On Feb. 4 during an interview with The Independent, actor Liam Neeson admitted that he went looking to kill a black man after learning that someone of the same race had raped his friend. Neeson’s comments have sparked a debate about racism and forgiveness that is sweeping Hollywood and social media.
Neeson gave the interview to promote his most recent film, “Cold Pursuit.” His controversial claims came on the heels of a conversation about the futility of revenge. Neeson told the interviewer that, after hearing the news of the rape of one of his female friends, he asked about the race of the perpetrator. Upon hearing that the man was black, he went out and began walking the streets with a “cosh,” waiting for a “black bastard” to start an altercation with him so that he could, in Neeson’s own words, “kill him.” A cosh is another word for a club.
The quote seems to have come unprompted, as Neeson’s co-star Tom Bateman expressed horrified surprise in response to the admittance in the form of a succinct, “Holy shit.”
The following day, in response to a wave of backlash, Neeson went on Good Morning America and claimed that he is “not racist” and that he would have reacted the same had the attacker been “an Irish or a Scot or a Brit or a Lithuanian.”
This leads to the question that so many have been asking: Is Liam Neeson racist? His confession is shocking, but he claims that he became disgusted with himself afterward, even going to see a priest to talk out his violent feelings. Despite the controversy the aforementioned question is generating, I have trouble seeing what has people confused. Is Liam Neeson racist? Well, yes, clearly.
The fact of the matter is: Liam Neeson went out looking to murder a random black man for a crime committed by someone specific. Neeson claims that he would have reacted the same had the person been of another race, but that doesn’t change the fact that he would have been using the actions of one person to generalize an entire demographic.
TPN spoke with the coordinator of the African and African Diaspora studies department, Jeffrey Coleman, Ph.D., about his thoughts concerning the comments. “He wasn’t interested in that particular black man [who had committed the crime],” Coleman said. “He was interested in attacking any black man he felt he had a justifiable reason to assault…and that’s patently racist.”
Neeson’s comments show that he has fallen prey to the stereotype of, as Coleman puts it, “helpless white female who’s attacked by a stereotypical black beast.” This is still an ugly reality for many black men in the modern world, who get unfairly judged by society for no other reason than the color of their skin. One has to consider how long Neeson held these racist thoughts before he was finally given an excuse to act on them.
Defenders of Neeson point out that the actor said he felt remorseful for his dark thoughts, and went to a priest to repent. But he still spent a week walking the streets with a weapon before coming to his senses. Others claim that, since the incident occurred so long ago, we should consider the fact that Neeson may have changed since then. Still, others have called him brave for admitting such a horrifying story. While his honesty is admirable, I would hesitate to call Neeson brave. The only thing he proved with that interview is a past capability for racial violence, and it is impossible to really know if he has changed. The stereotype of a dangerous black man has been ingrained in the brains of white people for hundreds of years and is difficult to overcome. “[Those thoughts] don’t just go away if you’ve bought into the stereotype,” Coleman said.
Despite an outpouring of support, however, there’s still been a significant amount of backlash. Why, then, did Neeson choose to share this? He must have known how it would have been received. Coleman theorized that it could have been a publicity stunt to generate attention for his new movie, and underestimated the amount of negative attention there would be in response. Given that Neeson is a successful white man who works in the entertainment industry, it’s unlikely he’ll face any lasting consequences for these comments unless people decide to stop supporting him.
This leaves the responsibility up to the viewer, then. How long will it take people to forget or forgive? The box office numbers for “Cold Pursuit” may be telling enough, making only $10.8 million against a budget of $60 million. It seems that perhaps Neeson may face his comeuppance after all. “One thing is certain,” Coleman told me, “if his films do not bring in revenue, then he will become a less desirable leading man.” Apparently, it doesn’t pay to be racist.