Producers behind the explosive Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland refused to remove footage and mention of Brett Barnes, a former friend of the pop star, which Barnes’ attorneys claim leave the false impression he was sexually abused as a child.
According to letters obtained by Billboard, on Feb. 26 Barnes’ lawyer Allen Grodsky wrote to HBO demanding Barnes’ name and likeness be removed from the film, claiming their client was not consulted and did not consent to their use. Barnes would “suffer significant torment and pain if the film is broadcast and portrays him in this false light,” the letter stated. Leaving Neverland aired March 3 on HBO.
Barnes’ friendship with Jackson is noted in the documentary, which focuses on allegations of sexual assault perpetrated by the artist, with one interview suggesting he “replaced” subject Wade Robson as Jackson’s special friend. Footage of Barnes as a child is used in the film, as well as a chyron stating Barnes denies Jackson ever acted inappropriately to him.
“By depicting Mr. Barnes as a child next to Mr. Jackson in a film devoted to allegations of sexual molestation against Mr. Jackson, the film leaves viewers with the false impression that Mr. Barnes was in fact molested by Mr. Jackson and that Mr. Barnes is simply in denial,” said the letter.
Barnes, like many of the other boys Jackson befriended, was thrust into the public spotlight at an early age as a result of his relationship with the international superstar. Years later, in 2005, he testified in Jackson’s defense when the singer was accused — and eventually acquitted — of child molestation. At the time, Barnes said that as a youth he had stayed with Jackson at least 10 times and was never touched inappropriately. Since then, according to Barnes’ lawyer’s letter, the Barnes has “conspicuously avoided the public eye” and has “been living a quiet, private life for many years and wants to keep it that way.” He has even avoided mentioning his friendship with Jackson to many of those close to him, such as his friends, co-workers and employer.
Even after the first screening of Leaving Neverland at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Barnes’ attorneys claimed their client already began to suffer “tremendous stress and emotional pain.” There have also been visits from press and strangers seeking to speak with him about Jackson.
“The hurt you will cause to Mr. Barnes if you do not reverse course is magnified by the fact that Mr. Barnes and his family considered Mr. Jackson to be a dear family friend for almost twenty years and Mr. Barnes still considers him to have been one of the best friends he has ever had,” continued the letter. “That you would produce a film strongly implying that Mr. Barnes was sexually abused by one of his best friends is outrageous. That no one even attempted to contact Mr. Barnes to ask about such accusation is beyond the pale…. Put simply, Mr. Barnes wants nothing to do with the film, does not consent to use of him image and likeness in the film, and wishes to be left alone.”
In a letter dated March 1, also obtained by Billboard, attorneys for Amos Pictures Ltd., producers of Leaving Neverland, responded to the Barnes letter, denying any “false assertions of fact are made or implied” about Barnes in the film. “To the contrary,” the letter states, “facts of your client’s friendship with Michael Jackson are presented as they happened. Mr. Barnes’ relationship with Michael Jackson has been a part of the public record for decades; he cannot simply remove himself from history.”
The response continued, “While it is unfortunate that Mr. Barnes is not happy with the Film, there is no legal requirement that Amos Pictures, HBO or any other third party submit to the demands in your letter, and accordingly they respectfully decline to do so.”