TW: Violence motivated by racism

In a press junket promsoting his new revenge thriller Cold Pursuit, Liam Neeson admitted that in the days following the rape of a close friend some years ago, he stalked the streets, cosh in hand, ‘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 kill him.”’

The context Neeson offers for this is that in the weeks following the sexual assault of his friend, his rage and despair at his inability to help her manifested themselves as what he dubs “primal” urges. The interview, titled ‘Rape, race, and how I learnt revenge doesn’t work’ is framed as a redemption arc for Neeson, but what exactly is it that he is seeking redemption for? 

The moral he has gleaned from this, that “revenge doesn’t work,” fails to acknowledge the problematic racial aspect of his rampage. Nor is he aware of how, in roaming the streets looking for a black man to attack, he participates in a gendered appropriation of women’s pain; treating this friend as his property, and her rape as an excuse to exact some racist fantasy of vigilante justice offers no consolation to his friend and is little more than an attempt to centre himself in someone else’s pain. 

The ‘black bastard’ he so fervently hoped to encounter was irrelevant, interchangeable, because what Neeson wanted was not revenge. That would imply that he sought his friend’s attacker specifically, that there was method in his madness. No, in revealing that he hoped to murder a black man, any black bastardin cold blood, Neeson reproduced the optic of white supremacy that holds black people as collectively responsible for individual transgressions. 

White people fail to view white supremacy as something they participate in and reproduce, ever keen to distinguish themselves as “not racist” (as opposed to affirming an explicit commitment to anti-racism). Yet black people are collectively stereotyped by one man’s crime, all of us culpable for his act of violence. If Liam Neeson genuinely regretted how he had felt in the days and weeks following his friend’s sexual assault, he surely would have buried those feelings, instead of disclosing them in an interview and expecting us to marvel at how far he has supposedly come. If I am to commend Neeson for how far he has come, then I will do so by addressing how utterly reprehensible his views were to begin with.

The indiscriminate focus of his rage, of Neeson’s desire to provoke a ‘black bastard’ into attacking him so that he could have a reason to murder him, belies just how inconsequential he views the loss of black life, reflecting how indifferent our society is to the murder of black people. His victim would not have been a person, but rather a faceless foil onto which he could project his rage. 

Neeson’s claim that if the attacker had been “an Irish or a Scot or a Brit or a Lithuanian I would – I know I would – have had the same effect.” is not quite the absolution he hopes it would be. None of these are races, but nationalities. How could he have possibly distinguished between an Irishman, a Scotsman, or a Lithuanian? I can hardly imagine him, in a paroxysm of rage, pausing to ascertain the nationality of his hypothetical victim. He certainly didn’t care enough to distinguish between his friend’s rapist and the random black men he so desperately hoped to encounter all those years ago.

If the rapist had been white, I doubt Neeson would have stalked the streets looking for any white man to attack. The fact that he solicited this information from his friend unprompted showed an active desire to project onto his friend’s assault the trope of the savage black brute, a black man with uncontrollable sexual appetite that must be tamed into submission like an animal.

It begs the question of just how many black people have been the ill-fated victim of white rage, of how many people who enact such indiscriminate violence hold positions in law enforcement and other fields, which offer convenient justification for the use of excessive force against monstrous black bogeymen with impossible strength and speed

It terrifies me to think that my very physical presence is always going to be treated as menacing, a threat simply by virtue of existing. I am alarmed for myself, for all black people who, as we move through the world minding our own business, are unaware of the racist “revenge” fantasies that could apparently be seething beneath the surface of white men’s minds. I am afraid that one chance look at someone on the street is going to spell the end for me or someone I love, that some police officer with a grudge to settle will look for some imagined slight in my mannerism and interpret it as license to attack me. I am afraid.

What does it reveal about our society that Liam Neeson felt so comfortable as to admit that he once prowled a town looking for a black man who he could provoke into fighting with the intention of murdering him? Forgive me for belabouring the point, but to euphemise Neeson’s desire to commit a hate crime and murder a black man solely on the basis of his race risks undermining the severity of what he has said. Neeson wanted an excuse to play out a sick, racist fantasy, after having asked for the race of the man who raped his friend, completely unprovoked. Although the facts are limited to what Neeson divulged in the interview, I cannot explain away the relevance of a rapist’s race in this context, beyond seeking out the information to affirm his pre-existing prejudices against the monstrosity of the sexuality of black men, and the threat it has historically posed to white masculinity.

***

On 28 August 1955, the fourteen year-old black boy Emmett Till was set upon by Roy Bryant and John William Millam, two white men in their thirties, in apparent revenge for Till having reportedly wolf-whistled at Bryant’s wife several days earlier at his grocery store in Money, Mississippi. The two men kidnapped Till, and beat him until he died, before disposing of his body. When his corpse was pulled from the Tallahatchie River three days later, autopsy revealed he had been shot above the right ear, one of his eyes was dislodged from its socket, he had severe bruising on his back and hips, and his neck had been garrotted with barbed wire. 

The image of Till’s open casket was printed in newspapers across the United States, and galvanised the nascent Civil Rights Movement, but the case is equally significant for its revelation of the relationship between white and black masculinities, and their proximity to the femininity of white women. Bryant and Millam sought revenge against Till because in daring to wolf-whistle at a white woman unprompted (a claim Caroline Bryant, the woman in question, admitted in 2017 that she had fabricated), he had impugned upon the claim of ownership white masculinity (and, by extension, white men) make on white women.

If Liam Neeson had told the Independentthat, following the sexual assault of a dear friend, he had stalked the streets looking for her attacker, I would not be writing this article. Instead, Neeson racialised the incident, whether he is aware of it or not. He reframed it as the attack of blackness on white femininity, on what he viewed as his property, and saw it as his prerogative, his duty to avenge his friend’s honour, much like how Bryant and Millam justified their attack on Till. 

Emmett Till was falsely accused of violating the strictures of conduct imposed on African-American men interacting with white women in Jim Crow Mississippi, and Bryant and Millam saw themselves so justified in their violent retaliation against Till that in 1956, under the aegis of double jeopardy, the two men gave an exclusive interview to Lookmagazine in which they unrepentantly admitted that they had murdered the teenager. In 2019, Liam Neeson felt (or, indeed, feels) himself so justified in his violent, racist revenge fantasy that he gave an exclusive interview to the Independentin which he unrepentantly admitted that he once sought out the opportunity to commit a premeditated hate crime.  

These men viewed sexual and romantic proximity to white women as the sole preserve of white men, and sought to murder black men in revenge for impinging upon their property. Caroline Bryant was no less complicit, ascribing to Till a predatory lasciviousness, an uncontrollable and monstrous lust incongruous with his age. She alleged that Till grabbed her waist and said “What’s the matter baby, can’t you take it?” before saying “I’ve been with white women before.”

While the context of Till’s murder, the consequence of a racist false accusation, and the very real sexual assault suffered by Neeson’s friend differ with respect to their veracity, what connects the murder of Emmett Till to Liam Neeson’s murderous fantasy is a hypersexualisation of black masculinity, the transformation of black men into wild, savage, lustful near-animals within the collective white psyche. In seeking to act out his fantasy and kill some “black bastard,” Neeson actively sought a situation in which his needless provocation of an unsuspecting black person might give him cause to so escalate the altercation that he could justifiably commit murder, the ultimate defence of fragility against the monstrous.

I am tired of the white celebrities who admit to having had some form of past racial prejudice, expecting some kind of plaudit for achieving a baseline standard of human decency, as tired as I am of the subsequent and inevitable apologia that follows from white journalists, the liberal commentariat contorting itself into knots to absolve Neeson of his racism, to explain away my condemnation of his comments as mere sensitivity or political correctness gone mad. If I am indeed being too sensitive, then I do apologise. Perhaps I should forever look over my shoulder instead, watching out for the nearest Oscar-nominated actor, in case he decides to beat the shit out of me unprovoked.