“Leaving Neverland,” the new film that revives old allegations that the late music superstar Michael Jackson was a pedophile, landed last month at the Sundance Film Festival like a stun grenade among film and music lovers. On Friday, HBO announced it will air the four-hour film on March 3 and 4.
Here’s a look at the controversy around the film and what could happen next.
What is the film about?
The film asserts that Jackson did unspeakable things to little boys for years at his Santa Barbara County ranch-turned-amusement park, based on the testimony of two boys, now adults, Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40.
In its press release about the film, HBO called it “a portrait of sustained abuse” that “explores the complicated feelings that led both (accusers) to confront their experiences after each had a young son of his own. Playing out against the backdrop of our collective experience, the film documents the value of breaking silence, even when it implicates a powerful and revered figure.”
Who made the film?
Dan Reed, 54, the British director of the film, has led the campaign to promote and defend the film. In an interview with New York magazine’s Vulture column last month, he said he made the film because there was already a question at large in the culture about Jackson’s behavior.
“And I think we’ve delivered the answer to that question,” Reed said. “Why are people so interested in the truth about what this man did in the late ’80s and early ’90s? I think it’s because of his presence in the fabric of American life and people’s lives worldwide, the fact that he means something to people.
“And the meaning of that thing is going to change, and we’re attempting to change it.” Reed declined to be interviewed by USA TODAY.
What has been the reaction to the film?
There’s no question the film has ignited an uproar: Media and film critics are mostly swooning about it, calling it gut-wrenching, powerful and persuasive. Jackson’s extensive and intense fan base is enraged, lashing out on social media against the film. The Jackson family and its lawyers are fighting back with daily denunciations of the film as a mendacious “smear” of Jackson.
Thomas Mesereau, the Los Angeles celebrity lawyer who successfully defended Jackson on child sex abuse charges in 2005, says he hopes Reed’s film will fail at negatively influencing public attitudes about Jackson and his legacy.
“I’m hoping the truth prevails,” Mesereau told USA TODAY. “The Michael Jackson I knew would never abuse any child. I don’t know if I will watch (the film). Part of me is curious but part of me does not want to dignify it by watching it.”
Who are the accusers, and what is their relationship with Jackson?
There’s a long, complicated, contradictory history between Jackson and Robson and Safechuck, who sang his praises for 20 years and now say he repeatedly sexually abused them from the age of 7 until they were young teens.
Vince Finaldi, the California civil lawyer for Robson and Safechuck (he specializes in representing victims of sexual abuse), says they participated in the film to make their stories public so that people can make up their own minds about whether Jackson was a pedophile.
Also, Finaldi says, they want to protect other children in the entertainment industry, where they believe sexual abuse of kids continues. If the film helps only one child, then it’s worth it, he said.
“It’s about educating people to understand that sexual abusers are not just creepy guys hiding in the bushes in a trench coat – they’re pleasant, nice, engaging, and able to groom children, families and the public,” Finaldi told USA TODAY. “The goal is to get the story out there.”
He and his clients acknowledge that Jackson was a great entertainer and did “a lot of great things for kids. We’re not denying that. But he was also one of the worst sexual abusers in the country, or even the world.”
Indeed, Robson and Safechuck have told dramatically different stories about Jackson over the years. For two decades they praised him as a friend and mentor, swearing under oath that he never did anything bad to them. When Jackson was prosecuted on 14 counts of child sex-abuse in Santa Barbara County in 2005, Robson was the first witness on the stand for Jackson’s defense.
“He was a very powerful witness in support of Michael Jackson,” Mesereau says. “He was intelligent, articulate, likable, and from what I could see, no one was forcing him” to testify. “He was eager to assist the defense.”
Jackson was acquitted on all counts, a “total vindication,” Mesereau says. Robson now says he lied on the stand, but Mesereau doesn’t buy it. Robson “didn’t perjure himself, he told the truth,” he says. (Robson can’t be prosecuted for perjury because the statute of limitation has long since expired.)
In 2013 and 2014, respectively, Robson and Safechuck turned on Jackson, dead four years by that point. They sued the singer’s estate seeking damages for allegedly “exposing” them to sexual abuse by Jackson. A probate judge dismissed their lawsuits in December 2017 but did not rule on the validity of their allegations.
They appealed the ruling and a decision from the appellate court is expected in the fall, Finaldi says, so there might yet be a civil trial on their claims. That means Robson’s and Safechuck’s allegations in the film might go before a civil jury.
What does the Jackson estate have to say about the film?
The Jackson estate lawyer, Howard Weitzman, delivered a 10-page letter to HBO Friday, seeking a meeting with the network to discuss its claims that HBO failed to comply with “journalistic ethics,” failed to thoroughly vet the two accusers, and allowed itself to be used as a “tool” in their on-going litigation against the Jackson estate.
“We know HBO and its partners on this ‘documentary’ will not be successful,” Weitzman’s letter said. “We know that this will go down as the most shameful episode in HBO’s history…This ‘documentary’ will say a lot more about HBO than it ever could
about Michael Jackson.”
On Friday, in response to the estate’s letter, HBO issued a statement saying, “Our plans remain unchanged” and the film will air as scheduled. “(Director) Dan Reed is an award-winning filmmaker who has carefully documented these survivors’ accounts. People should reserve judgment until they see the film.”
Jackson’s family and the executors of his multi-million-dollar estate believe Robson and Safechuck want to force Jackson’s estate to pay them millions.
“This film smearing Michael is a means to that end,” said Jackson estate co-executor John Branca in a statement to USA TODAY.
Jackson family members and the estate have labeled the film “tabloid character assassination” and a “public lynching” while denouncing the accusers as liars.
Branca told USA TODAY that he believes the film is intended to further their lawsuits.
“This has been about money since 2010 when Wade Robson came to me to direct an estate project and was denied,” Branca said. “Given that Robson and Safechuck have an active appeal, how can they say their actions aren’t about money when they are still seeking millions of dollars from Michael’s estate?
“They would never have brought these claims while Michael was alive and here to defend himself,” Branca said. “Slander laws don’t protect the deceased. We have great sympathy for any victims of child abuse, but this is not Michael.”
Finaldi says “Leaving Neverland” has nothing to do with his clients’ lawsuit because they’re “separate issues.”
“Wade and James wanted, as part of their healing process, to let people know what happened to them and how Michael Jackson’s ‘machine’ worked to isolate kids and groom the kids and parents, and sometimes you can get that out through a (civil) trial.”
What happens next?
So what will all this do to the legacy of the King of Pop – in his grave nearly 10 years – now that this film has gotten us pondering again the nature of Jackson’s relationships with children?
We know this: It’s not possible to prosecute, sue or shame a dead man. It’s unlikely the Jackson family or estate could sue the filmmakers or the accusers because defamation laws do not apply to the dead.
The #MuteMichaelJackson hashtag, which seems to have existed on Twitter since at least 2012, isn’t surging in support from either celebrities or ordinary users. Will significant numbers of music lovers eventually turn off one of America’s greatest pop stars?
Recall that the #MuteR.Kelly campaign gained more power after Lifetime aired a six-part film series last month examining longstanding allegations against the R&B star involving sexual misconduct with underage girls. It’s not yet clear that “Leaving Neverland” will have the same effect.
Since Jackson can no longer defend himself, whatever shame results from “Leaving Neverland” could end up borne by his children and the rest of his famous family. Does that matter? (Coincidentally, Jackson’s model daughter, Paris, 20, last month told her 3 million followers on Instagram that she was “taking a break” from the limelight.)
“It could happen but the truth is the truth, and ultimately the goal is to protect kids and keep them safe from being abused in the entertainment industry, because there are still kids being abused,” Finaldi said.
Branca also criticized Reed, who has acknowledged that he made no effort to include anyone in the film who discounted the sexual abuse allegations because he wanted to focus more on the two accusers and their families and how and why it took so long to come to terms with what they say happened to them.
Thus, the film makes no mention of Jackson’s supporters, such as former child-star pals, Macaulay Culkin, Mark Lester, and Corey Feldman, who have defended Jackson in the wake of the film.
“(Reed) sold this one-sided tabloid-like story to his backers who bought it hook, line and sinker,” Branca said. “The truth would have been much less interesting and far less lucrative.”
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