‘Leaving Neverland’:

Celebrities react to ‘haunting’ Michael Jackson documentary

Michael Jackson’s brothers Jackie, Marlon and Tito and his nephew Taj speak out against HBO child sex abuse documentary “Leaving Neverland.” Robert Hanashiro, USA

After Part 1 of HBO’s Michael Jackson documentary “Leaving Neverland” aired Sunday, several famous names took to Twitter to comment on the film’s controversial elements. 

The documentary, which airs its second part on Monday night at 8 EST/PST on HBO, is centered around Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40, who tell their stories of Jackson allegedly sexually abusing them at ages 7 and 10, respectively, when they were in the singer’s inner circle at the height of his fame.

Rosie O’Donnell was one of several stars who wrote she was watching “Leaving Neverland” on Sunday night.

“michael jackson docu is on now on HBO – haunting …” she tweeted.

Wendy Williams took the opposite approach, telling the crowd at “The Wendy Williams Show” Monday that while she believed that Jackson showered and hosted sleepovers with young boys, she did not think “that there was any sexual touching.”

 “I don’t believe a word of anything in this documentary,” she told the audience. “Michael is no innocent, but that’s not him.”

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Michael Jackson on March 5, 2009,  at a press conference at the London O2 Arena.

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Amber Tamblyn spoke out in favor of “Leaving Neverland,” writing on Twitter, “As a former child actress, I can’t help but watch this documentary and think about how wrong it is for children to be put in the position of performing for the soul (sic) purpose of pleasing adults. It’s such a slippery, dangerous, often abusive slope. #LeavingNeverland.”

Rose McGowan praised Oprah for hosting an interview with the “Leaving Neverland” accusers, set to air Monday after the second half of the documentary premieres on HBO.

“The survivors are brave. @Oprah is brave. The documentarians are brave,” McGowan wrote. “This is what brave is folks, standing against the grain, going against the norm, rocking the boat because sometimes it needs to be rocked. It is hard to hear truth, but that’s what growing pains are. #Brave”

Bill Maher, whose “Real Time” show also airs on HBO, tweeted his praise of Richard Plepler, the since-departed HBO CEO who led the network through the past few months of “Leaving Neverland”-related controversies, including a $100 million lawsuit from the Jackson estate.

“Just watched Neverland doc – riveting, as has been so much on HBO with Richard Plepler at the helm, now resigned,” Maher wrote. “I don’t usually speak publicly about the inner workings of the/my biz, but just have to say…best boss I’ll ever have.”

“It takes days to recover from this documentary,” Judd Apatow wrote about his viewing experience. “Five minutes in you will think to yourself ‘oh my God, every word they are saying is true.'”

Ava DuVernay called out the pro-Michael Jackson Twitter trolls that came for her after she shared an article criticizing Jackson.

“Michael Jackson super fans are really going hard in my comments for simply sharing an article by a cultural critic who shared his opinion on the doc,” she wrote, linking to a tweet that called her a “sellout” and “trash.”

Meanwhile, performer Amanda Palmer was inspired to write a poem from the perspective of Jackson’s accusers.

“Never accuse you will not be believed and you were to blame for being wantable,” she tweeted. 

Jackson’s estate has condemned the documentary in multiple statements and called Robson and Safechuck’s credibility into question.

An ‘ultimate betrayal’? Family protests Michael Jackson sex abuse film ahead of HBO airing

Michael Jackson’s brothers Jackie, Marlon and Tito and his nephew Taj speak out against HBO child sex abuse documentary “Leaving Neverland.” Robert Hanashiro, USA

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – To combat a damning new documentary hitting HBO Sunday, Michael Jackson’s family has come out swinging.

“Leaving Neverland” has been making waves since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Over nearly four hours, the film alleges that Jackson, who died in 2009 at age 50, sexually abused two men starting when they were ages 7 and 10 and continued the abuse into their teens.

Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40, say the superstar had them sleep in his bed, often plied them with alcohol and pornography before molesting them and even recorded one of his sexual encounters with Safechuck. 

Both say they’ve suffered from severe depression in the intervening years. Their accounts are corroborated by their families and wives, who witnessed their adult trauma. Yet both men had denied that Jackson ever sexually abused them; Safechuck when he was a child, and Robson, most recently under oath as an adult, during Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial

Marlon Jackson, Taj Jackson, Tito Jackson and Jackie Jackson are coming out swinging before "Leaving Neverland" arrives on HBO Sunday.

Marlon Jackson, Taj Jackson, Tito Jackson and Jackie Jackson are coming out swinging before “Leaving Neverland” arrives on HBO Sunday. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY)

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And that’s what the Jackson family would like audiences to focus on, even though Michael’s brothers say they haven’t seen “Leaving Neverland.”

“I have no interest in watching something that has no validity to it,” says Marlon Jackson, sitting at the Four Seasons hotel with his brothers Tito and Jackie.

Michael’s nephew Taj, Tito’s son, is there, too. He’s the only one who wanted to watch the documentary before it aired. “Because I would be able to probably pick it apart, scene by scene,” says Taj, who knew Robson personally. “I think they’re counting on the masses to see it and then our voices to be drowned out.”

Michael Jackson, Wade Robson

Michael Jackson, Wade Robson (Photo: HBO)

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As before, the Jackson clan denies Jackson ever molested boys. He was acquitted of such charges in 2005 and settled similar claims in 1994 (for a reported $22 million, despite admitting no wrongdoing). They slam the new documentary (Sunday and Monday, 8 EST/PST) as absurdly one-sided, noting that its director, Dan Reed, never requested interviews with any of the star’s family or friends.

“They weren’t interested in gathering any evidence that wouldn’t corroborate what they’re saying,” Marlon Jackson says. “That wasn’t the plan. It was a one-sided documentary.”

But the closed-door nature of sexual abuse is precisely why it can be so hard to corroborate, or refute. How can the Jacksons be so sure it never happened?

‘Leaving Neverland’: Michael Jackson accusers Robson, Safechuck say ‘sex became safe zone’

Marlon says the family – and a team of attorneys, who put Robson on the stand to defend Jackson in 2005 – has been through all of this before. The surviving Jackson brothers don’t know Safechuck, they say, but Taj did, and he calls Robson’s changed narrative the “ultimate betrayal.”

Family members have their own opinions about why Robson’s story has changed. The choreographer was grateful for an invitation to Jackson’s memorial – he attended with his family, Taj says – and danced “right behind” Janet Jackson for a tribute at MTV’s Video Music Awards. He even “wanted to get close to MJ’s kids” in 2009, Taj says.

Wade Robson, from left, "Leaving Neverland" director Dan Reed and James Safechuck at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Wade Robson, from left, “Leaving Neverland” director Dan Reed and James Safechuck at the Sundance Film Festival in January. (Photo: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

But things soured, the family says. They say that when Robson was passed over to direct and choreograph Cirque du Soleil’s “One” show spotlighting Michael in Las Vegas, his financial troubles began.  That’s when they say Robson began selling off his Jackson memorabilia and pitching a book with allegations against the pop star before suing the family in 2013.

“It’s never been about justice for him,” Taj says. “It’s always been about fame and money.”

The accusers’ lawyer, Vince Finaldi, scoffs at the suggested timeline: “It’s just another example of the Jackson press machine manipulating facts and telling half-truths in order to try and discredit a victim,” he says.

Finaldi says Robson was hired to choreograph the “One” show but suffered a nervous breakdown and dropped out. 

Multitalented superstar Michael Joseph Jackson thrilled audiences most of his life, and was on the precipice of a comeback when he died at age 50 on June 25, 2009. Jackson has the most No. 1 hits among male artists with 14. The King of Pop would have turned 60 on Aug. 29, 2018.

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As described in “Leaving Neverland,” “after the birth of his son, he started having visions of his son being abused by Michael Jackson and reflecting on the abuse that he suffered, and realizing how bad that was from a different perspective,” Finaldi says. Robson pulled away from the entertainment industry, which he found triggering. “Did he suffer financial stresses because of it? Absolutely. But he’s never been fired from a job in his life.”

But the documentary, with graphic descriptions of alleged sexual abuse, prompts direct questions:

Was Michael Jackson ever sexually abused as a child? The brothers shake their heads. “Never,” Jackie says.

In “Leaving Neverland,” it’s alleged that the pop star would spend five or six hours at a time on the phone with young children. Doesn’t his family find this odd?

Actor Corey Feldman doesn’t want to watch controversial Michael Jackson documentary “Leaving Neverland,” in which two men allege Jackson abused them as children. The Jackson estate has denounced the documentary for rehashing “discredited allegations.” (Jan. 31) AP

No, they say. “He would talk to me and my brothers for hours and hours,” Taj says. “My uncle didn’t have a (traditional) childhood, so he lived vicariously through children. He’d say to me: ‘You’re so lucky you had a birthday party. What was it like?’… He was constantly trying to reclaim his childhood, and I don’t think people understand that,  because people didn’t live though Michael Jackson’s life.”

Do they acknowledge that their brother’s behavior was, at the very least, eccentric when it came to spending time with children, including nights in his bed?

Marlon Jackson calls it all innocent. “Taj is the same age as all these kids they used to spend nights (with) all the time.  A bunch of kids would come over and have pillow fights, (watch) “Three Stooges,” swim, all this stuff. Watching movies, they’re tired, they’d fall asleep.”

Joe Jackson, father of the musical Jackson family,

16 PhotosRemembering Joe Jackson: 1928-2018

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“(Marlon’s) children were there,” Jackie says. “My kids were there. Tito’s children were there.”

After accusations of sexual misconduct, did the brothers ever suggest Michael change his behavior with children, whose hands he often held in public?

“We didn’t really have to,” Jackie says. “Because I knew my brother and what his mission was all about, was helping children, helping people around the world.”

The family calls Jackson an easy target, made easier now because under the American legal system, it’s not possible to sue, shame or slander a dead man. The brothers point to Michael Jackson’s search to reclaim his childhood, international charity work, and how he’d open up Neverland to nearby hospitals and schools while he was touring.

Michael Jackson exits the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, March 24, 2005 with his father, Joe Jackson, right, and his attorney, Thomas Mesereau, during his trial on charges of child molestation. He was ultimately acquitted.

Michael Jackson exits the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, March 24, 2005 with his father, Joe Jackson, right, and his attorney, Thomas Mesereau, during his trial on charges of child molestation. He was ultimately acquitted. (Photo: MICHAEL A. MARIANT/AP)

At one point, the interview pauses as a siren passes outside the Four Seasons hotel.

“That’s the police going to get Wade,” Marlon chuckles.

What “Leaving Neverland” really comes down to, they insist, is money, claiming Robson and Safechuck are after a piece of the Jackson estate. (Although a judge dismissed their case in probate court this year, both men are appealing, and a hearing is expected later this year)

The film will have no effect on the lawsuit, Finaldi told USA TODAY earlier this month. But he insists they will get a trial. How much do they want from the estate? “They are seeking whatever the jury sees fit” to award them. 

Michael Jackson performing on his "Bad" world tour in 1988.

Michael Jackson performing on his “Bad” world tour in 1988. (Photo: Cliff Schiappa, AP)

Conversely, family members deny they’re protecting their own financial interests by hitting back at the fresh accusations.

“This is something we’re supposed to do; it’s our brother. I know my brother,” Jackie Jackson says. “He’s not like that. And as far as financially, Michael’s money goes to his children. If something ever happened to me, my money’s going to my children, the same way. His money goes to his kids and all his foundations. That’s the way it’s set up. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Still, doesn’t the family risk damage if the accusations of pedophilia tarnish the family’s legacy?

They shake their heads. Says Taj, “The legacy and the fans around the world, this is not going to do anything to them because they know the truth.”  


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