Tuesday 25 June 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'How one of the good guys became the villain of his own revenge tale'

Liam Neeson was not attacked for speaking uncomfortable truths but because he revealed something much darker, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

In the hot seat: Liam Neeson is interviewed by Robin Roberts on ‘Good Morning America’ a day after his revelation that he had set out to kill a black man for revenge. Photo: AP
In the hot seat: Liam Neeson is interviewed by Robin Roberts on ‘Good Morning America’ a day after his revelation that he had set out to kill a black man for revenge. Photo: AP

The first novel featuring private eye Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep, opens with the hero looking at a picture showing a knight in armour rescuing a naked damsel in distress. This theme of the tough guy going out of his way to help women in extremis continues throughout the series.

In one of those meaningful coincidences that life throws up now and then, Irish actor Liam Neeson has been signed up to play Marlowe in a new film based on a novel by Irish author Benjamin Black, aka John Banville. It continues a sequence of films in which the Ballymena-born star has taken on similar roles as a knight in tarnished, if not quite shining, armour. The latest is Cold Pursuit, in which he plays the driver of a snowplough who hunts down the drug dealers he believes killed his son.

That line between reality and fiction was further blurred as Neeson told an interviewer how he once went looking for revenge after a female friend was raped, only to come to his senses and realise the futility of revenge.

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His story seemed to chime with a lot of men of a certain age, who perhaps imagined themselves playing out the same role of protector, avenger, knight errant. That's why Neeson's movies are so popular, after all. They tick a primeval box.

That Neeson constructed this story in a satisfying Hollywood three-act structure - starting with the set-up of the threat to a loved one, through the confrontation of a quest for vengeance, rising to the final resolution in which he learns the error of his ways - even allowed him, and those with whom his story resonated, to have the best of both worlds. As such, it would have been an interesting but minor vignette of the male mind were it not for one rather telling detail.

This was Neeson's description of how he had asked the woman in question for the race of her attacker and had then gone trawling the streets with a cosh in search of a "black b*****d", as he put it, in a hope that this imaginary individual, who was blameless for the original rape, would start a confrontation and thereby give Neeson the excuse to "kill him".

Cue madness, of a sort which has become all too familiar in recent times. Neeson was accused on social media of being racist. Others declared that he deserved praise, though whether that was for his honesty or for embarking on a mission of revenge was not altogether clear. Those lines were quickly blurred. Former England footballer John Barnes actually said the actor deserved a medal.

Both extreme responses missed the point. So did Banville himself, who, responding to the controversy, insisted that Neeson had actually been "delivering a cautionary tale", before wondering wearily: "Does no one listen any more?"

The short answer to that is: No, they don't. But that might include those who've defended Neeson most vigorously, including Banville. Stories do not belong only to those who tell them. They also belong to the listener and sometimes a story says things the storyteller doesn't even realise it's saying.

So it was with this instance. For Neeson and the white knights who rode out to defend his honour, what they heard was a redemptive morality tale about the futility of revenge but it's absurd to pretend there were not other levels to the story which were at least as important, depending on the listener.

Former presidential candidate Kevin Sharkey said Neeson "didn't do anything" - but he did. He went out looking for an innocent black man to kill because another black man had raped a woman he cared about. That's pretty much a textbook example of racist thinking.

Neeson insisted afterwards he would have done the same thing had that person been white or Irish and he no doubt believes that to be true. For what it's worth, I can see no reason not to believe him too.

But white men have not traditionally been portrayed within some cultures as sexually voracious and dangerous to black women. Black men have been characterised by some as a threat to white society for centuries and it is hardly reassuring to see such tropes persisting into the present day.

Neeson edged towards acknowledging as much, though still not as explicitly as he might have done, and, however understandable that might be, considering the trouble this incident was now causing him personally and professionally, he wanted to move on too fast without allowing that other story, implicit in his story, to be heard in full.

Just as he centred his own anger in the story of a female friend's rape, he is now centring his own feeling of shame in the story of what might have been someone else's tragedy.

He didn't act on it but it was still there in the narrative. He has simply turned the black victim into a minor character in the narrative, as if point of view is everything. It is, in the movies, but this was real life. Part of this story, the part about race, was not his to tell.

The actor didn't help his own cause with a subsequent appearance on Good Morning America, where he was fortunate to be given such sympathetic treatment.

"They might have killed me," he even joked at one point. What, the innocent black man that you'd gone out to kill? How did you end up being the victim in that scenario? One almost feels sorry for this imaginary fellow, who was set upon one night for no reason and forced to defend himself, and then had to explain to the police how he'd killed the nice handsome Irish man lying at his feet.

Troublingly, Neeson went on in his breakfast TV interview to frame his confession in a context of "political correctness", which appeared to flirt with the idea that there are certain things which can't be said openly, not because they're wrong in themselves but because of the negative reaction they would provoke in the over-sensitive. That only works if the thoughts that he had are so common that objecting to them is a sort of denial of reality.

That's not accepting the blame. It's trying to spread the blame, putting it back on to a society that has not acknowledged the extent of its inherent racism. That's reminiscent of many extreme feminists who argue that, deep down, men hate women and want to hurt them, and that progress involves acknowledging as much. Is it really that widespread for men to want to hurt women, or for white people to want to hurt black people?

If so, then I'm not sure I've ever really understood the world because I've always proceeded on the naive assumption that it's far from normal.

It was this attempt at rationalisation which was troubling, over and above Neeson's original anecdote. It may be "political correctness gone mad" to argue, as a US professor did recently in the New York Times, that the scene in Mary Poppins where the characters powder their faces with soot and prance about with Victorian chimney sweeps is an offensive instance of "black face" but it's hardly over-sensitivity to object to the normalisation of narratives involving the racist murder of blameless black people.

Many defending him did so simply because they felt for him in his moment of public pressure and wanted him to feel better. In Banville's words: "Liam Neeson is a decent man and does not deserve to be demonised in this way."

Absolutely. But then maybe it's not Neeson's feelings which should take precedence here. It's a striking failure of human curiosity to be able at once to think oneself empathetically into what it must be like to be a sixty-something white millionaire assailed on all sides for speaking out of turn, but not to extend the same act of fellowship to less-powerful players within the same imaginative scenario.

It's possible to have a nuanced debate about what Neeson said, without vilifying or ostracising him; but it must begin by correctly naming what happened. Too many people are shying away from the genuinely problematic elements in the story and are seeking instead, like gold panners crouching in a stream, to sift the murky water for that one shiny nugget that justifies the whole enterprise.

For them, it was the arc of redemption which elevated the story above the gutter but would a man who articulated a similar urge to kill women be given the benefit of the doubt? And would he have been so glib as to end the interview in which he was meant to begin his rehabilitation with the words "Go see the movie - it's a good movie"?

Of course, that doesn't mean the film industry gets a free pass if it turns on Neeson and effectively throws a kill switch on his career.

Revenge is a classic Hollywood trope. The persona which has now got Neeson into such difficulty is one which was gifted to him late in his career with Taken, a nasty little film in which Neeson's daughter is kidnapped by slave traders and he turns vigilante to get her back. Its most iconic line is: "I will find you and I will kill you."

No spoilers, but that's effectively the entire plot. It's a film in which practically every foreigner the main character encounters is an untrustworthy criminal, which means the audience doesn't mind when Neeson kills them brutally. It made over $200m.

Since then he's made two further instalments in the Taken franchise, as well as taking on a host of other vigilante roles, including, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, two more in pre-production called The Revenger and Retribution. Subtlety is not Hollywood's strong point.

The only difference now is that a slice of real-life revenge lust risks costing his paymasters millions of dollars. That's Liam Neeson's ultimate crime. An industry which makes obscene fortunes stoking lurid revenge fantasies with racist subtexts is in no position to lecture anyone on ethics.

Sunday Independent

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