The Casual Racism of Liam Neeson’s Revenge Parable
Sadly, he missed the most important moral of his own story.
Liam Neeson is in hot water on social media, and I, for one, thinks he deserves the scolding — and the scalding.
He turned on the faucet and opened the floodgates during an interview with the Independent in which he tried to explain the psychology behind his character’s quest for vigilante justice in the new film Cold Pursuit.
He recounted a tale of racism and revenge and his lessons learned. Apparently, though, he either slept through the class on racism or ignored it completely.
The dark chapter in his life began when he found out a friend of his had been raped.
“She handled the situation of the rape in the most extraordinary way,” he said. “But my immediate reaction was … I asked, did she know who it was? No. What color were they? She said it was a black person.
“I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody — I’m ashamed to say that — and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could … kill him.”
Neeson said his thirst for white justice lasted “a week, maybe a week and a half.”
“It’s awful,” he continued. “But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, ‘What the f**k are you doing,’ you know?”
The lesson: “I understand that need for revenge,” he explained, using the Troubles conflict between Northern Ireland and the U.K. as a parallel. “But it just leads to more revenge, to more killing and more killing.”
Of all the things to take away from that incident, Neeson chose the obvious. Anyone who has ever watched a daytime soap, already knows the pointlessness of revenge. But what about the racial profiling, Liam? What about the collectivist thinking behind the “cold pursuit” of one black man to pay for the crime of another?
Why did Neeson even ask what color the rapist was? I won’t pretend to know what was going through his mind at the time, but I suspect he already had his suspicions, which lined up with the antiquated racist narrative of the wild black man being a threat to the pure white lady.
If the rapist had been white, would Neeson have gone out looking for a “white bastard” to beat down? Did his black Widows costar Viola Davis teach him nothing? Has history taught him nothing? How could he possibly miss the most glaring lesson of all: All black men are not responsible for the crimes of one black man. We are not our brothas’ keepers?
As I perused the social media outrage over Neeson’s comments, I thought back to something that happened to me years ago in Buenos Aires. I was in a nightclub rebuffing the advances of a local who then got physical with me. I responded with a swift kick in his shins. The guy called the police, and I ended up being detained for five hours.
A week later, I ran into the man from the club. He apologized profusely for taking things as far as he did, and explained that his ex-boyfriend, who was black, had recently gotten violent with him, and he had taken out his frustration on me, a substitute black man. I accepted his apology and moved on, but I never forgot.
I’ve always known that as a black man, I’d be judged first and foremost, for better or for worse, by an overwhelming majority of white people, not as an individual but as “the black guy.” One black crime, I quickly learned, would fit us all.
The predilection to seek revenge on someone who has hurt a loved one is understandable. Thinking one black man can pay for the crime of another isn’t. Neeson made race such a crucial part of his recollection, but he doesn’t seem to have fully grasped the implications of that.
I don’t have a problem with the story itself. We all have our less-than-honorable moments, and Neeson’s reaction to black-on-white crime is far more common than most white people would care to admit. Sometimes what we take away from a situation is more pivotal than what we bring into it.
Neeson’s story is as much about racism as it is about revenge, yet he glossed over the former to make a point about the latter. In these divided times when blacks, women, gays, Muslims, and pretty much anyone who isn’t a straight white male are treated like monolithic entities, it’s a shame that Neeson squandered a truly teachable moment for the sake of justifying the motivation of his latest action-movie character.
I’m glad he learned something from his mistake. It’s too bad he seems to have missed the most important lesson of all.