Three Billboards is not a racist film. What's truly 'problematic' is Twitter's appetite for controversy

Martin McDonagh has come under fire over the presentation of a bigoted character in his Oscar-nominated drama, a misinterpretation as wrongheaded as it is counter-productive

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Saturday 27 January 2018 12:49
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Trailer

Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri picked up seven Academy Award nominations on Tuesday, including Best Picture, Best Actress for star Frances McDormand and Best Supporting Actor for Sam Rockwell.

While many welcomed the acclaim, McDonagh’s black comedy has been widely – and wildly – criticised in some quarters, notably on Twitter, for its apparent sympathy towards a viciously racist character. These complaints are as wrongheaded as they are counter-productive.

The movie concerns bereaved mother Mildred Hayes (McDormand) and her attempt to shake up a small-town police force that has so far comprehensively failed to solve the brutal murder of her teenage daughter seven months earlier.

Mildred pays for three adverts on a minor road approaching town that read: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

Woody Harrelson plays Willoughby, who is left with little choice but to reopen his enquiries into the killing – out of embarrassment, if nothing else – by this act of public provocation.

It is Rockwell’s Officer Jason Dixon, however, that has stirred frenzied debate online.

His supposedly redemptive character arc over the course of the film has led Three Billboards to be dismissed variously as “problematic”, “racist” and “white nonsense”, a hysterical and astonishingly superficial misinterpretation that unhelpfully clouds the issue it seeks to address.

Dixon is indeed a bigoted cop, known locally to have tortured black suspects in custody and to be in the habit of profiling and targeting Ebbing’s black citizens as a matter of course. He is an idle pig, drinks heavily and complains about the loss of the Old South, with all that that implies. He is unquestionably racist and Willoughby, who has covered up his crimes, admits it: “You got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the fags.”

Dixon does undergo something of an awakening over the course of Three Billboards (albeit a peculiar one) in that he is stirred into helping Mildred track down the person responsible for her tragedy, initially out of grief at Willoughby’s suicide.

But he isn’t reformed. Far from it. The film’s conclusion sees Dixon and Mildred setting out across state lines to carry out a vigilante hit on a suspected rapist in selfish pursuit of personal catharsis (they may or may not actually go through with it). His indifference to the values he once so hypocritically claimed to embody as an officer of the law remains alive and well.

To call the film “racist” for following this man’s change of heart regarding the case is absurd. He remains a violent thug and is no hero. And presenting such a character on screen is not the same as endorsing his values.

Rather than taken to task, McDonagh should be applauded for writing such an unpalatable person as Dixon and for recognising his humanity, allowing for the possibility that he might just have an inner life and be capable of growth and change in response to his experiences. By doing so, he credits his audience with sufficient intelligence to navigate the decidedly murky moral landscape he has set out before them.

The racism argument assumes that McDonagh approves of Dixon and is asking us to do the same. Yet he treats him as a comic grotesque throughout, openly mocked as a redneck oaf by his peers, burned alive in an arson attack and beaten up in a bar brawl. Even fairy tales don’t punish their villains that unambiguously.

However distasteful it might be to enlightened, liberal moviegoers, there are plenty of Jason Dixons out there and McDonagh creates a valuable opportunity to interrogate their point of view through the prism of pulp art. What is so discomforting about Dixon, and by extension those like him, is the everyday banality of his cruelty and the all-too-plausible corruption of the system he springs from.

As a portrait of a dysfunctional and casually prejudiced white-run law enforcement system, incidentally, Three Billboards has received far too little praise. In the age of Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, this quiet condemnation is righteously of its moment.

Ultimately, the trouble with the reaction against Three Billboards is that its detractors seem more interested in leaping to alarmist conclusions about its supposed content (some without even having seen the film) rather than actually engaging with the narrative events unfolding before their eyes. And, moreover, without stopping to ask why anyone would even want to produce an overtly racist commercial entertainment for a mass audience in time for awards season, at this moment of hyper-sensitivity or any other.

In 1967, Norman Jewison’s In The Heat of the Night dealt with the racism endured by black city cop Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) at the hands of a hick police force, with Rod Steiger and Warren Oates bringing life and even charm to men of prejudice. The public accepted the uncomfortable challenge to their attitudes and assumptions at that time – at the height of the Civil Rights struggle – in a manner we no longer seem able to countenance.

The drive to “problematise” Three Billboards thus feels unavoidably like the latest example of a social media culture permanently on the look-out for offence and finding it everywhere, melodramatically and gleefully pointing the finger of accusation with the same scant regard for evidence one might have expected from a witchfinder general.

The “woke” political correctness culture so prevalent on Twitter is increasingly dictating the discussion around modern film and television. Casting decisions relating to features in pre-production are scrutinised as soon as they are announced and a heavy emphasis is placed on fair racial and sexual representation both in front of and behind the camera. That is as it should be and entirely a good thing.

The #OscarsSoWhite lobby has meanwhile successfully translated popular sentiment into direct action, asking difficult questions of the Academy and promoting real change – Moonlight’s (eventual) victory over La La Land at last year’s ceremony felt like a true watershed moment. Jordan Peele’s Get Out seems highly likely to continue that progress at this year’s awards.

Oscars 2018 nominations: A roundup

However, this new equal opportunities metric for assessing the merits of a particular film can lead to the question of whether the work is actually any good or not being sidelined – and the tone of the debate descending into intolerance and aggression whenever it is even mildly tested or queried.

Even expanded to 280 characters, Twitter is hardly a space for nuance and – unlike McDonagh – users are all too quick to forget the humanity behind the voices they disagree with. A simple spat over the most minor pop cultural controversy can quickly escalate into trolling, personal abuse and even death threats (who can forget the repellent furore surrounding Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters remake two years ago?).

What Three Billboards is really about is the futility of hate and the self-destructiveness it breeds – a lesson some Twitter users might do well to stew on. At its worst, the comment site can be a cauldron of bile and those seeking to make a federal case out of every slim point of contention in the name of greater inclusivity often end up just creating further division, animosity and alienation.

All of this is especially galling in the case of Three Billboards where the common misconception, spread like wildfire, is demonstrably incorrect.

Incidentally, there’s one further, final hypocrisy at play in the criticism of this film. Everyone I’ve seen arguing that Three Billboards is “racist” makes a point of excusing Frances McDormand on the grounds that her performance is excellent (which indeed it is). But if the film is “racist”, she, as the star, was complicit in getting it made and should therefore be subjected to the same criticisms as McDonagh, its author.

“A racist film? And still no criticism of its lead? How come, Twitter?”

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