They’d told their stories before, first in the quiet confines of therapists’ offices, then explicitly in court documents.
But Wade Robson and James Safechuck never felt truly heard until they stood in front of a crowd applauding them at the Sundance Film Festival last month. After the premiere of “Leaving Neverland,” the four-hour docu-series in which both men allege they suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson when they were boys, hundreds of festivalgoers rose to their feet to applaud the film’s subjects.
“It’s strange to hear people clap,” said Safechuck, 40.
“Yeah, you kind of don’t know what to do with it at first,” added Robson, 36. “There’s a lot of release happening for me. There’s been a lot of tears. There’s tiredness. But this is a sea change moment for me in this healing journey and in trying to be heard. And it’s happened, and that’s incredible.”
It had been one day since “Leaving Neverland” was first unveiled, and the men were sitting in the conference room of a hotel. Robson, who wore a string of beads around his neck, had traveled alone from his home in Hawaii to the festival. Safechuck, who sometimes speaks so softly he is difficult to hear, had brought his wife from Simi Valley. The director of the project, Dan Reed, was also at the table for emotional support, though he mostly sat quietly, answering emails on his phone.
Only a clutch of Jackson fans had turned up at Sundance to protest the docu-series, which will begin its two-night HBO run on March 3. But online, his legion of supporters were already launching websites and Twitter threads to lay out why they believe Robson and Safechuck are liars.
Even before the festival, Jackson’s estate slammed “Leaving Neverland” as “yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson.” In the following weeks, the estate has only ramped up its defense, releasing a 10-page letter directed at HBO Chief Executive Richard Plepler slamming the network for airing the project.
But HBO is not wavering, and the critical reaction to “Leaving Neverland” was so strong that the network briefly explored an awards-qualifying theatrical run. A motion picture academy rule barring “multi-part” documentaries from consideration — adopted after the docu-series “O.J.: Made in America” won the Oscar in 2017 — meant that wasn’t to be.
Still, the exposure on HBO is sure to ignite fierce debates. The main argument against Safechuck and Robson’s credibility centers on the fact that both men previously testified on Jackson’s behalf in child sex abuse cases brought against him by other boys. In 1993, when Robson was 11 and Safechuck just a few years older, both said they told investigators that Jackson had never been sexually inappropriate with them. At 22, Robson reiterated that position again under oath in 2005, subsequently sitting for numerous television interviews in which he spoke positively about Jackson.
As “Leaving Neverland” details, both men now say they were under immense pressure from Jackson and his lawyers to keep quiet about their alleged molestation.
Robson says he was sexually abused by Jackson from age 7, shortly after he won a 1987 Australian competition in which he mimicked the performer’s dancing. Safechuck, who met Jackson that same year on the set of a Pepsi commercial, says Jackson started molesting him when he was 10 years old.
“My experience with Michael’s threats was that he told me, ‘You and I, Wade, we have to save each other,’” recalled Robson. “‘We have to stop these ignorant people. If this gets out, both of our lives are gonna be over. We’re gonna be pulled apart. We’ll both go to jail for the rest of our lives.’ It was like we were in this together, you know?”
Robson and Safechuck crossed paths a couple of times as boys — once on the set of Jackson’s 1991 music video, “Jam,” and another time at the singer’s Neverland Ranch, where he had organized a weekend with the filmmaker Robert Wise. But they never knew each other in any real way.
In 2013, when Robson filed a lawsuit against Jackson’s estate and companies claiming the singer had sexually abused him as a boy, Safechuck felt seen. In the docu-series, he describes how Robson’s legal efforts inspired him to speak out and begin his own legal battle with Jackson’s business entities in 2014.
While he wanted to go to court to “fight back” for “little James,” Safechuck was also desperate to connect with Robson over what court documents revealed to be shared childhood trauma. But due to their respective lawsuits, they had to keep their distance. The men were allowed to meet for a lawyer-supervised lunch about five years ago, though they could barely share any details about their boyhood experiences with Jackson.
“The first thing we did was just hug each other for, like, five minutes,” Robson remembered.
“I was pretty early on in my therapy, so I don’t know if I looked a bit shell-shocked to you,” said Safechuck. “I was still processing a lot.”
Reed first approached the men about “Leaving Neverland” in 2016, after the filmmaker learned about their lawsuits. It was the pre-#MeToo era, the public hadn’t exactly embraced Robson and Safechuck’s stories. So they were wary about participating in the project.
“I wanted the story to be treated with respect, and I wanted someone to really show people what it’s like to be abused,” Robson said. “I wasn’t looking for a radical movie — I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
Both men’s mothers and wives are also interviewed in the film, as are Robson’s siblings and even his grandmother. With the intimate focus on the men and their families, no representatives for Jackson — who was never convicted of sexual abuse — were included in the film.
“I also didn’t want it to feel like some sort of vendetta piece against Michael,” said Safechuck. “Of course, it’s partly about Michael, because he’s the abuser. But he’s dead, and he can’t abuse kids anymore. And this is not about trying to take Michael Jackson down. It’s so much bigger than that. We can’t change what happened to us, but how can we use this story to make an impact on the future for other kids?”
At the time, Robson was already deep into years of therapy. With the aid of Jackson, he’d risen to fame in the late ‘90s as a choreographer for pop stars like Britney Spears and N’Sync. But in 2011, just as he was about to direct his first film, “Step Up 4,” his childhood trauma bubbled to the surface. He suffered what he calls a nervous breakdown, dropped off the film and moved to Hawaii with his wife and son.
“Dance and film all got painted black for me, because it was all so connected with Michael,” Robson explained. “So how could I keep doing any of that stuff ever again? So, yeah, I quit all of it and I tried to bury it all alive, and I swore I’d never dance or make music or make films ever again. I threw a smoke bomb and moved to Hawaii. ‘Agents, managers, don’t call me. I’m done.’”
By the time he met Reed, he was far down a path of healing. Though he’d discussed the details of his abuse with his therapist, he said he found “a whole new level of therapy” in telling his whole story chronologically in front of the camera.
Safechuck, however, did not find the experience therapeutic.
“It was difficult,” he said. “You have to sort of surrender and pour your heart out and then hope that it gets treated with respect, and that’s tough to do. … It was also before the #MeToo movement. The world has changed — is starting to change — since we started this.”
“I think once the #MeToo movement kind of took off, I had some sense of hope that a consciousness shift was beginning,” said Robson. “But then also this feeling, like, ‘Yeah, that seems to be happening and that’s great, but often, those sort of things don’t seem to apply to Michael Jackson.’”
Robson said he believes it’s been difficult for people to think Jackson could have been a pedophile because of his level of stardom, which made him almost inhuman.
“People put him on some sort of pedestal that was just seemingly invincible,” he said. “And in my experience with him, he had some good qualities about him. He had some real levels of kindness and compassion about him. And then at the same time, a real twisted, sick urge and lack of any capability to stop himself from doing these horrible things to myself and James and I believe many other kids.”
“I think, for us, instead of looking for people to mute Michael or whatever — I think it’s more of presenting an opportunity for people to reevaluate who they consider their idols,” said Safechuck. “Who do we assign to look up to? Because you can write an amazing song doesn’t mean you should be people’s moral compass.”
Robson, for one, has completely distanced himself from the world of celebrity. About a year and a half ago, he finally felt the urge to return to dance — this time in a teaching capacity. He’s no longer interested in choreographing for major stars and said he’d even turn down an offer from an old collaborator like Spears should she come calling.
“I don’t think dance ever went anywhere, I just kept trying to push it away because (of the) feeling that Michael gave it to me,” Robson said. “Coming to an understanding that Michael didn’t give it to me — so therefore he can’t take it away from me — I’ve taken back what’s mine. … I started dancing again, I started teaching, and trying to approach it in an extremely different way.
“(It’s) the opposite way that Michael told me to approach everything in the entertainment business, which was just so intense — ‘be the best or be nothing at all, rule the world, destroy everyone.’ These heavy, grand expectations. … The approach is: How can I have fun?”
Safechuck long ago left any entertainment industry ambitions behind. Though he played in a band for a while — “we exploded in a spectacular fashion” — he found a new passion in computer programming and now works as the director of innovation and technology at a digital advertising agency. He said he’s trying to set “healthy expectations” for the release of “Leaving Neverland” in order to protect himself from any further backlash.
“I think the act of being heard is an accomplishment,” he said. “And if good comes of that for other people, that’s an accomplishment. And that’s it.”
“Of course, as a survivor, it feels amazing when people believe you and support you,” Robson chimed in. “But there’s not an expectation of that for me. There’s been too much of the opposite for so long. … So much of this journey for me has been about trying to be heard. And at some level — at a level that has not happened for me so far — that’s starting to happen.”
*Amy Kaufman is a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, where she has covered film, celebrity and pop culture since 2009.