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Oscars Countdown: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the issue of race

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“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.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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.

The issues brought up against the film do not stop there. For a start, McDonagh paints an unflattering picture of Missouri, which in Three Billboards is presented as slice of rural backwardness populated by racists and angry people with the occasional good soul. Then there is the almost constant harassment faced by James, another example cited by McDonagh’s critics when they bemoan his apparent obsession with dwarves (see his debut In Bruges for another example).  

While there is much to be said about these points, it is the race controversy that has dominated Three Billboards’ ‘trial by viewer’. There are two reasons for this, one being the location of Missouri as suggested earlier. The other is to do with its recent awards success.

It’s always the same. Those films tipped to win big at the year's awards ceremonies are – quite rightly – closely examined under the cultural microscope. This allows us as a society to work out just how we understand and consume entertainment; unless we can place a piece of media within some greater context, it is very difficult to understand in full.

At a less abstract level, the response can pressure voting committees at the likes of the Oscars to think about the implications of their votes, and what exactly they are celebrating when they fill out their ballots.

La La Land (2016) is a good example. Many raised an eyebrow at the portrayal of Jazz being saved by a white man, when the genre was founded by the black community of New Orleans, and is historically celebrated for this reason (among others). Whether this debate contributed to it losing out on Best Picture after that whole debacle with the envelopes and what not, cannot be said. But it exemplifies how those films proving very popular with critics in the immediacy of their release are picked at relentlessly by the audiences, which contributes to how such a film is seen. The unease, to put it mildly, surrounding Casey Affleck’s Best Actor win for Manchester by the Sea the same year is another case in point.

Diversity in film has become a very hot-button topic. Following the success of Barry Jenkin’s utterly stunning drama Moonlight last year, Get Out - with a black leading actor and director -  has been nominated for Oscars in several categories this time around and is doing far more than making up the numbers.

Female representation at the Oscars has also received praise, with director Greta Gerwig being nominated for Lady Bird and Rachel Morrison becoming the first ever woman nominated for best cinematography, for her work on Mudbound. These films have succeeded on their own merits alone. Whether Hollywood is actually more diverse now is an issue that goes far beyond award nominations, but it is interesting that after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of two years ago that onscreen diversity is receiving more attention. 

It is in this context that the furore surrounding Three Billboards should be considered, and highlights why race is the line of criticism being used the most often. Whatever you think of the debate, it is no accident that this is all kicking off now in a way it may not necessarily have done even ten years ago.

Representation and its politics is why race has been the main point of criticism in the movie, which is the same reason why its portrayal of women and fighting injustice in the figure of Mildred Hayes has received widespread acclaim.

It is because both viewers and award committees are more sensitive to these issues of race and diversity that the arguments have the significance that they do. It didn’t stop Three Billboards ruling the day at the BAFTAs, but whether it repeats this success at the Oscars is far from certain. If it does lose out to the likes of The Shape of Water, Get Out or Lady Bird, then this debate may just have had a part to play. 

The 90th Academy Awards will take place on March 4th.




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