It had everything that interview: racism and male entitlement, but also a touch of irony. There he was at a promo for his umpteenth film about a tough man seeking revenge – only to wreck it with a reminiscence of his real-life experiences of a tough man seeking revenge.
Maybe Neeson did come to regret trawling the streets in the hopes of finding a random black man to bludgeon in retaliation for the rape of a friend, as no doubt he has come to regret last week’s confession. But you don’t get to admit holding an entire race culpable for the sins of one man without repercussions, even if it was “many years ago”.
There were repercussions, of course. The New York premiere of Cold Pursuit was cancelled, which felt a bit unfair to everyone else involved. Yet, very soon, the wind had changed and all sorts of people were defending him.
The strangest take came from his Widows co-star Michelle Rodriguez, who appears to judge a man’s wokeness by how far he is prepared to stick his tongue down a black woman’s throat (she was referring to Neeson kissing Viola Davis in the film).
But the prevailing view was the one articulated by John Barnes: that, with his honesty, Neeson had opened up an important conversation. What conversation would that be then, John? A conversation about how much leeway should be given to a man who appropriates a rape survivor’s pain, then tries to avenge her as if she were a chattel?
If you wanted to have a grown-up conversation about racism and misogyny as it is happening right now (rather than in Neeson’s fevered recollection), it would be more productive to look at the way Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, is being treated by sections of the press.
Hilary Mantel has written some razor-sharp feminist pieces on the way queens, princesses and duchesses from Anne Boleyn to Kate Middleton are perceived. They are, she suggests, little more than vessels for royal babies; blank canvases on to which newspapers and the public project their own fantasies and prejudices.
We know Diana was simultaneously deified and desecrated. Kate suffered too on account of her class. As a commoner, she faced those snidey “doors to manual” comments based on her mother’s one-time job as an air hostess.
Meghan Markle, however, was black, American, divorced, “from the wrong side of the tracks” AND a feminist; the Daily Mail et al were always going to be gunning for her. An analysis of Harry and Meghan press cuttings reveals a nation still steeped in bigotry. The racism Meghan experiences may be more insidious than Neeson’s, but it’s just as hurtful and less easily challenged.
When Meghan, who identifies as biracial, first appeared on the scene, the loaded comments came dressed up as compliments. The royal couple were “modern” and “progressive”, while Meghan would bring “some rich, exotic DNA” to the royal line. They were, some newspapers said, “proof of how far we have come as a nation”. Except they weren’t. If we had really come so far, an inter-racial marriage would not have attracted so much attention.
If anything, the hostility has ramped up since Meghan fell pregnant. All the old tropes have been mobilised and sent into battle. The invented feud with her sister-in-law Kate is a prime example. There’s nothing some middle-aged men like better than a cat-fight, so the pair are being portrayed as bickering adversaries. Despite many photographs of them looking quite comradely, Channel 5 last week saw fit to air a documentary called Kate V Meghan: Princesses At War?
Then, there is the way Meghan is alleged to have spoiled Harry’s relationship with William and Kate by “changing” him. “Harry [has] lost the boyish ‘fun’ facial expressions that made him look so naughty and adopted a more adult, serious mode,” said body language expert Judi James. Oh, boo hoo; he’s 34 for God’s sake.
The spitefulness of the coverage peaked when the Daily Mail used Markle’s liking for avocado on toast to blame her for all the problems of the Developing World. “How Meghan’s favourite avocado snack… is fuelling human rights abuses, drought and murder,” the headline screamed.
The implication was that Meghan – “who has rightly been praised for making the fusty old Royal Family more socially and ethically aware” – was a big ol’ hypocrite for eating avocados linked “with water shortages, human rights abuses, illegal deforestation, ecosystem destruction and general environmental devastation”.
That there was a racist/sexist aspect to this is evident in the sentence: “The campaigning duchess may be passionate when it comes to racial equality and female empowerment, but for someone who wants to save the planet, she’s committed something of a faux pas.” That’s what it says. What it means is: “Who does this uppity black woman think she is?”
So under pressure has Meghan felt as she nears her due date, she recently authorised five friends to talk to People magazine to counter the “global bullying”. That was greeted with a smack-down from her half-sister who called her a narcissist and a front page Daily Mail puff which read: “Like Diana, I Fear Meghan may be Playing with Fire.”
Inside, editor-at-large Richard Kay was the one doing the stirring. In a lengthy piece, he suggested Meghan had emasculated her husband by revealing that she helps write his speeches. He went on to blame the Royal Family for not making sure Meghan’s [white] father was “given his place”. “It is all the more baffling given her yoga teacher mother, Doria Ragland [who is African American], has been so warmly embraced,” it says – a dog whistle comment if ever there was one.
The thing about Neeson is that the feelings he expressed were so obviously beyond the pale and caused so great a backlash, they fed into our conceit of ourselves as enlightened.
All the references to the rape happening “many years ago”, to the Troubles, to the “medieval” nature of his reaction were attempts to place his attitudes safely in the past. In fact, those attitudes are still omnipresent in the deportations of UK citizens to Jamaica and the way we hold black celebrities, such as footballer Raheem Sterling, to different standards than their white counterparts.
Meghan’s induction into the Royal Family was no more proof of a post-racial Britain than Barack Obama’s election was proof of a post-racial America. In the midst of the Neeson controversy, one headline read: “[He] has opened up an important conversation. To condemn him is to end it.” But the opposite is true. Neeson’s admission was the start of a fatuous conversation and to condone him was to prolong it.
Instead of celebrating a film star’s half-hearted mea culpa as if it represents some kind of watershed, let’s stop turning a blind eye to the pernicious racism that flourishes in our midst.