"Leaving Neverland," the controversial documentary that debuted Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, shocked the audience with its lurid descriptions of alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by the late Michael Jackson. Will it become the next "Surviving R. Kelly"?
Us Weekly reports the 236-minute doc, which features firsthand accounts from accusers Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 42, contains many disturbing allegations about the iconic pop star, laying out the case that he serially groomed and assaulted young boys over the course of many years.
Robson, 7 when he met Jackson, was a noted child Michael Jackson impersonator in Australia. He caught Jackson's eye, quickly becoming a protégé. According to Robson, Jackson kissed and performed oral sex on him the first time they were alone overnight, telling the boy, "This is how we show our love." Their encounters continued for seven years, even though Macaulay Culkin — who has adamantly denied Jackson ever abused him — replaced him in Jackson's orbit. "It was very confusing," Robson says in the film.
Safechuck was 10 when he and Jackson met during the filming of a 1986 Pepsi commercial. He recalls in the film the thrill of sleeping over at Neverland — and alleges Jackson preyed on his excitement by showing him how to masturbate. The sexual contact escalated quickly, and Safechuck says he was given a diamond-encrusted ring to signify that he was married to the entertainer. He shows the ring in the film with — as Us notes — his hands shaking.
Safechuck also says Jackson told him in advance that following the 1993 settlement he made in a case involving a 13-year-old he would be seen with women in public, but that the relationships would be meaningless. He did go on to marry Lisa Marie Presley (1994) and then Debbie Rowe (1996).
Both Safechuck and Robson for many years denied any sexual wrongdoing had taken place, and each young man testified on Jackson's behalf. Robson says he stayed friendly with Jackson until his death 10 years ago.
Even with the many rumors about Jackson's predilection for young boys, his fans have largely ignored the possiblity that he could be guilty of such things, speaking out against the film and the accusers on Twitter. Though he settled for a rumored eight figures in the 1993 case, Jackson was tried and found not guilty of assaulting a minor in 2005.
Robson, speaking at a post-screening Q&A in Park City, said, "I understand why it's so hard for [fans] to believe it. We can only accept and understand something when we're ready." He told TMZ "it's beyond Michael now" and that he simply wants to raise awareness of child sexual abuse.
Michael Jackson's estate denounced the film, referring to it as "the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death." The estate pointed out that both accusers had previously submitted sworn statements denying that any abuse had occurred.
"Their reaction doesn't really mean anything to me either way," Robson told TMZ.
Both accusers sued the Jackson estate several years ago, but the cases were dismissed on technicalities.