A documentary exploring two men's allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson has been deemed a "tabloid character assassination" by the late pop star's estate.
"Leaving Neverland," which debuted on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a four-hour film exposing sexual abuse allegations by Wade Robson and James Safechuck that was given a standing ovation by viewers.
The Jackson estate has referred to Robson, now 36, and Safechuck, 40, as "admitted liars" and "perjurers" and says the film does a disservice to "legitimate" victims of child abuse.
"Leaving Neverland isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death," their statement, obtained by Deadline Hollywood, begins. "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 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."
Robson and Safechuck reportedly met Jackson when they were very young, according to Vanity Fair. Both the boys and their families became very close with the singer over the years, during which time they allege they both had sexual relationships with the legendary musician when they were aged 7 and 10 and that they didn't realize were abusive until they became fathers later in life.
Robson and Safechuck both took the stand to defend Jackson during his 1993 trial for child molestation, but they changed their stances when they sued the Jackson estate in 2013 and 2014, respectively, formally acknowledging the existence and breadth of the alleged abuse. Both cases were thrown out by a judge on the basis of adhering to a statute of limitations.
Robson took the stand again in defense of Jackson in 2003 when the King of Pop was charged with seven counts of child molestation and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent for the purpose of committing a felony. Safechuck, however, did not, something he claims ended his relationship with Jackson.
The Jackson estate claims that Robson's support of the pop star in 1993 and 2003 negate the credibility of his allegations of abuse, and it argues that he only made the claims against Jackson when he was passed over for a role in a Michael Jackson-themed Cirque du Soleil show. They believe the allegations against Jackson are, and always have been, about money.
"For 20 years, Wade Robson denied in court and in numerous interviews, including after Michael passed, that he was a victim and stated he was grateful for everything Michael had done for him," the statement continued. "His family benefitted from Michael’s kindness, generosity and career support up until Michael’s death. Conveniently left out of 'Leaving Neverland' was the fact that when Robson was denied a role in a Michael Jackson themed Cirque du Soleil production, his assault allegations suddenly emerged.
"Despite all the disingenuous denials made that this is not about money, it has always been about money – millions of dollars — dating back to 2013 when both Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who share the same law firm, launched their unsuccessful claims against Michael’s Estate," it continued.
"Now that Michael is no longer here to defend himself, Robson, Safechuck and their lawyers continue their efforts to achieve notoriety and a payday by smearing him with the same allegations a jury found him innocent of when he was alive."
The estate also argues that the director of "Leaving Neverland" only focused on Jackson's accusers and provided no platform for others to speak out in defense of the "Billie Jean" singer.
"Tellingly, the director admitted at the Sundance Film Festival that he limited his interviews only to these accusers and their families. In doing so, he intentionally avoided interviewing numerous people over the years who spent significant time with Michael Jackson and have unambiguously stated that he treated children with respect and did nothing hurtful to them. By choosing not to include any of these independent voices who might challenge the narrative that he was determined to sell, the director neglected fact checking so he could craft a narrative so blatantly one-sided that viewers never get anything close to a balanced portrait," the statement reads.
Since it was announced that "Leaving Neverland" was in production, protesters have been lining up to defend Jackson, online and in person. Protesters set up outside the theater during the film's debut on Friday, armed with signs bearing quotes from Jackson such as, "Lies run sprints but truth runs marathons."
Police were heavily in attendance during the showing in Utah, but the debut came and went without any significant incident. During a post-show Q&A session, both men reportedly made it clear that they never received any money for participating in the documentary, according to Deadline. "Leaving Neverland" will be released in a two-part series on HBO this spring.
The Jackson estate, known for its legal prowess, has yet to announce any formal action against the film's more widespread release.