The Many Controversies Surrounding HBO's Leaving Neverland, Explained

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Content Warning: This article contains mild mentions of alleged sexual abuse. Any time Michael Jackson’s name crops up in headlines these days, it’s almost guaranteed that some controversy or the other is being revisited — a lawsuit, an allegation, a family feud, money issues, or, in the case of an upcoming HBO documentary, all four. The two-part, four-hour HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, is controversy-laden already — and isn't even set to air until March 3 and March 4. The doc gives the mic to two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim that they were sexually molested and abused by the King of Pop when they were ages 7 and 11, respectively. (The Jackson Estate, as well Jackson's brothers and nephew, have repeatedly denied Safechuck and Robson's claims.)
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The documentary features graphic charges against Jackson, including allegations that the pop star plied Robson and Safechuck with alcohol and pornography before molesting them, and that Jackson even recorded one of his sexual encounters with Safechuck. This is the first time both men have spoken at length about these allegations.
But as with everything surrounding Jackson, there is a lot to unpack in the telling of these two men’s stories. Robson, now 36, and Safechuck, now 40, have had long and complicated relationships with the singer, and even with his family. Their decision to speak out was the “ultimate betrayal,” as Jackson’s nephew Taj put it, and HBO’s decision to air the documentary has been a saga of epic proportions unfolding in the press.
In early February, the Jackson family sued the network and its parent company, Time Warner, for $100 million USD for allegedly violating a non-disparagement clause from a 1992 contract concerning the airing of one of Michael’s concerts. HBO, in turn, has stood firmly behind director Dan Reed and his work, saying in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter: “Our plans remain unchanged. The two-part documentary, Leaving Neverland, will air as scheduled on Sunday, March 3rd and Monday, March 4th. Dan Reed is an award-winning filmmaker who has carefully documented these survivors’ accounts. People should reserve judgment until they see the film.”
The friction between HBO and the Jackson family seemed inevitable, and in a way, the estate’s public damning of the documentary is mostly serving to drum up interest in it, as well as in decades-old conversations about the talented, troubled, musical force that was Michael Jackson. Here, we break down what all the he-said, they-said hubbub is all about, and where it might leave both the Jackson family and the documentary’s subjects, Robson and Safechuck, after the documentary airs.
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Controversy One: Both Robson and Safechuck have previously defended Jackson in court and to investigators.
Robson and Safechuck’s long and complicated relationship with Jackson was brought to light in 2005, when Robson was called to testify in a court case against the singer. At the time, Jackson was being accused of molesting 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo, and Robson, who became close with Jackson from a very young age, testified under oath that Jackson had never sexually molested him. (Safechuck, when questioned by investigators years ago as a child, similarly came to Jackson’s defence and denied any sort of sexual relationship.) Jackson was ultimately found not guilty.
In a recent interview with Gayle King on CBS This Morning, however, Robson explained what had prompted him to allegedly lie under oath. “Michael’s training of me to testify began the first night that he started abusing me, in the sense that, you know, that right away, after the first experience of sexual abuse, he started telling me that if anybody else ever finds out, we’ll both go to jail, both of our lives would be over,” he said.
Complicating things further is the fact that both Robson and Safechuck are currently appealing lawsuits that they lost against the Jackson estate in recent years. After testifying on behalf of Jackson in 2005, Robson came forward in 2013 claiming that the singer had indeed molested him; Safechuck came forward with similar claims one year later. The court ultimately ruled that the two men had filed their lawsuits past the statute of limitations and dismissed the cases. Both are now in appeal.
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Controversy Two: The Jackson family believes the entire documentary is being made so Robson and Safechuck can make money and get attention.
Rather than entertain the idea that Robson and Safechuck may have been sexually molested by their brother and uncle, several members of Jackson’s immediate family are calling the men liars who are hoping to capitalize on their closeness to the pop legend. Taj, Jackson’s nephew, told USA Today that he knows Robson personally, and considers his allegations the “ultimate betrayal.”
“It’s never been about justice for him,” Taj said. “It’s always been about fame and money.”
Family members point out how Robson was invited to, and attended, Jackson’s memorial, and how the choreographer danced “right behind” Janet Jackson at a subsequent tribute for MJ at MTV’s Video Music Awards. He even, Taj pointed out, “wanted to get close to MJ’s kids” shortly after Jackson’s death. But then, the Jacksons said, when Robson was passed over to direct and choreograph Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas “One” show spotlighting Jackson, his relationship with the family began to sour. According to the Jackson family, that’s when Robson began waging war against his former idol, selling off his memorabilia and pitching a book with allegations against Michael. He also famously sued the family in 2013 in the aforementioned case.
In response to claims that Robson had vindictively turned on the family, Robson’s lawyer, Vince Finaldi, told USA Today, “It’s just another example of the Jackson press machine manipulating facts and telling half-truths in order to try and discredit a victim.” Finaldi added that Robson was hired to choreograph the “One” show, but ultimately suffered a nervous breakdown and dropped out.
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It is also important to note that the Jackson estate itself could take a substantial hit depending on the overall reaction and response to the documentary; following his 1993 trial, Jackson was reportedly cut from several merchandising deals, and wasn’t able to secure any national brands to help back his 1996-1997 HIStory tour.
Controversy Three: Documentarian Dan Reed didn’t reach out for comment or response from the Jackson family.
In their $100 million USD lawsuit against HBO and Time Warner, the Jackson family expressed their disappointment and anger that Reed hadn’t even bothered to ask them for their views or response to Robson and Safechuck’s allegations. In a scathing 10-page letter, the estate called Leaving Neverland "an admittedly one-sided, sensationalist program" that didn’t seek to tell a balanced story, and was instead joining “the tabloid media’s ‘Michael Jackson cacophony.’”
“They weren’t interested in gathering any evidence that wouldn’t corroborate what they’re saying,” Jackson’s brother Marlon told USA Today. “That wasn’t the plan. It was a one-sided documentary.” Of the Jackson family members who have spoken out against the project, only Jackson’s nephew Taj, Tito’s son, said he would be interested in watching the doc once it has aired. “Because I would be able to probably pick it apart, scene by scene,” he explained. “I think they’re counting on the masses to see it and then our voices to be drowned out.”
Advocates for the documentary have argued that the documentary isn’t meant to be journalistic, but only nonfiction in nature, meaning that the decision to omit any of the Jackson family’s voices was not only deliberate, but permissible. In focusing on the survivors rather than the alleged perpetrator, Leaving Neverland is following in the footsteps of such recent documentaries as Surviving R. Kelly and Untouchable, as opposed to, say, the more perpetrator-focused series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
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Controversy Four: The Jackson family says there is “no evidence” that the molestations ever happened, but proof of such encounters is difficult to procure.
In an interview with Gayle King for CBS This Morning, Marlon Jackson said that the documentary is an exploitative effort, and that there is no concrete evidence that can prove that any of Robson or Safechuck’s allegations are true. “There has not been not one piece of evidence that corroborates their story,” Marlon said. “And they’re not interested in doing that.” When asked what sorts of evidence would qualify as “valid,” however, none of Jackson’s brothers or nephew could come up with an answer.
Reed explained in an interview that aired the previous day that he had made the decision not to interview the Jackson family for the film because it wasn’t being fair to Robson and Safechuck. “No one else was in the room, I don’t believe, when Wade [Robson] was being molested by Michael or when James [Safechuck] was having sex with Michael,” he said. He added that he had made sure to include many clips of Jackson defending himself in his own words (pulling from the 1993 case and the 2004 case), since the allegations are against Jackson himself, and not his estate as a whole.
“This isn’t a film about Michael Jackson,” Reed said. “It’s a film about Wade and James, two little boys and this dreadful thing that happened long ago. And it’s the story of them coming to terms with that over two decades, and the story of their families.” The Jackson family, he said, have adamantly denied any wrongdoing on Jackson’s part, and so their voices wouldn’t add any new information to the story.
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Controversy Five: Leaving Neverland is being released amid a growing swell of documentaries that revisit past newsmakers.
It’s no secret that documentaries are really getting the rockstar treatment these days, with the recent releases of Conversations With a Killer, Abducted in Plain Sight, Making a Murderer, Amanda Knox, and the two competing Fyre Fest documentaries all causing a buzz online and at water coolers around the nation. The competitive nature of today’s most prolific platforms — Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon — has also generated the sort of perpetual one-upmanship that was previously more common amongst the biggest television networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC. (The new model of competition is perhaps best exemplified by the twin release of the Fyre Fest documentaries.)
The Jackson estate alluded to this competitive element in a brief paragraph in their letter to HBO. “We know that HBO is facing serious competitive pressures from Netflix, Amazon and other more modern content providers, but to stoop to this level to regain an audience is disgraceful,” the letter reads in part. “We know HBO and its partners on this documentary will not be successful. We know that this will go down as the most shameful episode in HBO’s history.”
Controversy Six: Oprah Winfrey is now involved.
Less than a week before the premiere of Leaving Neverland, it was announced that Oprah Winfrey will be offering up her services as an expert interviewer for her own special, Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland, which will air on Monday immediately following the second half of Leaving Neverland. The one-hour, pre-taped special will feature Winfrey interviewing Robson and Safechuck in front of an audience that includes survivors of sexual abuse.
Though it is unclear what wide range of topics Winfrey will cover during the special, which will air on both HBO and OWN, it is safe to say that her involvement in the telling of the story will add yet another layer to an already-confusing, controversial narrative.
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