This story was first published after the Sundance premiere of “Leaving Neverland” on January 25, 2019.
The Sundance Film Festival had extra security on hand for its premiere of the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” amid fears that protesters would try to disrupt the film in which two men make detailed accusations that they were molested by Michael Jackson.
But before the screening, the two protesters on hand were far outnumbered by press looking for a story. And four hours later, after the long and devastating film, no Jackson fans even attempted to disrupt the Q&A with director Dan Reed and Jackson accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who were greeted by a standing ovation.
“Leaving Neverland,” which premieres March 3 on HBO, allows Robson and Safechuck and their families to tell their stories, which are remarkably similar: meetings with Jackson as a child dancer (Robson) and actor (Safechuck), invitations to hang out with Jackson, and, they say, increasing intimacy and eventually mutual masturbation and oral sex. The families are interviewed at length as well, with the two fame-besotted mothers becoming central to the story.
The first two hours lay out their accounts of the meeting, grooming and sexual relationships up to the time when the two boys say they were no longer Jackson’s favorites; the second half covers the aftermath, when both Robson and Safechuck testified on Jackson’s behalf and denied any sexual contact. Both say they were so enamored of Jackson that they remained determined to keep their stories a secret.
Reed takes his time telling the story, letting almost every family member weigh in on each detail and going through the years with a measured, melancholy pace. The film is structured around talking heads, still photos and slow aerial shots of the areas where things took place. And if by the end we’re a little tired of those last shots, it’s not the style that delivers the charge in “Leaving Neverland.”
The film lives and dies on one thing: Do you believe Robson and Safechuck? If you do, the film is wrenching and infuriating; if not, you can turn to the statement released by the Jackson estate:
“This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson…Wade Robson and James Safechuck have both testified under oath that Michael never did anything inappropriate toward them. This so called ‘documentary’ is just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations. It’s baffling why any credible filmmaker would involve himself with this project.”
But the power of “Leaving Neverland” lies in the faces of the two men telling their stories, and the anguish of mothers trying to measure their own complicity. It’s hard not to see truth in those faces, but no doubt many will continue to resist.
In the Q&A, Robson was asked what he would say to Jackson fans who will never believe his story. “I don’t think there’s anything I need to say to them,” he said, “other than that I understand.”