As the aftermath of the recent Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly continued to ripple across the entertainment landscape this week, Sundance announced a new entry in its lineup: Leaving Neverland, from BAFTA winner Dan Reed. The film will examine the accusations of sexual abuse Michael Jackson faced during his later years—and, per the synopsis, “[craft] a portrait of sustained exploitation and deception, documenting the power of celebrity that allowed a revered figure to infiltrate the lives of starstruck children and their parents.” The Jackson estate has already decried the project, but in light of the real-world ramifications of Surviving R. Kelly, it’s worth wondering what effect this documentary might have on its own subject’s legacy.
Leaving Neverland takes its name from Neverland Ranch, the California estate where Jackson lived from 1988 to 2003. In Jackson’s last year at the ranch, a 13-year-old boy accused Jackson of molestation, which led to a police raid. The documentary examines relationships Jackson allegedly formed with two boys, aged 7 and 10, and their families; both men, now in their thirties, allege in the film that Jackson sexually abused them. (Jackson was acquitted on all counts against him after a trial in 2005.) The documentary will air on Channel 4 in the spring, and on HBO in the U.S. the same week.
In a statement, the Jackson estate, which has consistently denied the allegations against the late singer, wrote, “This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson.” Jackson’s nephew Taj Jackson expressed his own thoughts on Twitter as well, writing, “I’m so tired of these lies about my uncle. MJfam, I see all your comments and messages about wanting to fight back. I doubt the media wants to learn the truth or is even interested in it. Negativity sells. But please post below on what we all can do to expose this documentary.”
Given the impact of Surviving R. Kelly, which broke Lifetime ratings records earlier this month, it seems possible that Leaving Neverland might have a similar effect on Jackson’s legacy. Kelly was accused in 2017 of holding young women against their will in an environment described as a “cult”; he denied the allegations hours after the story broke. The ramifications Kelly faced at the time were minimal. Since Surviving R. Kelly aired, however, Facebook has removed a group dedicated to discrediting the singer’s accusers, a criminal investigation has opened in Georgia, more accusers have come forward, and Lady Gaga has pulled her collaboration with Kelly from streaming services.