When I first saw the trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri it wasn’t hard to read between the lines of what they were aiming for. Hollywood loves social commentary as long as it is something they approve of. When the reviews for the film came out and it got universal praise, once again reading between the lines the praise came from the film’s commentary on criminal justice reform and police brutality aka…cops.
So what is this film about? Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is an extremely angry mother who lost her daughter in a violent rape and murder seven months ago. Because there have been no leads on the murder, she rents three abandoned billboards near her home, which in sequence read: “Raped while dying”, “Still no arrests?”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”. This opens the door to look inside the Ebbing police department which surprise surprise is full of racism and bigotry.
I get people hate cops, even my libertarian friends have jaded views of the law. The purpose of this film is to make commentary on racial profiling in rural America (written by a British guy BTW) but much like my criticism of Suburbicon, the film only uses its black characters as props and not real characters that can contribute positively to the story. Hollywood does this everytime they want to make a film to show how racist of a society a certain subset is or how THEY feel that subset is. Not only does this feel display Hollywood’s feelings towards police but Rural Americans as well.
I read an editorial from writer Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib which I highly recommend you read in where he complains about a portion of this film that highlights racism within the police force that is played off as a joke. Even though myself and Hanif are both black, we are far opposite sides of the political spectrum…and yet we came to the same conclusion about this scene. He writes
In the midst of being questioned by Dixon, Hayes shoots out “How’s the nigger torturing business, Dixon?” Dixon, flustered, offers a response along the lines of “You can’t say nigger torturing no more, you gotta say peoples of color torturing.” The gag goes back and forth like this, Dixon becoming more and more flustered as Hayes eggs him on, before Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Bill Willoughby enters the room. When Willoughby asks what’s going on, an exasperated Dixon exclaims: “Sheriff, she asked me how the nigger torturing business was going, and I said you can’t say nigger torturing business anymore, you gotta say peoples of color torturing.”
Willoughby excuses Dixon, only slightly annoyed. When Dixon leaves, Willoughby explains to Hayes that Dixon has a “good heart” and if all police officers with “slightly racist leanings” were removed, there wouldn’t be any police officers left.
And here is the problem from our perspective, as a film you use black people as part of a storytelling device, but doesn’t cater to black people specifically or give them a character to connect with but expects them to sympathize with the same characters you have spent the entire film telling us are terrible people. Martin McDonagh wants to us to take a long hard look at racist cops in America while at the same time, telling you that racist violent cops are actually good guys at the same time. Which is a message that falls on deaf ears to the same people want to extend a hand to in the first place.
As far as the rest of the film, Frances McDormand is great and she deserves the award recognition that she is getting. Woody Harrelson is rarely ever bad in film and he does a good job playing a questionable cop. The acting is stellar, the writing here is confusing because the narrative is completely conflicting. I was pretty conflicted myself watching this because there are things I liked and things that I hated. Overall I feel like my enjoyment of the film was somewhere in the middle. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an Oscar bait film not for general viewing audiences but if you are a film buff, you should enjoy the film.