Michael Jackson’s family is speaking out against the long-awaited documentary Leaving Neverland, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday

By Maria Pasquini
January 26, 2019 05:48 PM
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Taj Jackson and Michael Jackson
S Meddle/ITV/REX/Shutterstock; Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Michael Jackson’s family is speaking out against the long-awaited documentary Leaving Neverland, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday.

The four-hour exposé, which will premiere on HBO this spring, centers around claims from James Safechuck and Wade Robson, both of whom say they endured years of Jackson’s inappropriate behavior and manipulation.

Since the film’s premiere, Jackson’s nephew Taj Jackson, 45, has repeatedly and vehemently denounced the allegations made in the documentary.

“My family and I have known Wade and his family since he came to America. Don’t tell me a 4 hour one sided hit job that you watched is more reputable than people who actually knew him and saw his interactions,” he wrote on Saturday. “This is all about money and the desperate need to be relevant again.”

A rep for filmmaker Dan Reed did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

The previous day, Taj claimed Robson and Safechuck were “acting” in the film and criticized the media for “condemning an innocent man.”

“After years of coaching and studying for these roles, I’m sure Wade (self proclaimed “Master of Deception”) and Jimmy both gave Oscar winning performances today,” he wrote. “Media, please do a 10 minute google search before you condemn an innocent man who is no longer here to defend himself.”

He has also created a GoFundMe page in support of his uncle, with the aim of creating a new documentary, which plans to “conclusively destroy decades of salacious myths which have been told and sold about Michael Jackson.” The campaign has since raised over $28,000 of its $777,000 goal.

In a statement to PEOPLE, Jackson’s estate has also spoken out against the film, calling it “tabloid character assassination.”

Leaving Neverland isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death. The film takes uncorroborated allegations that supposedly happened 20 years ago and treats them as fact. These claims were the basis of lawsuits filed by these two admitted liars which were ultimately dismissed by a judge,” Jackson estate said in the statement. “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.”

“Tellingly, the director admitted at the Sundance Film Festival that he limited his interviews only to these accusers and their families. In doing so, he intentionally avoided interviewing numerous people over the years who spent significant time with Michael Jackson and have unambiguously stated that he treated children with respect and did nothing hurtful to them. By choosing not to include any of these independent voices who might challenge the narrative that he was determined to sell, 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,” the statement continued.

“For 20 years, Wade Robson denied in court and in numerous interviews, including after Michael passed, that he was a victim and stated he was grateful for everything Michael had done for him. His family benefitted from Michael’s kindness, generosity and career support up until Michael’s death. Conveniently left out of Leaving Neverland was the fact that when Robson was denied a role in a Michael Jackson themed Cirque du Soleil production, his assault allegations suddenly emerged.

“We are extremely sympathetic to any legitimate victim of child abuse. This film, however, does those victims a disservice. Because despite all the disingenuous denials made that this is not about money, it has always been about money — millions of dollars — dating back to 2013 when both Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who share the same law firm, launched their unsuccessful claims against Michael’s Estate. Now that Michael is no longer here to defend himself, Robson, Safechuck and their lawyers continue their efforts to achieve notoriety and a payday by smearing him with the same allegations a jury found him innocent of when he was alive.”

RELATED VIDEO: Choreographer Wade Robson Claims Michael Jackson Ran the ‘Most Sophisticated Child Sexual Abuse’ Operation in History in New Complaint

Prior to the film’s Friday premiere, police officers guarded the theater to manage any potential protests and healthcare professionals were seated in the lobby, offering support to any audience members who were upset by the documentary’s content, according to Variety‘s Matt Donnelly.

The emotional film was only halfway through when viewers began sharing their thoughts on the “sickening” allegations.

“It’s halftime at the four-hour Michael Jackson doc and I’m already gonna need 400 showers to ever feel clean again. #Sundance” David Ehrlich, a senior film critic at Indie Wire tweeted after the doc’s first two hours.

Critics who attended the screening later wrote early Twitter reviews of the film: Scott Mantz called it “shocking, sad, disturbing, and devastating,” but many of them were met by anger from Jackson’s fans, who fiercely defended the King of Pop.

In response, fans argued back that there was “no evidence” and that people “never tried to understand Michael and see who he really was.”

“You are falling for the wrong stuff & you are being played and you will see that pretty soon! Wait on it,” wrote another.

Michael Jackson
SANTA MARIA, CA - APRIL 29: Michael Jackson arrives at the Santa Barbara County courthouse April 29, 2005 in Santa Maria, California. Jackson is charged in a 10-count indictment with molesting a boy, plying him with liquor and conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Despite the passionate reactions from viewers, family, and fans alike, Robson, 36, and Safechuck, 40, reportedly received a standing ovation at Sundance after the film had ended, according to TMZ.

In 2017, a California judge dismissed Robson’s case against Jackson’s estate and two companies it controls, MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures, and ruled that it is not liable for Jackson’s alleged childhood sexual abuse of the celebrity choreographer.

Robson first sued in 2013, claiming that Jackson abused him for nearly a decade. He later said in an amended complaint to his 2013 lawsuit that MJJ Productions and MJJ Ventures were operations “specifically designed to locate, attract, lure and seduce child sexual abuse victims.” A probate court in 2015 rejected his claim against the estate itself, which left the two business entities as defendants.

At the time of the ruling, Jackson’s estate said in a statement, “In my opinion Mr. Robson’s allegations, made 20 plus years after they supposedly occurred and years after Mr. Robson testified twice under oath — including in front of a jury — that Michael Jackson had never done anything wrong to him were always about the money rather than a search for the truth.”

Robson said he first met Jackson when he was 5 years old after winning a competition run by MJJ Productions in his native Australia. Two years later, his family was invited to stay at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch home in California, where he claims he slept in Jackson’s bed and said he was first sexually abused by him.

He claimed the abuse continued for seven years and ended only when he “began showing signs of puberty” and Jackson was “no longer as interested in him sexually.”

Robson had previously appeared as a witness for Jackson’s defense during a separate sexual abuse trial in 2005 in which the pop star was acquitted of child molestation charges.

In 2014, Safechuck, then in his 30s, claimed he was sexually abused by the singer when he was 10 years old after appearing in a Pepsi commercial with him.

Safechuck claimed in court papers that after multiple visits to Jackson’s home (some of which were chaperoned by his parents) and several all-expense-paid cross-country trips, he joined Jackson on his Bad tour, which is when he alleged the first incident of sexual abuse occurred.

Jackson was 50 years old when he was found dead on June 25, 2009, in his L.A. mansion.

Jackson is survived by his three children: Prince Michael, 21, Paris, 20, and 16-year-old “Blanket,” who now goes by Bigi.