Actor Liam Neeson’s admission of a racist pursuit of revenge moved at the speed of social media, rocketing from an offhand comment to condemnation and a canceled red carpet premiere amid the fallout.
That left Neeson grappling with an invisible behemoth of digital rage, leaving few lessons about the value of confronting and admitting racist beliefs, “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah said in a video released Friday.
Neeson, star of the “Taken” movies, said in a recent interview that about 40 years ago he was overtaken by rage after a close friend told him she had been raped, prompting him to roam the streets, hoping to get into a confrontation with a “black bastard” so he could bludgeon him. In follow-up interviews, the actor said he regretted that response and sought help.
Noah, a biracial comedian raised in apartheid-era South Africa, was exasperated: first over the comments themselves, then at the fury and condemnation that filled a space where honest reckoning could have been.
“You think you get past the age of lynching, then there’s still blackface in 2019,” Noah said in an extended sequence between televised scenes later published online, appearing to reference the racist yearbook photo scandal embroiling Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
But consider the time and place of those comments, Noah explained. It was during a promotion for the revenge film “Cold Pursuit” — hardly a place for a nuanced discussion over deeply rooted racist beliefs and how society may confront them.
“I think if Liam Neeson had told that story on Oprah, and then there was a conversation,” Noah said, “we would have seen it as a person admitting to a time in their life when they allowed their anger and hatred to fester into racism that they were ashamed of.”
Neeson appeared on “Good Morning America” to blunt the negative reaction of his comments and his eventual regret that he ventured into black neighborhoods a number of times ready to use violence to exact revenge on an unsuspecting black man.
“And I did it for, I’d say, maybe four or five times until I caught myself on, and it really shocked me, this primal urge I had. It shocked me, and it hurt me. I did seek help,” he said.
Neeson’s representative did not return a request for comment. It is not clear where Neeson’s failed vigilante mission occurred.
Those acknowledgments were an overlooked aspect of Neeson’s “powerful admission,” Noah explained.
“I hope he and people who hear the story understand the gravity of the situation. If you’re not careful, you can have inside of you a hatred that is encouraged or grown by the society that you live in,” he said. “I think it was cool that he said he looked for help afterward, I think it was cool no one busted him; he volunteered the information. I think it was great he was ashamed.”
The red carpet premiere of “Cold Pursuit” was canceled after Neeson’s comments were made, followed by a cancellation of a scheduled appearance on “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert.
Neeson on “Good Morning America” emphatically said he was not racist. But that misses an important aspect of admission: That it accounts for fear of how it may tarnish one’s character and subverts the significance of the claims themselves.
“People are afraid to admit they had a racist thought because then society says ‘You’re racist forever, and that’s it,’ " Noah said, “so there’s no value in atoning.”