The estate of Michael Jackson is suing HBO for damages of $100 million or more over Leaving Neverland, the documentary in which two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, claim that the pop star sexually abused them as children. The lawsuit filed Thursday calls Leaving Neverland a “posthumous character assassination” and “a one-sided hit piece,” invoking a 27-year-old concert special that aired on HBO to accuse the network of violating a non-disparagement agreement. You can read the court filing here, thanks to Deadline.
Though the Jackson estate disputes the claims made by Robson and Safechuck in the documentary, it cannot sue HBO or anyone else involved for defaming Jackson because the laws do not apply when the subject is deceased. Instead, the suit claims that in exchange for airing a live concert special in 1992, Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour, HBO agreed not to “make any disparaging remarks concerning Performer or any of his representatives, agents, or business practices or do any act that may harm or disparage or cause to lower in esteem the reputation or public image of Performer.” Leaving Neverland, it argues, violates that agreement:
HBO profited off the Dangerous World Tour by airing a concert from the tour and promoting Michael Jackson’s talents. Now, HBO is profiting off the Dangerous World Tour by airing a “documentary” that falsely claims Michael Jackson was abusing children on the same tour. It is hard to imagine a more direct violation of the non-disparagement clause.
The lawsuit also argues that HBO, facing competition from Netflix and Amazon coupled with the looming end of Game of Thrones, is airing Leaving Neverland because it is desperate for ratings: “Like so many before him, [chairman and CEO] Richard Plepler decided to turn on Michael Jackson for the money.”
The petitioners accuse the network and director Dan Reed of ignoring “mountains of other evidence eviscerating Robson’s and Safechuck’s credibility, all of which the Jackson Estate would have provided if the filmmakers had sought a comment on these claims, which they did not.” It’s true that Leaving Neverland contains no denials or statements from the current Jackson estate, only archival footage of the artist defending himself against the allegations. In fact, the only people interviewed on-camera in the documentary are Robson, Safechuck, and their families. Reed says he also spoke to detectives and prosecutors involved in two investigations of Jackson, but that he did not include footage of anyone else because “I felt that interviews from the public sphere would break that spell and place us back on the outside.”
HBO responded to the lawsuit Thursday by saying that it still plans to air Leaving Neverland, which originally debuted last month at the Sundance Film Festival. “Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain unchanged,” the network said in a statement. “HBO will move forward with the airing of Leaving Neverland, the two-part documentary, on March 3rd and 4th. This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”