The Fight Over The Michael Jackson Doc "Leaving Neverland" Is Getting Ugly
"People should reserve judgment until they see the film," a spokesperson for HBO said.
Less than a month before Leaving Neverland — the documentary in which two men allege Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children — premieres on HBO, the Jackson estate has escalated its campaign to discredit the film before it airs.
In a scathing, 10-page letter addressed to HBO CEO Richard Plepler, longtime Jackson estate lawyer Howard Weitzman calls Leaving Neverland “an admittedly one-sided, sensationalist program” and lays out several arguments meant to discredit the two men at the film’s center, Wade Robson and James Safechuck.
Weitzman's letter largely points to lawsuits Robson and Safechuck separately filed against Jackson’s estate in 2013 and 2014 — which were dismissed and are pending appeal — as evidence that they are using Leaving Neverland for their monetary gain.
Most notably, Weitzman alleges that the “self-described nervous breakdowns” Robson says he had in 2011 and 2012 are not the result of his coming to terms with Jackson’s alleged abuse, but instead due to his family history of suicidal depression.
HBO, meanwhile, is standing by the film, and its director, Dan Reed. In a statement to BuzzFeed News in response to Weitzman’s letter on Friday, the pay-cable network said it will air Leaving Neverland in two parts as scheduled on March 3 and 4. HBO also praised Reed as an award-winning filmmaker "who has carefully documented these survivors’ accounts."
"People should reserve judgment until they see the film," the network added.
The exchange is the latest salvo in what has rapidly become an ugly fight over Jackson’s legacy. After the four-hour documentary debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, Jackson's family issued a statement calling the film a “public lynching,” maintaining that the pop legend “was and always will be 100% innocent of these false allegations." The family also excoriated Reed for not interviewing anyone who knew Jackson outside of Robson and Safechuck’s families.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News in January, Reed responded at length to the family's claims.
"What is the other side of the story?” he said. “That there were people that Michael did not abuse? … If they’re saying, ‘You should’ve interviewed people who were not abused by Michael Jackson,’ I would ask why, because this is a story about two young men who were abused by Michael Jackson. You can always find people who were not harmed by an individual who has done harm."
In Leaving Neverland, Robson and Safechuck allege that Jackson engaged in sexual relationships with them stretching over several years. Safechuck says the abuse began when he was 10; Robson when he was 7.
Both men’s mothers and wives, as well as Robson’s siblings and grandmother, outline in the film how Robson and Safechuck maintained for decades that their relationship with Jackson — which included multiple stays at the singer's Neverland Ranch estate and sleeping in Jackson’s bedroom — was strictly platonic and nonsexual.
Those declarations of Jackson’s innocence included statements to investigators during the 1993 scandal in which Jordan Chandler, at the time 13, alleged that Jackson sexually abused him. In 2005, Robson testified to Jackson’s innocence in open court during the 2005 criminal trial for allegedly sexually abusing 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo.
Jackson was acquitted on all charges, in part on the strength of Robson’s testimony.
In the film, Robson explains that it was not until after the birth of his own son in 2011 that he began to see his sexual relationship with Jackson as abuse, which led to nervous breakdowns and subsequent realizations through psychotherapy about the nature of Jackson’s behavior.
In his letter to HBO, however, Weitzman claims Robson’s “family history of suicidal, major depression on his father’s side” is a “much more simple explanation” for his breakdowns.
“Robson’s father committed suicide in 2002,” Weitzman’s letter continued. “Robson’s first cousin on his father’s side committed suicide in 2012. Unfortunately, major depression is a very heritable disease. Thus, it is no surprise that Robson had these breakdowns.”
While Weitzman noted that he and the Jackson estate “ascribe no ‘fault’ or ‘weakness’ whatsoever to those who suffer or who have suffered from clinical depression” the letter also claims that Robson “stubbornly and irrationally refused” (emphasis Weitzman’s) to take prescribed anti-depressant medication in 2011, and that that refusal, along with Robson’s family history, “much more easily explain[s]” Robson’s breakdowns.
Weitzman also points to Robson’s work on a book about his allegations of abuse by Jackson, specifically asking his mother for help in recalling events that occurred when he was 7 years old, as evidence that Robson’s recollection of those events should be suspect.
“Robson now recounts ‘his’ supposed ‘memories’ of these events in great detail,” Weitzman adds in his letter. “But Mr. Reed and Robson never explain that he had to first ask his mother scores of questions before he could tell his story. Indeed, despite telling the story of his first night at Neverland in the documentary as if it is his own memory, at his deposition, he admitted that he ‘did not know’ if his memory of that night ‘came from [his] own recollection or [if] it was told to [Robson] by someone else.’”
Safechuck’s lawsuits never reached the deposition and discovery stage. Instead, Weitzman’s letter cites an inconsistency in Safechuck’s memory from 1989 as a reason to disbelieve his story. In his sworn declaration, Weitzman says, Safechuck claimed that Jackson abused him in New York City in February 1989 when the singer was performing at the Grammy Awards, when in fact Jackson performed at the ceremony in 1988. Since Safechuck said Jackson’s abuse began in June 1988 in Paris, Weitzman believes the inconsistency discredits his entire story.
“Safechuck’s ‘error’ here is obviously reflective of an effort to create a story of abuse out of whole cloth,” Weitzman argues in the letter. “Or in other words, Safechuck is just making it up as he goes along.”
Finally, Weitzman bizarrely quotes James Baldwin’s 1985 defense of Jackson — a defense that predates any public allegations of sexual abuse against Jackson. Baldwin is quoted as saying that Jackson “will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.”
“We suspect that even James Baldwin could not have imagined that his words would still ring so true today, over thirty years later,” Weitzman says in his letter. “Michael Jackson has yet to ‘be forgiven for having turned so many tables’ even ten years after he left this world forever.”
A spokesperson for the film told BuzzFeed News that Robson and Safechuck did not have a comment on Weitzman’s letter. In Leaving Neverland, however, Robson appeared to anticipate the strong reaction to the film by Jackson's estate, family, and fans.
“I want to be able to speak the truth as loud as I had to speak the lie,” he said.