Liam Neeson: Refreshingly Honest or Bitterly Racist?

The Gryphon unpicks the controversy surrounding Liam Neeson’s recent controversial comments regarding revenge, racism and collective responsibility.

He will find you, and he will (possibly) kill you.

These famous words spoken by Liam Neeson could not ring any truer in recent days, given the attention (and backlash) he has received for statements made during an interview.

Talking about his latest film, Neeson was asked what personal events/ experiences had inspired him for the role. It was here he talked about an incident which had occurred 40 years ago. After finding out a close friend had been raped by a black man, Neeson said he had taken to the streets for around a week, with the hopes that some ‘’black b*****d’ would approach him. He was ready to kill someone, he said, as this was the only medieval way he thought he could defend his friend’s honour.

Many have supported his move to openly discuss these events. Whoopi Goldberg defended Neeson by declaring his anger was justified because of the crime. She went on to argue that everyone ‘’…walk[s] around sometimes with rage, that’s what happens. Is he a bigot? No.’’ And this defence is understandable. Feeling this way after someone you love has been attacked justified his anger and his need for revenge – these are after all normal human conditions. Goldberg then points out that it’s extremely important to remember that he ‘realised it was too dark’ and did eventually seek help.

John Barnes argues that Neeson’s thoughts cannot be blamed, because society and the media have wrongly portrayed black people as committing these crimes – it has essentially become a generalised prerequisite for certain races / religious minorities. This could not ring any truer for our current state: consider the ongoing discussion surrounding police arrests and detainment of black people and the disproportionate use of force paired with false event statements (like the treatment of Michael Brown in 2014 (US) – where witness and police statements differed greatly on whether Brown was violent during an attempted arrest). And note the state of the media 40 years ago which was arguably more racially charged than now. Without social media commentators showing the general public consensus, the newspapers were the only source of information – and with their political agendas it wouldn’t be surprising if many people were influenced to think a certain way. So arguing Neeson is bitterly racist brings into question whether this was through his own volition or formed because of a biased media.

Neeson did go on to say he was ashamed and horrified at what he had thought, and the way he had generalised all black people (but he made no apology about feeling vengeful). Barnes respects Neeson telling the truth and states ‘we are all unconsciously racist’. He also notes that Neeson was speaking on the subject of ‘revenge’ not race, and that people should hear the entirety of the interview before making judgements. In a later interview, Neeson stated that the race element was insignificant – had the rapist been an ‘’…Irish, a Scot or Brit or a Lithuanian…’’, the reaction would have been the same.

Trevor Nelson hopes people realise the gravity of his actions and what his message is – that if ‘’…you are not careful, you can have inside of you a hatred that is encouraged or grown by the society that you live in.’’ So his revelation is refreshingly honest – it’s an open account of his situation which still has significance now and allows for open communication of the struggles we all face as humans conditioned by society.

However, not everyone accepts that Neeson is not a racist.

Frederick Joseph, a worker for better media representation, stated his comments showed how ‘’meaningless and inconsequential black lives are to some’’. His telling the story was not an honest account but rather held undertones of privilege and understanding that his words will have no repercussions. Many pointed out that Neeson at the time probably anticipated there would be no consequences if he had carried through, furthering white privilege and racism.

These comments are reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s anti-Semetic remarks of 2006, which many hold as the key to his dwindling career. Filmmaker Spike Lee seems to confirm this when he seemed to agree he would not cast Neeson. Lee also sheds light on the issue of black people being seen as ‘not quite human’ and highlights the movement of the KKK which was started to ‘protect’ white women from black men – with many being murdered / jailed because of their (sometimes false) accusations.  

Eva Simpson (journalist) states the key argument for his account being utterly racist is that he never sought the rapist out – but held the view that ‘any black man’ would do for him to feel better about what had occurred. This is extremely dangerous, and it’s clear that although Neeson may not have intended to hurt anyone, the very fact that he made the reference to race is the issue in itself. It sells the message that certain lives are less than others. And the excuse that any race would have caused him to have the same reaction seems a response given to cover his mistake without a direct apology and acknowledgement of the racially charged account he gave. It was also the way he referred to the people he went after, using offensive language which heightened the backlash – that he was essentially targeting innocent people for their race due to one solitary event.  

Comments that argue that Neeson’s behaviour is not unusual and that the media can influence a person’s perceptions are inherently naive. They give Neeson a free pass – to make him feel less guilty for his behaviour. It’s one thing to feel something, but entirely another to act upon that feeling. Not everyone can use the excuse of being influenced by the media, and although Neeson is apologetic, and he is opening up areas which needs discussing, it doesn’t take away that he did so in an ill-thought of manner, and has caused many people offence.

Zenab Khan