Muse Reporting on the arts and culture

Revenge and racism

Media | Liam Neeson becomes the latest celebrity to face backlash over past racism
by Mary Jackson
Posted 2/08/19, 02:43 pm

Actor Liam Neeson is facing public outrage and condemnation from civil rights advocates this week after a British newspaper published an interview where he described a racist incident that occurred nearly 40 years ago.

Neeson, 66, told the Independent that he once sought revenge for a friend’s brutal rape by roaming the streets for a week with a clublike weapon looking for a random black man to kill. Neeson said the woman who was raped told him her assailant was black.

“It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that,” Neeson told Independent reporter Clémence Michallon.

Following these remarks, the red-carpet premiere for Neeson’s latest film Cold Pursuit was canceled, along with several talk show appearances. Neeson appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America Tuesday, telling host Robin Roberts, “I’m not a racist.” He also expounded on the incident, expressing “shock” at his “primal hatred” and the urge to physically harm someone, which he said may have been connected to growing up during the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Schindler’s List star thanked God that no violence occurred and told Roberts he overcame his anger by confessing to a Catholic priest, talking with friends, and “believe it or not, power walking, two hours every day.”

Roberts, who is African-American, responded, “You have to understand the pain of a black person hearing what you said.”

Neeson’s comments come amidst scandals surrounding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and state Attorney General Mark Herring, after racist images and incidents surfaced from their pasts. Many have called for both men to resign.

A growing number of Twitter users this week insisted that Neeson should be digitally removed from the upcoming release of the movie Men in Black. NAACP spokesman Malik Russell called Neeson’s comments “unfortunate and sick” in an email to The New York Times. Others, like celebrities Michelle Rodriguez and Whoopi Goldberg, have come to his defense.

Jemar Tisby, an author and the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, told me in an email that he was “appalled” when he heard Neeson’s account: “It could hardly be more offensive or terrifying. The only part that surpasses the reprehensibility ... is his seeming obliviousness about what the consequences of such an admission would be.”

Still, Tisby called it “a good sign” that racist actions, both past and present, are coming to light, and the public is increasingly holding politicians and celebrities accountable. But he said the focus often remains on the offender, not the offended. “How does Mr. Neeson make it right in terms of all the black people he offended?” Tisby asked.

On Good Morning America, Neeson told Roberts he hopes people begin to “open up” about racism: “We all pretend we’re politically correct, but in this country, it’s the same in my own country, too, but sometimes you just scratch the surface and you discover this racism and bigotry. It’s there.”

But for many African-Americans, Neeson’s honesty is hard to hear.

“So many of us have had traumatic experiences just on the basis of being black,” said Vincent Bacote, an associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. He told me Christians need to provide cultural leadership and avoid summary judgement: “We believe people are sinful. It shouldn’t surprise us that people are egregiously sinful. That doesn’t mean they get a pass, but the aim of a Christian is restoration, not condemnation.”

Associated Press/Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision Associated Press/Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision An Oscar statue at the 91st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Monday

Oscar 2019 predictions: No host, very few viewers

For the first time in three decades, the Academy Awards will go on without a host.

Instead, celebrities will introduce segments and present the trophies this year, according to the head of ABC Entertainment, the network that will air the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 24. The new format was announced this week amid reports that the broadcaster was struggling to fill the role.

Kevin Hart stepped down as host in December amid backlash for tweets he wrote 10 years ago about homosexuals. Hart has since apologized multiple times and even indicated on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that he might reconsider hosting the awards ceremony. But on his SiriusXM podcast, Hart said he is not interested in the position: “Anything that I say that’s not appropriate, that’s wrong … you’re gonna pick me apart.”

The role of Oscar host is traditionally a highly criticized gig involving an opening monologue, comedic interludes, and smoothing over awkward moments. The Hollywood Reporter called it the “least wanted job in Hollywood.”

ABC’s entertainment chief Karey Burke acknowledged the “messiness” of Hart’s withdrawal contributed to the decision to nix the position altogether.

The move comes as the show struggles against low ratings. Producers announced in August that they will limit the broadcast to three hours after last year’s ceremony dragged on for nearly four and the number of people watching dropped 19 percent from the prior year to an all-time low of 26.5 million viewers.

The last time the Oscars went without a host was in 1989. The program featured a disastrous 11-minute opening musical act that included Rob Lowe and an actress dressed as Snow White singing a parody of “Proud Mary.” The act was so bad that Eileen Bowman, who played Snow White, said the producers made her sign a gag order agreeing not to give media interviews about her performance for 13 years afterward. —M.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision Associated Press/Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision 21 Savage at the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas in May 2018

In custody

Fans of 21 Savage found out this week that the famous Atlanta rapper is actually an illegal immigrant from Britain. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detained 21 Savage, whose legal name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, on Sunday.

His attorneys said he moved with his family to the United States in 2006 at age 12, and the family overstayed their visas. Abraham-Joseph applied for a new visa in 2017, and his attorneys said he should be freed while the application is pending.

Fans were shocked to learn the rapper isn’t American. “It seems so outlandish that the prototypical Atlanta rapper is not from Atlanta,” said Samuel Hine, a writer and editor at GQ. —Lynde Langdon

Lacking faith

A new exhibit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s artwork, hand-drawn maps, manuscripts, and personal items offers a glimpse into the Lord of the Rings author’s artistic way of life. But New York’s Morgan Library neglected to include any reference to Tolkien’s Catholic faith.

“It seems intellectually lazy, at best, to ignore such a crucially important factor in Tolkien’s personal life, philosophy, and work,” The Federalist’s William Newton wrote of the oversight. —L.L.

Mary Jackson

Mary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and four children. Follow Mary on Twitter @mbjackson77

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Comments

  • VISTA48
    Posted: Sat, 02/09/2019 08:47 am

    Apparently, we are no longer allowed to even have a conversation about racism. Neeson's story could be viewed as one of personal growth, but instead he gets the scarlet "R" as everyone recedes back to their corners. Meanwhile, actual racists like Louis Farrkhan ramble on with impugnity. This is what happens when one side gets to decide what is or isn't "hate".

  • MS
    Posted: Sat, 02/09/2019 04:18 pm

    We must be careful not to judge and condemn people because of acts committed 30+ years ago.  Cultural norms change over the years, so when we take judge an act that happened in a different generation, we must be careful to judge in the context of the cultural norms of the time it happened in and not according to the cultural norms of today. 

  • JerryM
    Posted: Sun, 02/10/2019 04:11 pm

    The key theme in these articles is political correctness and how some have to virtually beg for forgiveness if they cross the line.  I am again struck by these celebs displays of penitence.

  •  Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Sun, 02/10/2019 09:13 pm

    Liam Neeson is being condemned for committing no sin, but merely having a sinful thought 40 years ago.  

    Progressive moralism extends to the realm of thought and shows no mercy.  Just as his character Jean Valjean was shown no mercy in Les Miserables, modern liberals have become Inspector Javert condemning for life any deviation from their agenda.  There is no statute of limitations, as this thought police scours history for any outrage.

  • DS
    Posted: Mon, 02/11/2019 01:15 pm

    So, I'm confused. Why is it that Liam Neeson could confess with regret that he'd had racist thoughts 40+ years ago, and claim that he is not racist now, 40+ years later, but he is now blacklisted? Who cares whether he was racist even then? Sure he was acting rash, but racist? And it sounds like he is not racist now. He admits to regreting his past actions. Why does the black community seem to think that he is racist now? It doesn't make any sense to me.

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Mon, 02/11/2019 04:05 pm

    Liam Neeson's reaction to the brutal rape of a friend was one of rage choosing to pursue and kill a description of the offender.  Had the description and resulting hunt been of a short white man or tall purple man it would not have been racist but a crazed reaction to seek revenge on a unknown assailant for a senseless and brutal act.  Important notes:  He didn't carry out his vendetta.  He sought forgiveness in the venue he understood forgiveness to be dispensed.  He confessed to friends.  He resorted to releasing his pent up anger through non-confrontive physical exercise.  

    The response from the elites, both black and otherwise is so transparently bigotted.  They do not see the value of opening up this conversation, giving credit to Neeson's own pain in bringing this to light, and confessing that we are ALL flawed and in need of redemption.

  • not silent
    Posted: Mon, 02/11/2019 05:35 pm

    I understand the concern that someone who has demonstrated apparent repentance and evidence of changed attitude would be criticized or punished. However, I'm not sure commenters here understand how horrifying Mr. Neeson's comments may have sounded. After his family member reported being raped, he specifically asked about the person's race and then went out looking for African Americans to kill in order to get revenge for what a single person who looked like them did.

    When I was growing up in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans were sometimes put to death without a trial.  It was called lynching, and it was often done because of accusations of sexual impropriety by a white person.  Emmett Till was lynched not long before I was born for that reason.    

    I think it's appropriate to extend forgiveness when someone has repented and has changed, but I think part of having an honest conversation about race is to understand how certain statements may bring up painful events from the past and stir up old wounds.  I don't claim to speak for others; but, if I as a white person find this disturbing, I can only imagine how these comments might affect someone who has ever felt threatened with punishment when they did nothing wrong just because they were a different race or ethnic group.  (I know people personally who have experienced this.) 

    It seems to me that we as white people are far too quick to become defensive whenever anyone who looks like us is questioned, but we aren't willing to listen if someone who doesn't look like us feels threatened by what is said.  I am still working on myself; but I think that, unless we are willing to consider the feelings of others who may view things differently, we cannot have a real conversation about race or any other serious issue.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Tue, 02/12/2019 10:18 am

    No mention is made of whether the assailant was ever caught and brought to justice.  Suppose he wasn’t . . . Neeson’s experience becomes an object lesson in what repentance and forgiveness should look like — a realization that he can’t control the actions of another and that person will eventually have to give an account to God.  And meanwhile, as Neeson did when he came to his senses, recognizing that because sin comes from the heart, he would also be held accountable and so sought forgiveness for himself (the only way he knew how).  

    We’re instructed to seek forgiveness not only from God, but from the person we’ve wronged whenever possible.  Since Neeson’s sin was against an ethnic group collectively, and not an individual, going public with this is perfectly consistent with that directive.  And he’s being condemned for it.  The pharisaical attitude on display every time a public figure’s past comes to light is astonishing.  We are all in need of forgiveness one way or another.  Much of the condemnation comes from people who harbor their own unconfessed sin and have no fear of God anyway.  Worse is the condemnation from people who, knowing their need for Christ and having sought forgiveness for some past sin — that perhaps only they and God know about — act as if they’re somehow “more forgiven” than these celebrities could ever be.

  • not silent
    Posted: Tue, 02/12/2019 02:54 pm

    In response to Narissara:  I appreciate your insights and thank you for the reminder that none of us can control the actions of others and that we all need forgiveness.  While some of the comments quoted in the article did seem to express condemnation for Mr. Neeson, I'm not sure this was because the people making them have no fear of God or because they feel they are more forgiven.  Vincent Bacote, who was described as an associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, said "We believe people are sinful.  It shouldn't surprise us that people are egregiously sinful. That doesn't mean they get a pass, but the aim of a Christian is restoration, not condemnation."

    My comment was also not meant as condemnation but as a somewhat imperfect attempt to provide additional insight about why Mr. Neeson's recent remarks could have caused pain even though he was expressing remorse and seeking forgiveness.  ( I felt clarity was needed in light of comments saying that Mr. Neeson "committed no sin" or questioning whether his past actions were truly racist. It might help to point out that even Mr. Neeson admitted his past actions were racist and acknowledged that he did wrong.)  It seems evident that Mr. Neeson is expressing remorse, and believers are called to forgive him; however, people who have no fear of God probably can't understand forgiveness like we do-and they may have more trouble extending it. 

    As far as believers are concerned, the Bible says that if we are offering a gift at the altar and remember that someone has something against us, we should go and confess our sin so that we can be reconciled. (Matthew 5:23-24).  It appears that Mr. Neeson was attempting to do that, and I think he should be commended for taking that step.  I can understand why some people don't understand why he has not been fully forgiven by everyone, but it might help to remember that the Bible also says that if a believer has been offended by someone else they should go and show that person his wrong in order to win him over. (Matthew 18:15-17)  Unfortunately, it seems that in the process of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, Mr. Neeson inadvertently caused pain and offense.  Even though Mr. Neeson's intentions were good, people were still hurt by his remarks. (We don't have to understand WHY the remarks were offensive to hear someone when they say they felt hurt.) It would be biblical for a believer who has been offended to point out the offense in order to win the other person over.  (Please note that people are saying they were offended by Mr. Neeson's RECENT remarks and not just actions or thoughts from decades ago.)    

  • Narissara
    Posted: Tue, 02/12/2019 05:05 pm

    Thank you, not silent.  I appreciate your insights as well.  My comments weren’t aimed at you or anyone else here.  I was just making observations about an all-too-familiar pattern.  Criminal acts notwithstanding, one public figure after another is being raked over the coals for behavior that can be attributed principally to being young and stupid.  And who knows but that realization is what motivates them, politicians especially, to go into public service to try to atone for it?  But once they’re found out, there’s no absolution whatsoever, no matter how much good they may have done.  Sins of the heart are a little more tricky.  Maybe it would have been more prudent for him to keep this a matter between him and God after all.

  • Joe M
    Posted: Thu, 02/14/2019 01:19 pm

    Tisby is worried about reparations for a crime that wasn't even committed. Bacote wants us to appreciate his history of traumatized feelings for being singled out and followed around stores. If these guys lived in Bible times I dont think they would have been able to survive. There are disturbing racial stories out there. This is not one of them. And if they want to talk about thought crimes, statisics sugest a more urgent arena would be that of porn.

  • not silent
    Posted: Fri, 02/15/2019 01:04 am

    I do understand concerns about "thought crimes."  It would be frightening for society to start dictating what THOUGHTS are acceptable.  However, in Mr. Neeson's case, he did more than think something-he ACTED on his thoughts by going out and looking for someone to kill.  He was very brave to acknowledge what he did and to try to make amends.  But there were people who were very upset about the fact that he not only wanted to kill people-he literally went out and tried to do it.

    I'm not sure why people don't understand why it is upsetting that a respected public figure once went out looking for someone to kill based solely on race.  How would any of you feel if you heard that a popular celebrity once went out looking for women to kill?  The fact that someone would go out and try to find a woman to kill just for being a woman would probably be considered sick and psychopathic, even if that person never killed anyone.  Is it different if someone wanted to kill African Americans?  According to the article, even Mr. Neeson said: "It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that."  Note that he was talking about what he DID, not just what he thought.

    It may be hard to understand why people are upset when Mr. Neeson had good intentions.  People do sometimes seem very sensitive and I have felt at times like it's impossible to say or do the right thing.  But I've also had times when I was upset by someone's actions and tried to share it but others told me to shut up and said I didn't have any reason to be upset.  

    I have probably said way too much about this, but I guess I feel it's a little unfair to tell someone who is coming from a completely different place what feelings are justified or acceptable for them.  While it's not exaclty like the "thought police," it does seem like trying to control others and their feelings.   

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