Oscars Countdown: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the issue of race
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Content warning: offensive language “So how's it all going in the n*****-torturing business, Dixon?” Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) asks Dixon (Sam Rockwell) in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. “It's 'Persons of colour'-torturing business, these days, if you want to know,” he replies, trying to save face. You can immediately see why Martin McDonagh’s third feature film can leave a sour taste in the mouth. For all the praise that has been thrown in Three Billboard’s direction, the way it deals (or doesn’t deal) with race has caused great splits in critics' and public opinion. While finer details may differ, the basic argument is the same no matter who makes it. A lot of people see Dixon’s prejudiced, violent and bumbling character as being redeemed come the end of the film, and he is cast in a more sympathetic light to both the audience and the other characters. This arc has not sat well with those who see McDonagh’s script as showing the corrupt, racist cop in a positive light – especially in Missouri, where the Ferguson protests against police brutality made headlines across the world. Other comments focus on how there is no strong minority presence in the film. Mildred’s black friend Denise is arrested by Dixon, who is then confronted by a furious Mildred who insults him in the middle of the police station. Denise is barely mentioned after that, as if her experience only matters insofar as it highlights Dixon’s shortcomings. Mildred herself is not immune from criticism. She treats her dwarf friend James (Peter Dinklage) like utter trash almost constantly. The way that minorities are treated in Three Billboards has outraged those that see minority characters' inclusion as serving no purpose beyond adding ‘extra depth’ to its leading white characters. McDonagh, unsurprisingly, does not see it this way. Neither does the film’s producer Graham Broadbent, and a number of people who have gone online to defend a movie that has recently shovelled up five BAFTA wins. To see Dixon’s character as being ‘redeemed’ is arguably to understand the film at a very superficial level. Dixon is an awful character who ends up doing one or two good things by the movie’s end. Conversely, Mildred is the heroine driven by anger that the audience gets behind (down in no small part to McDormand’s incredible performance), but she is no angel. You could say that none of the characters truly find redemption, a view supported by the underwhelming and ungratifying ending. The truth, perhaps predictably and in a way that will irk those parked firmly on either side of the fence, is a blend of both. Three Billboards definitely has an issue with diversity and representation that should be scrutinised, as do too many Hollywood films, but to bring the hammer down and blast it as unashamedly racist is to ignore the story being told. To cite one racist character as evidence is not enough. There is nothing inherently wrong with including racist characters, especially those like Dixon that change throughout the course of the film, but the way that the likes of Denise are related to his actions was not as thoughtfully considered as it should have been.
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