Three Billboards and Race as Window-Dressing

The “Three Billboards is racist” scrutiny comes from certain viewers doing what Martin McDonagh did not: recognising that racism is not a meaningless character quirk.

The following article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the current frontrunner for Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards in a month’s time.  It took home the Best Motion Picture – Drama award at the Golden Globes last month, it’s tied with Darkest Hour for second-most BAFTA nominations at their ceremony a fortnight from now, and it’s also the second-most nominated film at this year’s Oscars.  Can we take a moment to recognise just how weird this is?  I mean, I know that the narrative surrounding this year’s Awards Season is that most of the typical Awards Season fare either crashed and burned or didn’t even show up, so the nominations list is “weird” compared to most other years, and that after Darkest Hour, the next-closest film to traditional Oscar Bait is The Shape of Water, even with the pesky fishman-fucking business.  But still, it’s weird, right?  Especially since, despite inadvertently hooking itself right into the industry and cultural zeitgeist upon its release, this is still a Martin McDonagh film, so it’s still difficult, prone to bad taste and insanely dark comedy, and lacking in either the self-conscious societal importance or “aren’t the movies AMAZING?” kind of escapism that typifies Best Picture front-runners.

Still, with its status as the front-runner and presumed-victor comes the increased scrutiny that accompanies that position, and it’s not like Three Billboards wasn’t already amassing a hefty amount of backlash and scrutiny even before Awards Season kicked off in earnest.  Much of the conversation surrounding the film stems on Sam Rockwell’s Officer Jason Dixon, and the way that the film handles his casual racism.  Introduced as a perpetually drunk, confrontational, cartoonishly corrupt and imbecilic fool who, we are told, once tortured a black man in custody and later locks up Mildred’s black friend on trumped-up charges, Dixon starts the film as the closest thing to an antagonist for Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, since Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby is depicted as a decent man stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But once Willoughby kills himself halfway through, and Dixon takes out his grief about the act in such a line-crossing way that it costs him his job, and later gets thrown in hospital with severe burns, he attempts to make amends by trying to find Angela Hayes’ killer after a chance overheard-encounter at a bar.  This, coupled with the amount of absolute shit Dixon goes through in the film’s second half, Mildred’s gradual descent across the moral line, and how the film ends, with Mildred and Dixon at least temporarily on non-confrontational terms even though the guy Dixon thought was The Guy turns out to not have been The Guy, has led many to read the film as a redemption story for Dixon and, resultantly, racists like Dixon despite neither having earned it within the context of the story due to them not changing their racist behaviour.

This was something I hadn’t considered back when I first saw the movie at last year’s London Film Festival, due to my privilege as a White man – I was lukewarm on the film for many other reasons, mostly relating to tone.  It wasn’t until these critiques started coming in from Black writers like Ira Madison III and Hanif Abdurraqib that I realised I may have missed something vital or misread the film’s intentions, although I couldn’t put this additional information into practice on a second viewing for a few more months thanks to release window disparity nonsense.  So, a few weeks back, I finally got the chance to sit down in a cinema screen and see Three Billboards again, this time consciously looking out for the signifiers that we are supposed to consider Dixon as either redeemed for his behaviour (and racism) or on the way to redemption…

I didn’t find any.  I mean, if we were meant to consider Dixon fully redeemed and worthy of our sympathy, then he would have gotten The Guy like writer-director Martin McDonagh briefly teases, and done so in a way that wouldn’t have come down to dumb luck and required more than a brief moment of ingenuity.  The film’s ending involves himself and Mildred driving off to Idaho with the (slightly-reserved) intention of murdering the guy they wrongly thought to be The Guy, reasoning that, based on his incredibly creepy behaviour in the pair of scenes we have seen him, he must have raped somebody and that’s at least some kind of closure.  Neither he nor Mildred are supposed to be sympathetic as the film ends, succumbing to their anger and grief, and willing to hurt others in a desperate search of some kind of false closure.  Dixon may have tried to redeem himself, but the second that his attempt doesn’t pan out, he goes back to being the violent child who threw Red Welby out of a second-story window due to believing the billboards somehow caused Chief Willoughby’s suicide.  Just because Mildred may have “forgiven” Dixon for his past behaviour, doesn’t mean the audience is supposed to, especially since Mildred isn’t exactly a bastion of morality by the story’s end either.

That’s not to say that I didn’t understand many of the criticisms upon a rewatch, but I feel like the specific criticisms centred on Dixon’s arc stem from a misreading of McDonagh’s intentions with Three Billboards.  McDonagh, at least in his film work because I’ve never been able to see his plays, is a writer who lives in the land of moral complexity.  His works are all about drawing complex, often-loathsome people and demonstrating how their worst or best aspects don’t make up their entire being.  Just like how Mildred can be capable of firebombing a police station whilst still nursing the emotional scars from an abusive former marriage (to an ex-cop) and heavy guilt over her daughter’s rape and murder, Dixon can also be capable of surprising good and kindness in spite of his violence, anger, and virulent racism, all drilled into him by his godawful mother.  McDonagh seeks to remind us that, as cathartic as it may be, simplifying people down to their worst aspects and deeming them persona non-grata is a reductive and simplistic way of looking at society and the people within.  Sure, some people may not get much better when you do look closer, but it’s still necessary to understand why these people act the way that they do, otherwise lasting change cannot be made.

For some, it would be tempting to write the mounting criticism against Three Billboards as nothing more than “backlash,” the kind that greets every Awards Season frontrunner; it happened to La La Land, The Revenant, Boyhood, even Gravity, to name just the last four films in Three Billboards’ position.  That kind of attention brings out contrarian backlash that can swallow up legitimate criticisms, and it happens to everybody – you can bet your ass that even Lady Bird and Get Out would have fallen victim to a “backlash” wave were they the year’s frontrunners.  But not only would that ignore the fact that the conversations about Three Billboards and race had already been going on long before it emerged as the surprise frontrunner for meaningless expensive statues, there’s this one line that’s really stuck with me in the aftermath of that second watch, and kind of perfectly encapsulates Three Billboards’ stance and treatment of race and racism.  It comes shortly after the “n*gger torturing business” gag, which Abdurraqib’s piece made me realise falls apart upon any scrutiny that goes deeper than the flustered delivery of Sam Rockwell (this is important for later), and in response to Mildred silently pulling a smug face at Willoughby in response to Dixon’s behaviour, Willoughby responds:

“Don’t look at me like that.  If we got rid of every cop with even vaguely-racist leanings, you’d have maybe three cops left, and they’d all just hate the f*gs.”

It’s an interesting line, and it sounds great coming out of Woody Harrelson’s mouth, but what does it actually provide the story of Three BillboardsThree Billboards, as mentioned, is a story about anger begetting anger, the destructive cycles of grief and misplaced rage and aggression, and of characters either giving into or trying to overcome those very things.  Willoughby’s complicity in the institutional racism of his town’s police force, as evidenced by this line and his continued defence of Dixon in spite of the guy’s entire behaviour for the first half of the film, doesn’t add anything to the story and isn’t explored because Three Billboards is not about race.  Dixon’s racism isn’t meaningfully explored beyond a recognition that he inherited it from his godawful mother because Three Billboards is not about race.  McDonagh never ends up making a point about racism despite frequently having his characters be casually racist because Three Billboards is not about race.  It’s about grief, anger, and two morally-complex White people, and race, and specifically racism, is utilised as nothing more than an additional character quirk, extra dressing on the plate that could be removed without losing anything.

And that’s the problem.  Seeing Dixon’s arc as one about redemption is still a misreading, but it’s a misreading based on viewers having seen this shit a lot before.  Hollywood cinema has spent decades treating racism as something that is “understandable” and “explainable,” ostensibly because it makes for “good drama” but it comes with the side effect of making racism appear to be something entirely personal, undertaken by choice, rather than the result of institutions, built over thousands of years of racial-based oppression, that we all partake in, and that makes it easier for White viewers to feel less guilty about the whole concept of racism.  After all, they can’t be racist, cos they don’t torture black folks (off-screen once), and even if they did, they did so because their mom was racist and they learned that behaviour from her, so as long as they just don’t do that anymore then everything is ok!  I should stress, this kind of reading is almost never intentional on the part of the filmmakers – films like Crash and The Blind Side, huge steaming offensive dog turds they may be, are incredibly earnest attempts to do right that fall flat on their goddamn faces because good intentions are never just enough – but it’s the state of race-based dramas in Hollywood that have been cultivated over the years.  That’s the history, Three Billboards fits into that history, and it’s a history that is now being rightly challenged.

Except that, as mentioned, Three Billboards isn’t actually about race.  Race and racism are just flavouring, extra dressing, a set of character quirks that intrude every now and again but otherwise could have been replaced with almost anything else and gotten the same exact outcome.  So not only has the film stumbled into the same minefields that claimed Crash and Intouchables, it’s done so for absolutely no reason since, unlike films of that sort that are all about yelling “RACISM IS BAD, MMKAY?” McDonagh doesn’t have anything to say about racism because not a single one of his main cast members are Black.  There are three Black characters in the film, none of them contribute heavily to the story, none of them really have a character, one of them is arrested by Dixon on trumped-up charges a third of the way through and then forgotten about outside of one scene, and none of them are shown to have to deal with the racism that other characters exhibit during the few times they are on-screen.  They are, like in most White-centric stories, just props for our main characters, which likely wouldn’t have been as much of a stickler if McDonagh didn’t keep bringing racism into a story that’s not about racism and that he doesn’t have any insights into.

So, what does this tell us?  Well, for one, it tells us that McDonagh’s screenplay is wildly unfocussed and a victim of excess baggage and dead-end plots, themes, and characters – which is something I could have told you even before the race angle was brought up to me.  Primarily, though, and as picked up on by Madison and Wesley Morris’ vicious takedown of the film that went around a few weeks back, it gives away the fact that McDonagh is a British-Irishman trying to tell a character-driven “universal” story in a setting that he does not understand carries its own loaded history and symbolism, and resultantly makes a complete hash of things by total accident.  Ebbing, Missouri may not be a real place, but Ferguson, Missouri sure as shit is and this August will mark four years since the shooting of Michael Brown and resultant protests against the institutionally racist police force in the area.  McDonagh pays mild lip-service to race, but then largely moves on to telling the same story he would have told if the film were set in, say, Kinsale or Broughton.

And he almost definitely does this simply because he doesn’t understand the inherent difference.  Britain, too, absolutely has a shameful racial history that’s long-overdue an examination, but our population makeup consists of far less Black people than America’s does – just 3% according to the 2011 census, in comparison to America’s 13.3% according to 2016 estimates by the United States Census Bureau; and I also know that this is not a 1:1 comparison in many respects, but it’s the best one I’ve got – and our British society has yet to have a prolonged mainstream conversation about race in the way that America has.  Had McDonagh made almost the exact same movie, with the exact same characters with the exact same racial makeup as in this film, but set it in Thorne or some place, then I can almost guarantee you that we wouldn’t be having the racial conversation and instead focussing on the themes that McDonagh is clearly far more interested in.  But, then again, he also likely wouldn’t have had to toss in the acknowledgements about race and racism at all if he did set it in Thorne, since Thorne isn’t grappling with long-overdue conversations about historical failures in race-relations, and not acknowledging that elephant at all may have felt even more wrong.  You see the hole that McDonagh has dug for himself, right?

To McDonagh, he probably thinks that Three Billboards isn’t supposed to tie into any specific cultural moment – I wonder if he’s confused about the way that the Golden Globes tried to tie the film into the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, given that his film isn’t even fully with Mildred’s anger-and-grief-fuelled actions for most of its runtime.  It’s just another one of his low-key, melancholy character studies about complex people and their attempts to do right when doing easy is so temptingly staring them in the face.  But therein lies the issue: he’s failed to read the room.  He’s believed that a small-town in Middle America is just a setting for a story, in the same way that Bruges was for In Bruges, that comes with no history or iconography outside of that which he writes for it.  He’s believed that, just like his strange obsession over the supposed inherent hilarity of dwarfism, racism can be an additional character quirk on our way to seeing that character as a complex person, and that said creative choice doesn’t carry its own baggage from many other Hollywood features using it to “rationalise” racism over multiple decades.  He’s believed that race is not central to this story merely because none of his main cast are Black, so he doesn’t need to refine the few times he does touch on it in the film.

And he’s wrong on all accounts, and it’s because his outsider status to American culture and life mean that he genuinely does not understand things are far different than they appear to be.  In the same way that I and many other British critics at the time of first viewing Three Billboards failed to pick up on how badly it bungles discussion of American race, because our status as cultural outsiders mean that we can miss these important facts until somebody with that knowledge points them out to us, or if we go out of our way to educate ourselves beforehand (which is the better solution but not always manageable).  Whilst the film is still not in any way meant to be a redemption tale, McDonagh’s invocation of topics, settings, and themes that are ideologically, culturally, and historically loaded as little more than window-dressing for the story he’s far more interested in telling has led to this specific kind of justifiable backlash.  It’s the unintended consequences that come when a writer forgets that everything carries coded meaning, and that their specific cultural viewpoint is not always cleanly transferrable to another’s.

Callie Petch has got to give a little, get a little.

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