These days, when Liam Neeson comes up in conversation, so too does his onscreen penchant for taking justice into his own hands on behalf of his loved ones.
From Taken, “If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you”, to lesser-known iterations of that same thriller format, Run All Night and The Commuter (also colloquially known as “Taken on a train”), we’ve delighted in Neeson’s reprisal of the role of the sympathetic, dad-like vengeance-seeker. Until now.
In an interview for The Independent, while discussing his latest film, Cold Pursuit (essentially Taken in the snow), Neeson spoke of his own personal experience of having had someone close to him “hurt under criminal conditions”. Describing his reaction as “primal”, he relayed a disturbing story in which a woman he knew personally revealed that she had been raped while he was abroad.
“She handled the situation of the rape in the most extraordinary way.
“But my immediate reaction was ... I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person,” he said.
What followed was a chilling response to that revelation. Instead of being consumed only by the innate horror of the act of rape, or by the pain of knowing someone he knew had been so horribly violated, Neeson zeroed in on the blackness of the perpetrator, desperate to seek some form of revenge, regardless of whether he had the right person or not.
“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 ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could... kill him,” he admitted. Later explaining how “horrible” it was that he “did that”.
Neeson to some extent explains that need for revenge on his having been exposed to violence and a number of retaliatory killings in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Yet what immediately struck me when reading about his revelation was how deeply the white supremacist trope of the “black brute” versus the “helpless woman” appears to have permeated society (usually in this trope the woman is white, though we don’t know the race of the victim in this instance).
Before I go on, I’m not arguing that Neeson was wrong to feel anger, nor that his response was atypical compared to others in similar circumstances. As highlighted by Lasana Harris – an associate professor of experimental psychology at University College London – in the aforementioned feature, “pre-existing biases” tend to inform people’s reactions to crimes like rape – though of course we can’t know whether that was so in Neeson’s case.
What I’m talking about, is a centuries-old idea used to galvanise racists, particularly white men, in order to legitimise their violent treatment of black people. It was the same narrative that saw Emmett Till tortured and murdered in Mississippi in 1955. And in this country the infamous Nottingham race riots in 1958 have also long been said to have broken out after a black man was seen chatting up a white woman in a pub.
And it’s the same idea that, almost 60 years later, Dylann Roof – the shooter who murdered nine people at a church in Charleston – reportedly shouted before gunning them down. “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”
And these aren’t the only examples; you only have to scrape at the top layer of any former European colony’s history to find examples of the same form of propaganda. After the First World War, Germany used the “black horror on the Rhine” (the idea that French colonial soldiers of Senegalese origin – “Tirailleurs” – were primitive and posed a specific sexual threat to women) in order to delegitimise France’s army.
Of course, the main difference between Neeson and these examples is the fact that one was informed by an actual incident, while distinctly white supremacist reactions almost always hinge on falsehoods and rumours. Plus, Neeson crucially didn’t act on his impulses and was later ashamed of them. But I wonder if underlying both perhaps is a distinctive (if subconscious) idea of black people as somehow different, uncivilised, brutalist – rather than the focus being on the fact that sexual abuse and rape are in and of themselves abhorrent acts, whoever commits them.
For what it’s worth, I’m glad that Neeson was so forthcoming about this story that he “never admitted” to anyone else. Because it has shed light on a phenomenon that too few understand and that we need to talk about.
Although the actor believes that he learnt a lesson from the ordeal after he eventually thought, “What the fuck are you doing?” I’d argue that there’s something even bigger to glean from all of this. Whether we like to admit it or not, racism has and will continue to have a far deeper psychological impact on society than many of us realise.