January 11, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson

This movie is nothing if not divisive. Some love it, some hate--both with good reason.

First, let's address the elephant in the room: the undercurrent of racism that flows through this movie but isn't ever really addressed. There is a racial slur used as a punchline to a joke and more than a little humanizing on the part of the most blatant racist cop. The fact that the few black characters in the movie are essentially used as props also does not help matters. So I think the backlash against this movie by people of color is not only understandable, but also justified. Intentionally showing the humanity of racist people, especially those who have exploited their positions of power to inflict harm because of those racist beliefs, is a slap in the face to those who have experienced it in real life. It is a slap in the face to stories of marginalized people who haven't been given the opportunity to tell their stories because stories like these are dominating the narrative.

In spite of all that, I found myself enjoying the movie. It is, actually, a really well done movie. It portrays Frances McDormand in all her glorious, weird, unforgiving self and makes us uneasy about whether we want to root for her or whether we are terrified of her. It explores moral gray areas, including (yes), the humanity of racists. And it makes us question how far we'd go to get what we feel is justice for the death of a loved one. It's something, I think, everyone can relate to, even if they are not a rural white hick who has the privilege of brushing off blatant racism. (Though it is hard to ignore the fact that a black woman doing what McDormand did in that town would more certainly have been arrested, beaten, or killed the moment she put up those billboards.)

Now, for my controversial take. I like the nuance in this movie. I like that no one is all good or all bad and yes, that includes the character played by Sam Rockwell, who, by the way, is absolutely brilliant in the film. I like moral gray areas. And while I understand people's desire not to see any redemption in a racist cop, I don't think the movie absolves him, just like it doesn't paint McDormand as a hero. Everyone is just stumbling through this incident, making some good and some terrible decisions, some worse than others. I like complicated. I like something that is thought-provoking, even if some of those thoughts are "why are we glossing over the terrible crimes committed by this particular character?" And though it doesn't make it right, I do think that blatant racism is simply a part of some rural towns. Showing it as such doesn't equate to an endorsement of it, only the privilege that comes from white characters being able to ignore it as background noise.

So ultimately, I think this movie deserves both the accolades and the intense scrutiny it's receiving. It is a fantastic portrayal of grief, anger, and complicated relationships (not to mention the fantastic acting, engaging plot twists, and clever pacing). It is also a reminder to Hollywood that there is a desire from audiences to see stories that are more diverse and more attuned to the prejudices faced by millions.

Final word: See it so you can talk about it.

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