Liam Neeson Race Scandal: A view from the US


Intro: Welcome to Nina Grace Kambili, our newest intern from the University of New York, studying public policy. With all our volunteers and interns we try to give them a rounded experience, but also to develop their own creativity and understanding within the space we work in. In her first article we asked Nina what was her take on the way the US viewed the Liam Neeson race episode. It's a very impressive first piece. Simon Woolley

Over the past week, statements made by actor Liam Neeson while promoting his new film “Cold Pursuit” have dominated the headlines. In an interview, he recounted an incident in which he planned to kill any black man as an act of retribution for the sexual assault of a friend. In the United States, where the black community was observing Trayvon Martin’s (a black teenager killed in what is widely accepted as an unjustified, racist murder) birthday and the first days of black history month, this quickly became a major news story.

In an interview on Good Morning America, Neeson attempted to further contextualise his comments, partly using the history of the Troubles to justify his reaction. However, he and his PR team have failed to recognise that this context will be lost on a general American audience. Instead, the reaction to his statement has been shaped by the United States’ own painful history of extrajudicial killings and violence— one which has primarily affected black men. When asked in a recent interview about Neeson’s comments, director Spike Lee said:

Who knows how many innocent black men have been murdered, castrated, lynched or harmed, or spent time in jail, only because a white woman said that a black man raped her?”

Neeson’s confession— even with its admission of shame and the fact that he sought help— cannot be separated from this history.

Despite the backlash, it seems increasingly unlikely that this incident will have a major effect on Neeson’s career, and instead it will be relegated to the realm of an uncomfortable scandal. “Cold Pursuit” performed relatively well at the box office during its opening weekend, making about $11 million (£8.4m) and being the third most popular film in theatres. Although he has faced some criticism, a number of high-profile black figures in both the US and the UK have defended Neeson, including Whoopi Goldberg, comedian Trevor Noah, and former England footballer John Barnes.

This is what is most troubling about the incident: the implied pressure for black people to “forgive and forget.” Forgiveness is valuable, and individuals will ultimately bear the responsibility of making that choice, but forgetting serves no one. Neeson’s comments were a one-sided “confession” in an attempt to promote a film, not a substantive attempt to discuss racism, racist violence, and the capacity for change. This is an opportunity for a real dialogue, but it will be lost if we attempt to “get on with it” because we are uncomfortable or do not see an easy, clear path towards resolution. If we make sure that this does not get lost in the news cycle, turn this into an honest conversation, grapple with our history, and think critically about what it means to “forgive and forget,” we will all be better off.

Nina Kambili