Three Billboards Does Not Care About Black People

While Frances McDormand's performance works hard to be enough to recommend the film, there is nothing redeeming about the narrative, which serves only to find ways to invisiblize the inner lives of its handful of black characters.

It would be dishonest not to disclose that I came into this film already convinced I would hate it. After receiving rave reviews on the festival circuit, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri did not manage to sit quite as well with more representative audiences, leading to a conflicting awards narrative about whether the film was misunderstood and being judged too harshly, or skating by on the good intentions of misinformed white critics. But after learning the basic plot, I was determined to see the movie and form my own opinion. The vengeful tale of an angry woman seeking justice for her brutalized child seemed like an appropriate metaphor for the current trying times, but having seen it, I can confidently say that it is nothing more than all the worst parts of a Tarantino-lite fascination with provocation for its own sake. 

First, the good: Frances McDormand is spectacular in the role of Mildred Hayes, a middle-aged mother seeking justice for the rape and murder of her teen daughter. In an attempt to get the attention of the local police department, Mildred buys ad space on the titular three billboards imploring one Chief Willouhby (Woody Harrelson) to find her daughter's killer.




McDormand's performance is thrilling. She brings to Mildred a kind of visceral rage that is at times so cathartic that it is impossible not to root for her. But that's where the esteem ends. Mildred's thirst for revenge is derailed so early in the film that her worst behaviours have little in the way of true justification: her ire is plainly misdirected (the case has simply come to a forensic close) and actively disrupts the lives of the innocent people around her. The front-loaded sympathy the plot affords her quickly dissipates as we see how her single-minded focus on blaming someone for what happened to her daughter leads her to disregard would-be allies, as well as the son she still has.

While Sam Rockwell's portrayal of the cartoonishly racist Dixon is the most obvious issue with the film's characterizations, it is the "good whites" here who do the most damage. Director Martin McDonagh tries earnestly to problematize the hard distinctions between goodness and badness but flattens the discussion entirely by eradicating any reasonable understanding of institutional power dynamics. Three Billboards tries to elicit sympathy for the ailing Chief Willouhby by framing him as a good man who believes in the best of everyone. His posthumous suicide note to Dixon pushes him to be the "good man he knows him to be" but nothing is made of the fact that Willouhby is largely complicit in Dixon's abuses. This is a man about whom the propensity for torturing black people to death is framed as a running joke, and yet, here he remains on the police force, with all the power and authority of the state behind him. Willoughy may not himself be a racist or an abuser, but his enabling of that abuse makes him a far worse culprit than Dixon himself. In one scene he actively makes excuses for the behavior, pointing out that these are simply allegations. Ill as he may be, Willouhby's measured inaction directly lead to the pain and suffering of Dixon's later victims.

And Mildred herself (though positioned in ideological opposition to them both) uses Dixon's alleged abuses to taunt him; the possibility of a death at his hands is no more than a thorn in his side, needling him as the allegation clings to his career, and rhetorical weapon she can use to get him to fall in line. Her concern is not the actual racist abuse she believes him to have perpetrated, but rather weaponizing it get under Dixon's skin. Whether the story is true is of no issue. The rest of the town too is complicit. Rather than viewing Willouhby as a man who continues to empower a violent racist, they perceive him as a good ole boy going through a hard time, such that Mildred's understandable but extreme measures are seen are obscene rather than a measure of frustration. The entire moral universe of this film bends towards legislating the feelings of white people as a measure of their goodness rather than their actions. 

But the film's worst offense is its dismissive treatment of its handful of black characters. Despite centering the story on the would-be redemptive arc of a racist and anti-black police officer, the actual black people in the film exist merely as ciphers on the periphery of the narrative; pawns with which the white characters undermine each other, or plot devices against which we can measure their moral development. Over the course of the film, Dixon transforms from a violent, racist alcoholic to a man in mourning for the one friend who believed in him. It's an entirely unearned turn that never contends with the real damage he has left in his wake.

Defenders of the film cite Dixon's arc as a meditation on the complexity of humanity; none of us is either all good or bad. But by centering the plot around this character's not at all complicated or unique interior life, it pushes the interiority of the black people in his orbit to the margins. Again, the very real power dynamics do not allow us to consider them both as equal problems. In order to feel sympathy for Dixon or justify his abuses as a symptom of his hard life, we must forget the realities of being black in America, and the specific brutal relationship between black people and the police; not just historically, but in the contemporary moment.

When Dixon arrests Mildred's friend Denise (one of the film's few black characters) as retaliation for Mildred's behavior, no mention is made of this breach of justice past a sticky note left on the door of the workplace they share. At no point does the story shift to Denise's perspective. Not once is the viewer even asked to consider her feelings on being caught in the crossfire of these white people's shenanigans. When she reappears towards the end of the film, her only concern is for Mildred's wellbeing. Not a shred of anger is detected at either Mildred or Dixon. Denise is simply a smiling plot mechanic, executing her ill-defined function.

By making Dixon a virulent racist rather than just a power-hungry cop, McDonagh insists that systemic racism  is something that can be eradicated through the strength of warm sentiment alone. At no point does Dixon ever suffer true consequences for his actions. When, following his death, Willoghby is replaced by a black Chief of Police, Dixon is dismissed from his job for what amounts to insubordination, despite the same Chief having just witnessed him throw a civilian out of a window and severely beat him. No charges are filed, and no punishment is meted out. Rather, Dixon simply becomes a sad-sack who made a poor choice. That is a far more humane characterization than he deserves considering his propensity for using the will of the state as a means to enact racial terror.  

While Frances McDormand's performance works hard to be enough to recommend the film, there is nothing redeeming about the narrative, which serves only to find ways to invisiblize the inner lives of its handful of black characters. The film makes Dixon's anti-blackness central to his personality, but never delves into how this affects the black characters or even attempts to address the political implications of their proximity. It's a ham-fisted shit-show of a movie that mistakes provocation for revelation in all the worst ways. It's dominance of the awards season is a tragic indictment of the aggressive whiteness of the critical establishment.