The Academy Awards were completely right to snub Martin McDonagh as Best Director for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But there were very wrong to give the film an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Notwithstanding the fact that the script is baggy, the editing lazy, and the directing unfocused and arrogant, it is, in my opinion, an offensive and insensitive piece of storytelling. When I watched it back in October, I remember squirming in my seat because of how problematic I found it. So it was surprising to suddenly see the film receiving international acclaim – “a marvel,” according to The Atlantic; “funny, brutal and breathtakingly beautiful” in the eyes of Empire, which awarded it five stars; five stars in The Telegraph, too, whose film critic wrote: “It has a heat that makes you shrink from the cinema screen.”
The heat I experienced watching it was fury.
If you haven’t seen the film, I’ll quickly summarise. It is set in a down-at-heel town in America, where a woman named Mildred (played by the exceptional Frances McDormand) is seeking answers about the rape and death of her daughter.
Mildred puts up three billboards antagonising the police to act, whose feathers are ruffled. We see her having to deal with the patriarchal structures of the police force, one of whom is a deplorable racist (this is the character played by Sam Rockwell).
This vitriolic racism is not condemned or tackled in the film, which, rather than pursuing Mildred’s female-driven storyline, becomes a story about the racist policeman’s white redemption. He is not redeemed for denouncing his racism, no – but for pausing his prejudices to help a white woman find and murder her dead daughter’s killer.
What a brave white man he is to momentarily stop being a bigot to help a woman. Now that’s the saviour we’ve all been waiting for.
Why is it that even when telling the stories of women, conflict is centred round the white male struggle? What I find especially galling is that the film is being received as some sort of bastion of sociopolitical cinema. What the film does is depict the patriarchal issues systemic in America with a lazy, paint-by-numbers technique, then expect the viewers to respond to it as if it’s some masterpiece for global action.
The whole thing screams of male arrogance, of an auteur that sees himself as a genius – “I’ll decide to throw in racism here, murder here, violence here, ooooh misogyny here, rape here, yeah, cool, this s**t is hard-hitting – Oscar-worthy, I’d say.” There are many episodes of prejudice that occur without being addressed; for instance, Mildred’s ex-husband has a young girlfriend who is represented as a two-dimensional bimbo. In truth, her stupidity becomes part of the film’s comic relief.
If a straight white male director wants to investigate misogyny or racism – of course, these are critical issues to dissect – they need to be sensitive and truthful, for otherwise it does a disservice to the people who are victim to such prejudices (and as #MeToo is showing us all, a huge number of people are).
It feels like McDonagh was excited to show off his fluency in decoding the problems of America, but simultaneously wasn’t quite bothered enough to do the digging necessary to do this justice. Put simply, the film doesn’t feel like it’s really about the disempowered stories it is being celebrated for representing.
Now, I don’t mean to say that straight white men shouldn’t navigate these waters. In fact, one of my favourite filmmakers telling the real stories of America, Sean Baker, happens to be a straight white man. Sadly, his extraordinary film The Florida Project was snubbed at this year’s nominations, which should unquestionably be taking the place of Three Billboards.
Sean Baker is an example of a director on the hunt for truth, allowing the lives of the minorities he spotlights to tell their own stories, with no sense of gimmick or intended audience approval. Unlike McDonough, who wants to smack the audience with his fetishistic and self-aggrandising treatment of violence, Baker’s The Florida Project invites the viewer into the lives of a mother and daughter on the fringes of society, forcing us not to gawp, but just to listen, and to care.
Thankfully, the Oscar nominations today show signs that things in the industry are beginning to change, with Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele just two of the exciting voices championed. So as the film industry continues to recalibrate its hierarchies, let’s hope that more fresh voices will find their way onto our screens – for these are the stories we so desperately need.
I only hope that these future films are truthful and illuminating, rather than flippant and irresponsible like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
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