to be shelved. Titled “End The Defamation Of Michael Jackson,” the contrast between the oppositional front of these 57,000 vocal supporters and the praise it’s receiving from audiences epitomizes why this film carries a real sense of occasion. Predestined to have millions tuning in, the morbid fascination it has conjured up is no mean feat. Whatever side of the fence you’re on, March will give us all a chance to witness Leaving Neverland in all of its heinous detail. It’s our job to objectively make up our minds as to whether we’re witnessing opportunism or a matter that could irrevocably change Jackson’s legacy as we’ve come to know it.