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The Michael Jackson estate airs rare concert films to try to distract from Leaving Neverland

The estate has fought hard to keep the two-part documentary from finding an audience.

Michael Jackson and a young boy.
A still from Leaving Neverland.
Courtesy of Sundance
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Sunday night, as HBO aired part one of its new soul-shaking documentary Leaving Neverland, the Michael Jackson estate did what it’s always done best in regards to the decades of child abuse allegations surrounding the singer: deflect and distract.

The estate dropped a last-minute documentary of its own on Jackson’s official YouTube channel, free for a limited time: a concert documentary, Live in Bucharest (The Dangerous Tour), from Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous tour — ironically, a tour that collapsed due in large part to the news about the first police investigation into the allegations. The concert film is, as Variety notes, exactly the same length as the first part of Leaving Neverland.

The Jackson estate also promised to release a second concert on YouTube on Monday night, this one of Jackson’s famed 1988 concert at Wembley Stadium in London. Like the Sunday night concert, this one will also be released at 8 pm Eastern — the same time that HBO will air the second part of its documentary.

The attempt to distract Jackson’s fans from accounts of his alleged abuse is not new. Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the two men at the heart of the documentary, have spent the past five years trying to publicize and seek justice for their stories of years of grooming, manipulation, and abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson. They have also spent much of the past five years embroiled in lawsuits with the Jackson estate.

The new documentary, produced and directed by veteran documentarian Dan Reed, is the result of prolonged efforts by Robson and Safechuck to tell their stories — but the new documentary has had to fight its own battles with Jackson’s estate.

The production is currently facing a lawsuit by the Jackson estate that is seeking $100 million in damages from HBO. But this is just the latest volley in a long fight by the estate to suppress and discredit the documentary and its allegations — and the two men at its center.

Wade Robson and James Safechuck each came forward with their allegations of abuse years after Jackson’s death

Wade Robson is a world-renowned choreographer, famed for developing routines for N’Sync, Britney Spears, So You Think You Can Dance, and many more. He got his start in the industry in 1987 — when, at the age of 5, he won a dance competition and met Jackson while Jackson was touring Robson’s native Australia.

Robson’s history as one of the many boys Jackson befriended has been well reported over the years, though it gains new resonance in the documentary when told through the perspective of an adult Robson and his mother, each looking back on the brief, deceptively fairy tale-like friendships they shared with Jackson.

After meeting them in Brisbane, Robson and his mother recount, Jackson befriended the whole family, lavishing attention on all of them and even flying them to Los Angeles when Robson was 7. From there, Robson has alleged, behind the scenes of their professional relationship, in which Robson appeared in several promotional campaigns and public appearances with Jackson, Jackson groomed Robson into a system of abuse that continued for seven years.

At one point, Robson’s mother says in the documentary, she rejected Jackson’s request to keep her son with him, alone, for an entire year; eventually, his entire family moved to LA to be closer to Jackson and promises of stardom, only to find shortly after their arrival that Robson was no longer Jackson’s favorite boy. While the alleged abuse was happening and well after it stopped, Robson says he continued to believe nothing Jackson had done to him was abusive. “I never forgot one moment of what Michael did to me,” he told the Today show in 2013, “but I was psychologically and emotionally completely unable and unwilling to understand it was sexual abuse.”

This belief, he now says, compelled him to speak up twice on Jackson’s behalf, once in 1993 at the age of 10, when he denied any abuse to authorities during the first criminal investigation of Jackson, and additionally describing his visits to Jackson’s house in the press as being simply like a “slumber party”; and again at age 22, when his supportive testimony during Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial for child abuse was widely viewed as significant evidence in Jackson’s favor. Jackson was ultimately acquitted on 10 counts related to child molestation.

But in 2012, as an adult with a son of his own, Robson says he began to understand that what he’d experienced was abuse. As a result of this realization, in 2013, he filed a civil complaint against the Jackson estate.

The complaint was swiftly joined by Safechuck, another man whom Jackson had known and allegedly abused as a boy. Safechuck, a child actor whom Jackson also befriended when he was very young, was most well known for having appeared in a Pepsi commercial with Jackson in 1986. After this, Safechuck toured with Jackson, accompanying him on his Bad tour as the lead dancer in an ensemble of children.

Like Robson, Safechuck had previously denied that any abuse had taken place during his friendship with Jackson; yet, like Robson, according to unsealed court documents from 2004, other witnesses had previously identified him as being one of the boys they had seen Jackson abusing at Neverland Ranch. In the documentary, Safechuck harrowingly describes being raped countless times by Jackson at Neverland. At one point, with shaking hands, he displays a wedding ring he says Jackson gave him in a mock wedding ceremony when Safechuck was 7 years old.

Due to the statute of limitations, the court ultimately dismissed Robson and Safechuck’s lawsuit, but it is currently awaiting a ruling on appeal. In the meantime, the two men have jointly shared their stories through Leaving Neverland, which focuses its entire four-hour runtime on their experiences and the deeply difficult process of denial, understanding, and acceptance that they and their families went through as a result of their alleged abuse.

But the Jackson estate has invested decades in trying to divert the public away from examining these stories too closely — as well as the many similar stories by other accusers and witnesses that emerged throughout the two decades of controversy surrounding the allegations against Jackson. As the conversation around Leaving Neverland has built, the estate has been vituperative in its dismissals of Robson, Safechuck, and the production itself.

The Jackson estate has launched several preemptive strikes against the documentary — including, ultimately, a lawsuit

The world became aware of Leaving Neverland on January 9, when Sundance added it to its lineup as a last-minute special event, to be shown at the film festival later in the month.

The Jackson estate quickly responded. In a lengthy and scathing statement, the estate labeled the film as being “not a documentary,” but rather “tabloid character assassination,” and “another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson,” as well as “just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations.”

The estate also attacked Robson and Safechuck’s credibility, calling the men “admitted liars” and emphasizing their previous denials of abuse.

“The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact,” the statement read. “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.” As with every one of Jackson’s accusers and witnesses who have come forward to corroborate those allegations in the past, the estate insisted Robson and Safechuck were motivated by money.

The estate also savaged the documentary as deliberately one-sided — an intentional choice to center the narrative on the victims and their families that the film’s director, Dan Reed, has been very open about. Per the estate, however, “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.”

After news broke that HBO had picked up the documentary, the estate claimed on Twitter that HBO was ungrateful for the legacy of Michael Jackson, whose first televised concert had aired on the cable network in 1992.

The estate also reportedly sent a 10-page letter to HBO detailing the well-known issue of Robson and Safechuck’s previous denials of abuse by Jackson, painting the men as unreliable and urging the network to reconsider showing the documentary. It sent a similar letter to the UK’s Channel 4, which will also air the film on Wednesday, March 6, and Thursday, March 7, claiming the documentary violates the network’s ethical standards.

HBO, however, was unmoved. In a statement, it noted, “Dan Reed is an award-winning filmmaker who has carefully documented these survivors’ accounts. People should reserve judgment until they see the film.”

In response, the Jackson family issued its own statement on the documentary, calling it “a public lynching” and reminding the public that Jackson is no longer here to defend himself against the allegations.

Finally, on February 21, the Jackson estate struck back with a lawsuit against HBO.

The Jackson lawsuit hinges on a non-disparagement clause from Jackson’s 1992 concert performance on HBO

The lawsuit hinges on a stipulation dating from that 1992 HBO concert. As part of the agreement between Jackson and HBO to air the televised concert from Jackson’s Dangerous tour — a tour that was ultimately canceled in large part due to the controversy over the allegations of child abuse against Jackson — the network agreed not to “make any disparaging remarks concerning Performer or any of his representatives, agents, or business practices or do any act that may harm or disparage or cause to lower in esteem the reputation or public image of Performer.”

Additionally, because part of the documentary concerns the Dangerous tour itself, and the question of whether Jackson was abusing children who toured with him on it, the estate contends that the film is a “direct violation of the non-disparagement clause” from the 1992 Dangerous concert.

It seems perhaps unlikely that a court would find that the scope of HBO’s non-disparagement clause extends this far into the future, let alone a decade after the subject’s death. But the estate is pursuing damages of $100 million or more — specifically, “all damages proximately caused by HBO’s reprehensible disparagement of Michael Jackson, which could exceed $100 million should HBO succeed in the damage it is intending to cause to the legacy of Michael Jackson.”

In spite of this threat, HBO’s plans to air the documentary have gone ahead as planned. “Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain unchanged,” the network’s statement in response to the suit read. “HBO will move forward with the airing of the two-part documentary on March 3rd and 4th. This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”

From here, the lawsuit may enter an arbitration period with HBO, or may proceed directly to court. It seems likely that the Jackson estate will fight the consequences of Leaving Neverland for as long as it can.

But the documentary, and the firestorm it promises to produce, may be only the start of a deluge. The BBC recently ordered another documentary that will serve as a reappraisal of Jackson’s career and final days. As the recent Surviving R. Kelly docuseries has shown, an honest filmic look at a problematic creator can trigger a powerful cultural reassessment. At long last, it might prove harder to silence these cinematic voices than the voices of Jackson’s previous accusers over the years.

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