One of the most talked-about documentaries of the year hasn’t even released yet.
HBO’s forthcoming “Leaving Neverland” examines disturbing claims by James Safechuck and Wade Robson that Michael Jackson sexually abused them over a period of several years when they were children.
The documentary, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival last week, has revived conversation about whether Jackson was a predatory pedophile.
Jackson’s family released a statement Monday condemning the film.
“Michael always turned the other cheek, and we have always turned the other cheek when people have gone after members of our family - that is the Jackson way,” the statement said. “But we can’t just stand by while this public lynching goes on, and the vulture tweeters and others who never met Michael go after him.”
Robson, now 41, first met Jackson when he was about five years old in his native Australia. He said he stayed with Jackson at his Neverland Ranch in California on several occasions.
Safechuck, now 37, appeared in a Pepsi commercial as a child with Jackson and said he was also a frequent visitor to the singer’s home.
Both defended Jackson against other allegations of child abuse, but later filed suits – Robson in 2013 and Safechuck in 2014 – against the singer’s estate with abuse allegations of their own. (Jackson’s estate denied the accusations. Their cases were initially dismissed but reportedly remain under appeal.)
“I never forgot one moment of what Michael did to me, but I was psychologically and emotionally completely unable and unwilling to understand that it was sexual abuse,” Robson said during an appearance on the “Today” show after he filed suit in 2013.
On Sunday, “Leaving Neverland” director Dan Reed responded in an interview with USA Today to an earlier statement from Jackson’s estate which stated: “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.”
“It’s pretty much what you’d expect them to say,” Reed told the publication. “They obviously haven’t seen it, and I’m not engaging with the substance of what they’re saying.”
Jackson was previously the subject of two high-profile abuse cases.
In 1993, a then 13-year-old boy accused Jackson of sexually molesting him repeatedly over a five-month period.
The boy said that Jackson bathed with him, shared a bed with him, gave him gifts and fondled him.
Jackson paid approximately $25 million to settle a civil suit by that alleged victim in 2004.
In 2003, Jackson was charged with seven counts of child molestation for allegations from a cancer-stricken boy invited to the singer’s home.
Jackson, who repeatedly denied the allegations, was acquitted of those charges. He died in 2009 from an overdose of Propofol.
Critics who attended the four-hour “Leaving Neverland” screening last week described the film as “devastating.”
Others took to social media to defend Jackson.
“Michael Jackson fans are heavily educated on all the allegation cases, we’re not apologists or blindly supporting him,” one person tweeted. “We’re going out of our way to support an innocent man who isn’t here to defend himself, in an era where falsified victim claims seem to be rendered non-existent.”
At a Q&A session at the “Leaving Neverland” event, where its subjects and filmmaker reportedly received a standing ovation, Robson said he understood why some of Jackson’s fans would doubt his account of abuse.
“Even though it happened to me I still couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe that what Michael did was a bad thing, so I understand, ” he said, according to a Deadline report.
“We can only understand and accept something when we are ready,” Robson concluded.
This story has been updated to reflect Robson’s and Safechuck’s current age.