A controversial four-hour documentary detailing Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of two underage boys premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, eliciting a strong reaction from audiences and a stern statement from Jackson’s estate.
According to People magazine, “Leaving Neverland” is told through the point of view of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, both who claimed to have been sexually abused by Jackson when they were minors. During a ten-minute break at the screening, film critics tweeted their horrified responses to the film’s allegations.
“Whatever you thought you knew or were aware of, the content of this is more disturbing than you could imagine. And again, we’re only halfway through,” Daily Beast critic Kevin Fallon posted on Twitter Friday night. Fallon also shared a specific allegation made in the documentary, claiming that Jackson would masturbate after asking his alleged victims to spread their buttocks.
“Michael would like if you would bend over and spread your cheeks. Then he would masturbate.”
— Kevin Fallon (@kpfallon) January 26, 2019
As Variety critic Matt Donnelly noted, mental health professionals were on hand after the screening to provide support to any viewers traumatized by the explicit depictions of alleged sexual abuse.
#Sundance has provided health care professionals in the theater for audience members potentially upset by #LeavingNeverland’s explicit descriptions of sexual abuse against underage boys. They are in the wings ready with counsel.
— Matt Donnelly (@MattDonnelly) January 25, 2019
And the New York Post reports that law enforcement in Park City, Utah, provided added security at the premiere, reportedly in response to “direct threats,” though the nature and the target of the threats were not specified in the report.
“Tensions are higher for this movie than anything I’ve ever seen at Sundance before,” a law enforcement source told the newspaper.
According to a review of the film in the Boston Herald, Robson and Safechuck describe in detail the alleged sexual abuse that would take place during their visits to Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, where he allegedly convinced young boys to sleep in his bed with him. The review describes Robson and Safechuck’s accounts of the alleged abuse that took place there as “convincing.”
“The filmmaker, Dan Reed, forces us to confront the reality that the greatest pop genius since the Beatles was, beneath his talent, a monster. ‘Leaving Neverland’ is no thriller, but it’s undeniably a kind of true-life horror movie.”
As the Los Angeles Times notes, both Robson and Safechuck, now in their thirties, had previously defended Jackson when other alleged victims accused him of abuse. But when they grew older, they both had a change of heart and unsuccessfully attempted to bring lawsuits against Jackson. In 1994, Jackson reportedly paid a $22 million settlement to another accuser, though an investigation did not result in an indictment.
The family and the estate of the deceased pop star released a statement denying the claims made in “Leaving Neverland.”
“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,” the statement reads in part.
[Feature image: AP Photo/Alan Greth, file]