A controversial new documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25 revived the claims of two men who say iconic superstar Michael Jackson sexually abused them for years when they were boys.
The film Leaving Neverland details the apparent abuse James Safechuck and Wade Robson say they suffered from Jackson, who was their childhood friend and idol. While Jackson was alive, at least two young boys claimed the King of Pop molested them. For at least one of the cases, Safechuck and Robson testified in Jackson’s defense, swearing under oath that the singer had never touched them inappropriately. But years after Jackson’s death, the two claimed the pop star did in fact sexually abuse them, filing lawsuits against Jackson’s estate that were eventually dismissed in court.
Now, as they undergo an appeals process, Robson, 36, and Safechuck, 40, are recounting their experiences in a two-part documentary in hopes of spreading more awareness about how rampant they say abuse is in the entertainment industry, their lawyer told TIME. “Them telling their stories is not about getting attention for themselves,” said Vince Finaldi, the California-based attorney representing the accusers. “When someone is sexually abused as a child, especially by such a prominent figure, it changes the course of their lives.”
The film has already sparked polarizing reactions, including outrage from Jackson’s fans and his estate, which has long maintained the late singer’s innocence. In a statement, Jackson’s estate blasted the documentary as another money-grabbing attempt. “This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson,” the statement said. “This so called ‘documentary’ is just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations.”
The Jackson family also slammed the documentary in a statement released on Jan. 28. “Michael is not here to defend himself, otherwise these allegations would not have been made,” the statement from the Jackson family read. “The creators of this film were not interested in the truth.”
Here’s everything we know so far about the allegations that are the focus of Leaving Neverland, which premiered last Friday at Sundance.
What is Leaving Neverland about?
Leaving Neverland details how Jackson befriended and captivated Safechuck and Robson when they were 10 and 7, respectively, before he allegedly started fondling them on a near daily basis. While Sundance initially declined to identify the two accusers featured in the documentary, HBO and Finaldi, their lawyer, both confirmed they were Safechuck and Robson.
At first, both boys were “entranced by the singer’s fairy-tale existence as his career reached its peak,” according to an HBO news release. In court records, the accusers say that enthrallment led to decades of confusion and denial about Jackson’s alleged misconduct, until they both grew older and had children of their own. In the film, both Safechuck and Robson give “gut-wrenching” interviews as they explore the “complicated feelings” that led them both to confront their experiences, according to HBO. “The film documents the value of breaking silence, even when it implicates a powerful and revered figure,” the television network said.
Both of the men have previously detailed and documented their claims publicly—in television specials and in court depositions given after Jackson’s death. Their lawyer says the documentary reveals the “way the abuse was conducted and how it was able to be carried out for such a long period of time.”
Jackson’s estate said it was “baffling why any credible filmmaker would involve himself with this project.”
Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed said in a statement issued through HBO that he believes Safechuck and Robson are telling the truth and hopes others will too. “I believe anyone who watches this film will see and feel the emotional toll on the men and their families and will appreciate the strength it takes to confront long-held secrets,” he said.
Who are James Safechuck and Wade Robson?
Safechuck and Robson were both immersed in the entertainment world as children and were considered Jackson’s prodigies. In court documents, Robson said he met Jackson during a dance contest in 1987 in Australia, while Jackson was on tour. Around the same time, Safechuck was traveling with Jackson often as his “constant companion,” he said in a separate deposition. Safechuck even had a very small cameo in the singer’s 1995 music video for Earth Song, which features his hand.
Both men have said Jackson took advantage of them after letting them believe he would help them in their careers. During a televised interview with Inside Edition last May, Robson said Jackson sexually abused him on a daily basis. Robson claims the singer fondled him, kissed him on the lips and introduced him to oral sex. “Every time we were together, it happened,” Robson said at the time. “There was no night that went by that I was with him that he didn’t sexually abuse me.”
Robson says he kept the sordid acts a secret for so long because he was afraid of the consequences for both himself and the musician he thought he loved. “It was not possible for me to tell the truth about what Michael Jackson did to me, until I did, because when I was younger I was terrified by the idea of my life falling apart, him going to jail,” Robson told Inside Edition. “Michael was an incredible song writer, dancer, performer. And he was also a child predator.” (In the segment, a representative for the estate said Robson’s claims were “about money and not based on a search for the truth.”)
Safechuck described a similar situation in his deposition. He said he was subjected to Jackson’s abuse from 1988 to 1992 and kept quiet because he didn’t understand that the abuse was wrong. Safechuck says Jackson used his “trust and love of him” to “victimize and sexually molest” him, according to court records. “He continually brainwashed and drilled into me that what he was doing to me was ‘love’ and that I should deny that anything he had done to me ever happened,” Safechuck said. “I was a child. I believed and worshipped him.”
What were the allegations against Michael Jackson?
Allegations against Jackson began in 1993, when he was accused of sexually abusing a teenaged boy. The boy’s father brought a civil suit against Jackson on behalf of his son. At the time, Jackson issued a video statement declaring his innocence and heartbreak over the investigation. The singer enlisted Safechuck and Robson to testify on his behalf, which they both did, and the suit was eventually settled out of court.
When recalling the case many years later, Safechuck said Jackson’s lawyers “rehearsed questions and answers” with him. “I did what I was told,” he said in his deposition. Safechuck said Jackson told his family that the other teen’s claims were “lies” and “extortion.” They all believed Jackson because they revered him.
Then in 2003, another child molestation allegation against Jackson emerged. A young cancer patient, who met Jackson in 2000 when he was 10, claimed Jackson molested him more than once at the singer’s famous Neverland ranch, where he and his family were frequent guests, TIME previously reported. Jackson was charged by the state of California with molestation and other counts, according to FBI records, and the child molestation case went to trial in 2005.
On the witness stand, the boy testified that he was in bed, under the covers, when Jackson allegedly put his hand down the boy’s pants and “started masturbating” him. The boy also claimed Jackson showed him and his brother pornography and fed them wine.
Safechuck said Jackson pressured him to testify on his behalf again. This time, Safechuck refused, which he said enraged Jackson. Safechuck claims Jackson then “began to overtly threaten” him for the first time. “I had never experienced the anger of [Jackson] before this,” Safechuck said in his deposition. Robson testified in Jackson’s defense again, and the singer, who pleaded not guilty, was eventually acquitted of all charges.
Jackson died on June 25, 2009. About four years later, Robson came forward with his abuse claims against Jackson, filing a lawsuit against the singer’s two companies. Safechuck later did the same. However, their claims were thrown out in court on procedural grounds in 2017. A judge ruled they couldn’t sue the corporations because the companies were not liable for Jackson’s alleged actions. Jackson estate attorney Howard Weitzman hailed the ruling. “In my opinion, Mr. Robson’s allegations, made 20 plus years after they supposedly occurred and years after Mr. Robson testified twice under oath—including in front of a jury—that Michael Jackson had never done anything wrong to him was always about the money rather than a search for the truth,” Weitzman said at the time, according to the Associated Press.
But that didn’t mean the accusers’ claims were discredited, their lawyer says. “There was no ruling from any court as to the veracity of their allegations,” Finaldi told TIME in a recent interview. “We expect to be fully vindicated in the appeals process. We stand by these kids and we believe them.”
What has been the response to Leaving Neverland so far?
But the Jackson family has harshly criticized the documentary. Jackson’s nephew Taj Jackson tweeted on Jan. 26 that the film was a “4 hour one sided hit job.” His family released a statement on Jan. 28 that noted the filmmakers “never interviewed a single solitary soul who knew Michael except the two perjurers and their families.”
“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 read. “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.”
Fans of the pop star have also pushed back against the film, seemingly vandalizing the documentary’s IMDB page and promising the protest the film at Sundance. Ultimately, police officers outnumbered the few protesters who showed up.
Leaving Neverland premiered on Jan. 25 at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah. It airs on HBO this spring.