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.”