Defending And Re-imagining 'Racist' ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri’

Frances McDormand in <em>Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri</em>
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Last December 31 will go down in my personal New Year’s Eve history as the one I spent watching the then-soon-to-be presumptive leading contender for Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars. Call me lame, but at least I remembered Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri when I woke up alone and not hungover on New Year’s Day.

To be honest, I had no idea what the movie was about when I started watching the screener in my hotel room in Munich, Germany. I didn’t fasten my proverbial seat belt because I had no idea I was embarking on the bumpy emotional journey of Mildred Hayes, a Midwestern woman still seeking justice for her daughter seven months after she was raped and killed.

I only knew that my friend and former colleague Mara Reinstein, who is the movie critic for Us Weekly, enthusiastically recommended it to me in September after she saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival. “You would LOVE Three Billboards,” she wrote to me on Facebook, also calling it Frances McDormand’s “best performance,” and adding, “welcome back to respectability Sam Rockwell.”

Three Billboards deserved her rave review. Although it stopped just short of blowing me away, I was highly entertained and impressed by how effortlessly the film blends comedy into the drama without undercutting the effect of the latter. Drenched in black humor at its deepest shade of ebony, it’s every bit as funny as Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical Golden Globe winner Lady Bird and, for me, more moving. Afterwards, I posted this on Facebook:

I love it when an “Oscar-worthy movie lives up to the hype. Actually, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” surpasses it. But as I continue to ponder it, I can’t stop thinking of what it would have been with Viola Davis playing the lead. We (black AND white moviegoers) actually need that movie more than we do yet another story about white-on-black pre-Civil Rights atrocities (cough, cough, “Mudbound”).

I still hadn’t read any reviews, and I had no idea that a backlash was brewing. Less than one week into 2018, after the movie won four Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture — Drama, the backlash was impossible to miss. The major issue: the way Three Billboards glosses over the alleged racist actions of its primary supporting character Jason Dixon, a hothead white cop said to have once black-bashed an Ebbing citizen who was in police custody. (Dixon is played by Golden Globe Winner Rockwell.) Fueling the ire of its detractors, most of whom I suspect are white, the movie dares to extend redemption to Dixon, which some apparently see as tacit approval of racism.

I’m as confused by the backlash as the film’s detractors are confounded by the critical success of this supposedly racist movie. OK, so Dixon’s redemption arc completely revolves around white people. Is that so unfathomable? Can a racist with numerous other deplorable qualities legitimately attain inner peace only through the grace-granting intervention of a noble black character? (How cliché.) And furthermore, once a movie introduces racism into its narrative, should it cease being about anything else?

It’s not lost on me that this is just the kind of white-liberal nonsense that Get Out, another current contender for a Best Picture Oscar nomination, skewers. Ok, so Dixon’s alleged black victim is spoken of but never seen. This invisible black man doesn’t make Three Billboards a racist movie. 

The allegedly racially motivated police brutality is a historical element that the film uses to paint a broad portrait of Dixon before adding finer details of his character. Some of them humanize him: The scenes with his mother are among the movie’s best, and there are scattered hints that he might be a closeted gay man, one of which involves ABBA’s “Chiquitita.” Others highlight his monster tendencies. His assholery encompasses so much more than being possibly racist, and Rockwell plays it all magnificently.

Another point of contention for the movie’s detractors: It features a central character with an alleged racial assault in his backstory, yet it focuses mainly on white people. Welcome to Hollywood, folks. Despite last year’s aberration from the norm, Best Picture Oscar contenders in any given year are generally loaded with white characters. A black Mildred would certainly invalidate this complaint (hey, Viola), but should Mildred be black to justify Dixon’s redermption, or should Mildred be black because black actors deserve meaty roles that can just as easily be played by white actors? 

Three Billboards’ paucity of blacks in significant roles doesn’t make it racist. That makes it Hollywood status quo. The casting is just a reflection of white Hollywood, which is an extension of white America.

Of course, it’s easier to attack the movie than it is to face how white Americans (some of whom are as ostensibly well-meaning as the ones slamming the film) created and perpetuate a society that makes its casting the norm. The cast merely underscores Hollywood’s racial bias, which is but a symptom of a larger disease, one that’s spread from sea to shining sea. It’s why cinemas are crowded with movies made with white people in mind and why #OscarsUsuallySoWhite.  

Three Billboards writer and director Martin McDonagh created the roles of Mildred and Dixon specifically for McDormand and Rockwell, and they aren’t this Oscar season’s only white hopefuls whose roles were custom-written for them. (The nominees will be announced on January 23.) Their fellow Golden Globe winner and likely Oscar nominee Allison Janney has said that I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers wrote the role of Tonya Harding’s mother LaVona as an acting vehicle for the seven-time Emmy winner.

Meanwhile, presumptive Best Director frontrunner Guillermo del Toro created the lead role in The Shape of Water for Sally Hawkins, and she’s now enjoying Oscar buzz as well. How often, if ever, does a white writer create a juicy role that isn’t race-specific for a specific black performer?

Viola Davis in <em>Fences</em>
Viola Davis in Fences

But imagine it McDonagh had written the role of Mildred for Viola Davis instead of for McDormand. Without a single script alteration, the stakes would be automatically higher, and the subtext would dramatically shift. The racism wouldn’t just be referred to or implied. Every scene would be dripping with it.

I bet there isn’t a white liberal alive who would have the guts to accuse a movie starring last year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner as a mother seeking justice for a daughter who was brutally raped and murdered of being racist, even if she were complicit in the redemption of a character who never really apologizes for maybe being racist. (Interestingly, many of Three Billboards’ detractors seem to not have a problem with the redemption of Tonya Harding that is I, Tonya, but I bet they’d feel differently if Nancy Kerrigan were black.)

I have to admit that while watching the local townsfolk slam Mildred, I wondered if white people in real life wouldn’t be more sympathetic to a grieving white mother, especially one whose daughter was raped. The #MeToo movement, after all, has focused largely on white women. But how would a mostly white community in small-town Missouri react to a grieving black mother who challenges white law enforcement? The “town midget” probably wouldn’t have a crush on her and therefore would be less likely to give her an airtight alibi. The negativity that greets Mildred would make a lot more sense with Davis playing her.

Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Maybe Dixon’s redemption arc would be less of a sore point with the movie’s critics, too. If a black Mildred could make peace with him, and, in a sense, endorse his redemption, the film’s “racist”-branding cynics might be more likely to do the same. If a black Mildred could come to embrace the check-your-anger-at-the-door worldview of Woody Harrelson’s character Willoughby, the true heart and soul of the movie, maybe they also could ease up on the condemnation and see Dixon’s humanity. Perhaps they could even forgive him for allegedly bashing a black man who was in police custody.

Yes, forgive. That is the central theme of Three Billboards. In Willoughby’s letter to Dixon from beyond the grave, the former points out that the latter needs to let go of his anger and hate in order to become a detective (i.e., a better person). Dixon’s turning point arrives when a white character he assaults and tosses from an upper-storey window shows him kindness and, in essence, forgives him. But can a racist evolve like the rest of us? Or does deeming a brutal racist redeemable and forgivable mean deeming him as human as white liberals who consider themselves colorblind, therefore eliminating some of that comfortable distance between brutal racists and white liberals?

Mildred is never presented as being a paragon of virtue, and her evolution, which isn’t complete until just before the closing credits, is more subtle. At times, she’s heartless in her own way. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat her. Mildred’s bitch factor is laid out in her unmoved reaction to Willoughby’s terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis and the way she treats pretty much everyone in the movie.

If Mildred were a black woman grieving a lost child, the white “racist”-branding cynics no doubt would be firmly #TeamHer. Hell, they’d probably cheer her on as she torches the cop shop. The implied racism of black Mildred being taunted by local whites and of a black victim being undervalued by white law enforcement would make their own whiteness seem more spotless.

That hints at a racial bias they’d probably rather not own — white liberals using the shocking racism of other white people to boost their self-image. That’s the sort of disingenuous “woke”-ness that the white characters in Get Out would recognize.

Despite my black Three Billboards fantasy, I love the film as is. For me, a grieving mother’s race doesn’t determine her qualification to sing lead on the redemption song of a jerk who may or may not have done heinous racist things. Frances McDormand doesn’t need to be Viola Davis to validate Dixon’s inner journey. I love the extra subtext that Davis-as-Mildred would have given the film, but I don’t need to reinforce my “woke”-ness by finding racism in a grieving white mother bonding with a racist white cop. I don’t need to see the racist white cop atoning to a black character to buy that he’s a changed man.

As long as you’re living and breathing, evolution, redemption, and forgiveness are possible. That, for me, is the main takeaway from Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Those who don’t agree, those who dismiss the movie as racist for daring to bestow evolution, redemption, and forgiveness on Dixon, might not be nearly as “woke” as they think they are.

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