Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was high on my list of movies to watch as soon as trailers for coming films dropped. The premise is interesting and the casting a good bet for solid performances. I prefer to see films likely to garner awards buzz before people tell me how much I just have to watch. This film looked likely to cause that reaction.
If you haven’t yet caught this flick, it’s about a sharp-tongued (umm, bitter) divorcee named Mildred (Frances McDormand) furious no one’s been arrested for the rape and murder of her daughter. In a moment of angry inspiration, she rents three billboards leading into town.
She posts a message to Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), demanding action. The move is the opening salvo in her quest for answers.
I’m an eclectic nerd. My movie habits (and fandom collection) tend to reflect that fact. I’m also opinionated (I know… shocking). I’m quick to disagree – loudly – with a nomination if I don’t feel its justified.
I won’t lie. If you like gritty dramas, then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is certainly that. Through the course of the film, we watch as Mildred confronts the chief and locks horns with seemingly moronic Officer Dixon in all manner of ways – some funny, others just downright dangerous. We learn about this town, its inhabitants, and its loose hold on crazy.
The circumstances surrounding Mildred’s daughter’s death aren’t the only issue casting the police in a less than savory light. This is a small town; with more than its standard touch of “good old boy” running deep and wide down Main Street.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a gripping character drama that evolves along with its characters. It keeps you on edge and reels you in over and over. I was not surprised it opened to critical acclaim. This film, despite thinking it showcases some stellar acting and tells its story with heartfelt but dramatic flair, pissed me right the hell off.
Dear Hollywood, if You Could Umm… Just NOT
I left the screening so pissed I haven’t been able to talk about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri without losing my temper. What I’m about to discuss isn’t really a spoiler. The scene in question has f*** all to do with the premise, plot progression, character development, or story resolution. This in and of itself points to a major part of my issue with it.
At one point in the film, Mildred ends up in police custody. We’ll skip why because that isn’t pertinent to the current discussion and would be a spoiler. While in an interrogation room, she repeatedly needles idiot cop Dixon by repeating the word n***** over and over again. Yes, if you fill in the blanks, you can guess the word I’m censoring (only because my editor will if I don’t).
In order to get under his skin, she waves the word wypipo need to (re)drop from their vocabulary with all due speed. Or get real comfortable with black people being very ready to snatch it out they mouth.
This is the first movie for which I’ve ever given a disclaimer to people of color when they asked me about it. I didn’t say, “Don’t see it”. However, I absolutely warned them about this scene. I didn’t want post-movie angry calls (it happens, believe me) about this nonsense.
Why do this you ask? What’s the point of bandying about a racial slur over and over and over again?
Some would tell you it’s because they’re in the rural midwest, and they were being authentic because everyone “knows” good ol’ boys (and girls) just toss that word around like confetti. So, a film set in a rural town that doesn’t include it isn’t “being real”.
Others may say Mildred was deliberately provoking Dixon by referring to his prejudices (given he’d been brought up on charges in a case involving the “interrogation” of a black man) in order to rile him up and piss off the chief (Harrelson). That behavior said more about her than having to really do with anything racial.
A few critics even went so far as to toss out commentary about how the writer/director isn’t American so obviously, his contextual relationship to the word isn’t the same. Somehow, he didn’t’ think his chosen setting would ring true without having a go at working n***** into his script “because Missouri” is all right. Let’s just say these folx, I walked away from – quickly.
I might even be willing to have a high-brow debate about the issues with visual exports and the perceived truth non-native viewers draw from US-based television and films. How mayhap we should think twice about the narrow version of certain demographic groups (I’m being so tactful today) we package and ship out into the world. I think that’s a topic that could use some much more serious light shined on it.
I might have even taken the time here to start the conversation, except this whole interrogation scene was a comedic bit. The set-up, rhythm, pacing, and repartee between the characters all played for laughs. Albeit the laughter isn’t intended to be comfortable, you’re supposed to be amused with the way she winds him up and sets him spinning. Also, I sat in a room of wypipo who found it to be juuuuust hilarious.
Up to this point, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri had a subtle unspoken commentary that was powerful for its quiet presence working in the background of Dixon’s story arc:
- The looks he received from black people did more than 10 verbal exchanges could.
- The way people inched away from him when the news mentioned the encounter he was responsible for.
- The lack of respect he was shown by everyone worked to speak volumes about the type of man and cop he was.
All these elements build a tension that was highly effective in conveying a message that was both relevant to the main storyline and the times. However, that wasn’t good enough. Writer/Director Martin McDonagh just to had to pick that low-hanging fruit, and then compound the issue by using it as a pace-changing comedic bit. My eye actually twitched throughout the entire scene.
It pulled me out of the story and left both a sour taste in my mouth and a ringing sour note for the remainder of the film. It undermined all the (up until then) beautifully nuanced and impactful acting. I never got back into the story after that point.
Black people, black pain, racial epithets, and brutality brought to bear upon black people aren’t props, gimmicks, or tension breakers. It’s past time this type of -ish was passé. That is unforgivably lazy and moreover, simply distasteful.
I no longer cared about Mildred’s purpose. This harsh edge wasn’t insightful or realistic. It didn’t add emotional depth to her performance or display a failing that spoke to her greater nature. It didn’t cast Dixon in a better light to watch him lampoon. There nothing redeeming or of added value to this scene in the slightest.
‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ off to a Blazing Start This Award Season
- Frances McDormand took home Best Actress.
- Sam Rockwell snatched up Best Supporting Actor.
- Writer/Director Martin McDonagh went 1 for 2, taking Best Screenplay
- Three Billboards beat the entire field winning Best Motion Picture – Drama.
Screen Actor’s Guild Awards:
- Sam Rockwell again seized Best Supporting Actor (Movie)
- Frances McDormand doubled down as Best Actress (Movie)
- Three Billboards took Best Cast (Movie)
No one will make me believe that this scene isn’t pivotal because it’s still viewed as “daring” for wypipo to indulge this way on screen. Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand are two amazingly talented actors. But damned if I can be happy for them winning off this script. Whyte actors need to stop agreeing to do this type of shit.
Even though no one’s really talking about it, at least no white people, it needs to be said. The entire scene was a cheap stunt – one I knew, even then, they’d ride all the way to the Oscars.
And just the thought still makes my eye twitch.
This is an opinion piece and not necessarily the views of DHTG.