A documentary set to air on HBO this spring explores allegations by two men who say Michael Jackson sexually abused them as boys. In a strongly worded statement, the late singer's estate has rebutted the film's claims, calling the documentary "tabloid character assassination."
Leaving Neverland drew strong reactions after premiering Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the men accusing Jackson of sexual abuse, received a standing ovation at the Park City, Utah, screening. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film also attracted a small group of protesters, who held signs reading "seek truth" and "innocent" outside the theater.
The four-hour film, directed by Dan Reed, details claims from Robson, a choreographer who says Jackson began abusing him when he was 7, and Safechuck, a former child actor who says Jackson began molesting him when he was 10.
Both men allege years of sexual abuse, which they say took place at the singer's famed Neverland Ranch. They also say they faced pressure from Jackson to keep the abuse a secret. Outlets reported that the Sundance screening featured health care professionals on hand to help audience members affected by the film's graphic descriptions. Reporters who attended the screening shared some of the documentary's specific allegations on Twitter.
In its statement after the Sundance premiere, Jackson's estate said "the film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact."
"These claims were the basis of lawsuits filed by these two admitted liars which were ultimately dismissed by a judge," the statement continued. "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."
As noted by The Daily Beast, Robson, 36, alleged in a lawsuit filed in May of 2013 - nearly four years after the singer's 2009 death - that Jackson had sexually abused him over a seven-year period. The Australia native, who appeared in several of Jackson's music videos as a child, had been a key defense witness in the singer's 2005 criminal trial, during which Robson testified under oath that the singer had never molested him. (Jackson was later acquitted on all charges, which included four counts of child molestation.)
Robson's 2013 lawsuit was thrown out two years later by a judge, who said Robson waited too long to make his legal claim.
Safechuck, 40, came forward in 2014 with a similar legal claim that was also dismissed. As the Los Angeles Times notes, documents filed in Safechuck's case acknowledged that he, too, had denied the singer abused him - in a witness statement he gave in 1993 when Jackson was first accused of child sexual abuse.
Jackson's family released a separate statement Monday morning, calling the documentary a "public lynching."
"The creators of this film were not interested in the truth," the statement said. "They never interviewed a single solitary soul who knew Michael except the two perjurers and their families. That is not journalism, and it's not fair, yet the media are perpetuating these stories."
The family statement echoes comments made by the singer's nephew Taj Jackson, who tweeted Saturday that the film was a "4 hour one sided hit job." "This is all about money and the desperate need to be relevant again," he wrote.
Reed, the film's director, dismissed the Jackson estate's comments in an interview with USA Today.
"How can you call a four-hour documentary 'tabloid?' " he told the paper. "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 with the substance of what they're saying."
After the Sundance screening, Safechuck and Robson said in an audience Q&A that they were never offered compensation for participating in the film. "We are just trying to tell the story, to shine light on it," Safechuck said, as quoted by Vanity Fair.
HBO has not released an airdate for Leaving Neverland, but it has said the documentary will air in two parts this spring. The film will also air on Britain's Channel 4.
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