“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is one of the most divisive films of the year, but it’s poised for an impressive award season. In the past week alone, the film received major nominations from both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards (where it leads among motion pictures with four nods). Experts predict that nominations for best picture and best director at the Academy Awards are a given.
Written, produced and directed by British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (based on a script he wrote eight years ago), “Three Billboards” is a black comedy centered on the formidable Mildred Hayes, who’s trying to find answers after the violent rape and murder of her daughter several months ago.
With no progress in the case, Hayes (played brilliantly by Frances McDormand) pays for three billboards to be put up on a road just outside her town, which read:
“RAPED WHILE DYING, ”
“AND STILL NO ARRESTS,”
“HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”
The movie is about the fallout from these billboards, as Hayes grapples with her grief as well as backlash from people in town ― particularly a belligerent, goofy, racist cop played by Sam Rockwell, a man who is fiercely loyal to the ailing Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).
Despite an initial slew of critical praise, and now a steady stream of recognition this award season, “Three Billboards” faces its own small kind of backlash. Because the movie, which explores themes of violence, justice and morality, has a glaring blind spot when it comes to race, one that some critics say ultimately renders it a failure.
NPR’s Gene Demby (a former HuffPost editor) has been especially vocal about this on Twitter, posting at length about how the film drops the ball in its handling of Rockwell’s character, Officer Jason Dixon. For Denby, the fact that Dixon’s violence and racism are presented simply as “a kind of edgy character detail” is a problem.
Other critics have questioned the necessity of Rockwell’s racist cop character, and have called out the movie’s use of black characters as props and the forced, unearned redemption arc of Officer Dixon.
That the only three speaking black characters (a co-worker of Hayes’, a police chief, and a dude who helped put up the billboards) have absolutely no interiority is not a surprise. This is such a predictable trope in a Hollywood movie about a mostly white town that it’s not even offensive, just boring. The real issues come from the false equivalency the movie makes between racism and anger, as if the two are interchangeable.
In a letter from his beloved boss, Dixon is told that if he can let go of his anger and hatred and embrace love, he can finally become the good man he truly is deep inside. As if love is actually a solution to (racist) hate and (racist) anger. But this is the redemption that Dixon needs, and suddenly he transforms from some asshole racist cop into a “good man,” bent on helping Hayes find the man who killed her daughter.
This “good man,” it should be noted, is apparently notorious in town for having tortured a black man under the protection of the badge at some point in the past. It’s a detail that’s referred to constantly, but never fully explored.
Criticism of the movie’s approach to race should not hinge on whether Rockwell’s character and the movie’s overall racial themes (or lack thereof) are offensive, but whether they are actually successful.
Because while the movie is focused mostly on female revenge and rage, it has received praise for its approach to race, too. McDonagh recently told the Los Angeles Times that he believes the movie says “an awful lot” about race and policing. “It might not end up on a perfect plate for everybody,” he said, “but I think it’s coming at it from an interesting angle.”
In response to the backlash over the film’s moral ambiguity, its conflation of racism and hate (remember, a person doesn’t have to be hateful in order to be racist), McDonagh added:
“That ambiguity is exactly what I was going for in it. So it’s not a surprise, I think, and it’s nothing I can’t happily defend at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe. And I think certainly in time — not right now, in time — the heart of the film will definitely be seen as something that’s deserving to be recognized.”
Moral ambiguity is a favorite defense for art that is simply indifferent to the themes it purports to be intentionally ambiguous about. That’s also boring.
It’s ultimately debatable whether, beyond its jarring approach to race, “Three Billboards” is really that great of a movie, whether it deserves all its praise. In many ways, “Three Billboards” is just an OK film masquerading as a great one. But whether or not it’s good is less compelling a debate than what its critical success says about the overall whiteness of the critical machine.
Films that approach race by pandering to white people, especially white liberals, almost always receive praise (from white critics) for their nuance. It happened with Academy Award best picture winner “Crash,” it happened with “The Blind Side,” it happened earlier this year with “Detroit.”
Yes, “Three Billboards” isn’t explicitly about race, but it plays into this kind of pandering. Rockwell’s character is the racist uncle whom white liberals fear and love. The ability to feel for him ― to root for him in spite of his past transgressions, because he really is a “good man at heart,” an idiot who doesn’t know any better ― offers a kind of catharsis for the white viewer who can’t or won’t deal with true nuance, who is unable to reconcile their own complicity with their desire to be “good.” And that’s genuinely fine, if that’s what the film set out to do.
This disconnect between (mostly white) viewers who see Dixon’s having tortured a black man as a character quirk, a shorthand for anger and sadness, and (black) viewers like Denby, who can’t let go of this character quirk in order to root for the character, lies at the center of what makes the award-season success of “Three Billboards” so fascinating.
Its success lies on a continuum of movies that go largely unchallenged by critics and audiences because they absolve certain viewers from actually having to care about the larger implications of their themes. Because few critics are willing or able to engage critically with the movie on race, McDonagh himself does not have to engage, does not have to wrestle with some of his failures as an artist.
He can dismiss valid racial critiques of his film as irrelevant or “knee-jerk.” He can hold on to his defenses, and point to the accolades and trophies as confirmation of his genius. Ultimately, it’s the art that suffers. And the cycle continues.