Is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri racist? Is there something worth valuing in a movie about people full of hate?
The Golden Globes set the tone for award season by giving two of its biggest awards to Three Billboards. But there was a swift backlash against the decision. How could a movie that ‘redeems’ a racist policeman, and sidelines its characters of color, win Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay?
Audiences’ frustration with the film is understandable. We walked in expecting a story about a woman avenging her brutally murdered daughter; it’s all set up to make us believe that’s what it’s about. We expect Dixon to wreak some havoc and eventually be defeated, because he’s a racist, violent idiot. We expect to see some sort of poetic justice — and maybe actual justice, too. Unfortunately, that’s not where the movie ultimately goes.
I’ll be open about this — I saw the movie in theaters and believed it to be one of the best films of 2017. My review is here, and while I did make a point of mentioning the lack of protagonism given to people of color, I came to the conclusion that this was the point. This story was intentionally woven around its low-income, small-town, white characters, because it’s a story about a very specific struggle that many low-income, small-town, white people are dealing with right now: their own hate.
Both Mildred and Dixon are dealing with hate in different ways. Mildred, as a victim, is coping with the rape and murder of her daughter and the abuse she herself suffered at the hands of her husband. Dixon, as the oppressor, is channeling his rage toward torturing Black people and being a horrible person in general. As the story progresses, they are forced to come to terms with what their anger means for the people around them, and for their own identities.
I acknowledge that, not being Black, I do come from a place of privilege. But as a person of color, Three Billboards helped me grapple with an idea I’ve been struggling to understand: redemption, and progress in our conversations with each other. How do you heal century-long hatred? More importantly, how do you heal that hatred when it’s within yourself?
We don’t get to see Mildred and Dixon advance to the point where they are actively working against hatred — where Mildred repents her treatment of James, and comes to terms with the loss of her daughter; where Dixon acknowledges the gravity of his brutal, racist crimes, and pays for them. The movie is too short for that.
But it’s that point — where Mildred forgives her ex-husband (not because he deserves her forgiveness, but because hating him is hurting her), and Dixon realizes that he was wrong and everyone else was right — that is perhaps the most crucial of them all, and the hardest to reach as individuals.
When we see Mildred and Dixon driving away, they’re leaving behind years and years of rage: the rage of the oppressor, and the rage of the victim. They’re initially driving toward a place where they will just replicate that hatred, by taking it out on someone else, but the end of the movie gives you the impression that they won’t follow through. They’re both free from their hatred.
And yes, it’s still freedom from a place of privilege — but it’s a redemption story that needs to be analyzed. At what point does a person redeem themselves — not even to society, but to themselves? At what point is a racist man able to look back at his past, acknowledge its wrongness, and begin to see himself as he really is? It’s only then that he’ll be willing to listen to others, to begin to understand the truth, to work for a better future. It requires a tipping point.
And no, it’s not the job of the victims of oppression to redeem the oppressor. We want the rapists, and the abusers, and the murderers to face justice. We want a world where there is no space for their actions. But as we are talking about changing the world, about reforming the way an entire society thinks about issues like race and sexuality, we can’t avoid the issue of redemption.
To have a conversation, you have to let go of hatred. We have to heal ourselves of the rage that has fueled our fight. They have to heal themselves from the rage they have felt toward us.
While Three Billboards’ lack of people of color with meaningful roles does stand out like a sore thumb, and its painful lack of diversity deserves all the criticism it’s getting, it does stand as an interesting snapshot of this moment in history.
Three Billboards is a story about white people, and a reality that is uniquely white: the story of a small town that has the wider world slowly closing in; Black and Latino people changing old rules, women learning that they can speak up, hundreds of years of oppression becoming suddenly evident.
And yes, that makes for an uncomfortable story. It’s also not necessarily the sort of story we need to see right now — right as Weinstein set off, domino-style, Hollywood’s reckoning, as more and more policemen murder innocent Black people and STILL get no punishment, and as the neo-Nazi movement grows like a grotesque abscess in the country.
Three Billboards’ win of Best Motion Picture and Best Original Screenplay made people understandably upset; in a year where we have Get Out and Ladybird, much more revolutionary in their own right, the choice feels like a cop-out.
It’s a movie written by a white man and acted by white people about a uniquely white struggle. Against so many other good contenders, it fades in importance in our social discourse, at a time when people of color and women are still struggling to have their voices heard in the movie industry.
It feels against our values to defend a film that gives a racist police officer a character arc, and never punishment. It makes those of us who loved the film question our privilege.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri probably shouldn’t have won. Martin McDonagh could also have done a better job of explaining what the movie was about (or of understanding what his own movie was about). But the movie itself deserves to be watched, especially by those of us who might struggle to understand the way of thinking that permits insidious racism in America, and who are losing hope that things can ever get better.
Beyond law-making and justice, what we are looking for is to see that moment of epiphany — that realization that hate and rage are not worth it — in those who discriminate us. What we want is a tipping-point in the way people think of themselves in relation to society. You have to heal yourself of your anger before you can be free of your hate.