Liam Neeson's Racist Comments Trigger An Angry Online Backlash

Photo: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images.
Update (5th February): Liam Neeson today addressed the controversy on Good Morning America. "We were doing a press junket and the topic of the film is revenge, it’s a dark comedy too," he told Robin Roberts. "The lady journalist was asking me how I tap into that and I remembered an incident nearly 40 years ago where a very dear friend of mine was brutally raped."
Neeson denied he was racist, referring to his upbringing in Northern Ireland and saying he would have reacted in the same way had his friend told him her attacker had been a different race. "If she’d have said an Irish, Scot, Brit I know I would have felt the same way. I was trying to show honour and stand up for my dear friend in this medieval fashion. It shocked me when I realised the terrible things I said."
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This story was originally published on 4th February.
Liam Neeson revealed a shocking anecdote to The Independent in light of his role in Cold Pursuit, in which his character tries to avenge the death of his son. He told the outlet that he could relate to the character because of a past instance when he discovered someone close to him had allegedly been sexually assaulted, and that the experience prompted him to seek out a racially-charged attack.
“I asked, did she know who it was? No," Neeson recounted. "What colour were they? She said it was a black person."
He then said he "went up and down areas with a cosh" — British slang for a heavy stick or bar — "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.”
Upon reflection, Neeson says the whole thing was "horrible," but it's especially striking to admit in the aftermath of the racist and homophobic attack against Empire actor Jussie Smollett, who was beaten and released from the hospital last week.
"That Liam Neeson interview is just so saddening (and yes, still racist)," writer Ash Sarkar tweeted. "It reinforces the idea that people of colour, and especially black men, are collectively responsible for the misdeeds of one. And that when a woman is sexually violated, it's a man who is left truly wounded."
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She added that the revelation has since been reported by the mainstream media was evidence of society's continued racism.
Labour MP David Lammy also said he was evidence that we've still got a long way to go until racist attitudes are stamped out. "There is good and bad in every colour," he wrote on Twitter.
Writer Afua Hirsch also said it wasn't good enough for Neeson to justify his violent urge by saying he'd grown up in Northern Ireland. (He told the Independent: "I grew up in Northern Ireland in the Troubles... and I understand that need for revenge, but it just leads to more revenge, to more killing and more killing, and Northern Ireland’s proof of that.)
Some people – including former England footballer John Barnes on Sky News – praised Neeson for his "honesty" about once having had racially-motivated violent thoughts. But, as the academic and writer Priyamvada Gopal pointed out, this wouldn't be a defence afforded to everyone.
In an impassioned comment piece, Guardian journalist Gary Younge, a black man, wrote that the actor's comment showed that, "When some white people look at us they see anything from a misplaced grievance to a cautionary tale. What they do not see are human beings. We are still fair game."
While Anita Singh, a Daily Telegraph journalist, suggested it was rich for certain media outlets to be suddenly voicing their outrage at a racist comment when black and Asian people have long complained about being on the receiving end of such treatment.
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The BBC programme Have I Got News For You speculated on what Neeson's comment might mean for his career.
A representative for Neeson did not immediately respond to Refinery29's request for comment.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
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