Liam Neeson had a chance to send a powerful message about the importance of reckoning with one's racist inner demons. Or rather, he did until he denied his own prejudices.
The award-winning actor has been at the center of controversy after he said in an interview for the new film "Cold Pursuit"— an action film in which Neeson stars— that he had once spent days wandering the streets approximately 40 years ago in hopes of killing a black men after a friend told him that she had been raped by an unidentified black man. Neeson's confession about the experience is recorded by interviewer Clémence Michallon in "The Independent" as follows:
"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 [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] 'black bastard' would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could," another pause, "kill him."
The comments had seemed to come out of the blue; Neeson had been explaining how uncontrolled anger and a desire for revenge drove his character in "Cold Pursuit" when he volunteered the personal details of the story. Neeson went on to say of the experience, "It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that." He later added, "I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, 'What the fuck are you doing,' you know?"
A large public outcry broke out after Neeson's remarks were published, with some condemning him for his dangerous, racist behavior, while others praised him for admitting his mistake on his own accord and how he learned from it.
From here, Neeson had an opportunity to serve as a role model for others to open up about their own racist thoughts or actions. He had a chance to teach people about the importance of confronting their own internalized prejudices and how to admit to them in a way that allows for growth.
Instead, he decided to talk on the television program "Good Morning America" and outright denied being a racist.
"If [my friend] had said an Irish, or a Scot, or a Brit, or a Lithuanian, I know I would've felt the same effect. I was trying to... stand up for my dear friend in this terrible medieval fashion," Neeson - who is originally from Northern Ireland but currently lives in the US - said on air.
To be clear, Neeson did not completely remove racism as a dimension of his actions; he mentioned the role of bigotry in his angry search for a black man to kill and said he was ashamed of having those thoughts, adding that he was thankful he did not end up hurting somebody else. However, Neeson's comments reveal two key things that reflect the ongoing influence of racism.
First, Neeson's claim that he would have gone after "an Irish, or a Scot, or a Brit, or a Lithuanian" with equal vigor still reveals racism on his part. It's scary that Neeson would seek to hurt anybody just because they shared the same race or culture as the person who raped his friend.
His anger over the rape of his friend is justified, but he chose to channel his anger in a racist manner. Additionally, it is worth noting that he makes the distinction between various white European cultures but does not do the same for black people; he makes the judgment based entirely on skin color. The fact that Neeson used this as his defense for why he is no longer racist shows that he is wrong about himself in that regard.
Second, Neeson fails to give an apology to black people for his discrimination against them. He expresses remorse for intentionally looking to inflict violence on one race, but does not really acknowledge the implications of why he targeted black men specifically. There is remorse, but not a full apology.
To be fair, it would wrong to characterize Neeson's admission as a completely bad thing. Yes, it is a good thing that he admitted to his actions and realized how wrong they were. It is a good thing that he opened up about it publicly and confronted his prejudice instead of internalizing it; so many of us do internalize it, and it's bad for us in the long term. And it is a good thing that he learned not to let senseless anger cause him to inflict violence on others.
But Neeson still has a long way to go. His anger in that moment does not completely account for his attempt to try to hurt a black man; it is impossible to ignore his inner racism. Sure, he confessed to bigotry on his part, but only in the past. His comments from the "Good Morning America" interview shows that he still has to acknowledge his own racial prejudice in the present.
Racism never fully goes away, but it's possible to always continue to learn how to grow beyond it and prevent it from dominating one's mind. The process of learning from racism must be constant and ongoing. Neeson seems to forget that.