It’s not Oscar season without frontrunner backlash, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is getting a lot of heat from a lot of places ever since its wins at the Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards. But then the Oscar nominations happened. Notably absent from the Best Director category was Martin McDonagh, the playwright-turned-director at the helm of the Best Picture favorite and a previous Oscar winner for his short film Six Shooter. Could it be the backlash setting in? Or maybe it’s as simple as McDonagh making a writer’s movie and not a director’s movie? Both contentions are true in their own way, but the backlash itself isn’t your traditional reaction to a favored movie suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Instead, this backlash feels like part of the broader conversations we’re having in the Trump era, and that makes Three Billboards the movie of the moment, regardless of its flaws.
Three Billboards is an angry movie for an angry time drawing some of the angriest reactions to a flawed frontrunner we’ve ever seen. It’s compassionate in its own way, yet tosses around racial slurs with an enthusiasm that would make Tarantino blush. It has one of the best female characters we’re ever likely to see on screen, then makes jokes about a domestic abuser’s relationship with a woman half his age. Black characters are barely there, little people are “midgets,” and only the white bigot is redeemed in the end. It’s complicated and messy, like American life.
But Three Billboards is not an American’s movie; it’s an Irishman’s. While that qualifies him to tell as story about hate dividing a nation, the criticisms, especially dealing with race, are as valid as they are overwhelming. McDonagh didn’t seem to know what waters he’d be wading into when he let people in rural Missouri talk the way people talk (I know they talk this way in rural Pennsylvania) so the rage/revenge cycle can propel the story forward. The giant blindspot, woefully underwritten black characters, would have David Simon rolling his eyes. It wasn’t about the way all people talk, it was about the way white people talk. And that made it easy for cultural conversations to leak into this unassuming movie, conversations that are also complicated and messy.
Creators today are in a world full of landmines when it comes to race and gender. Case in point: Sophia Coppola got equal but opposite criticism for ignoring race in The Beguiled. Coppola didn’t include a slave character from the book in her Civil War-era film because she “did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype” but also wanted to make a historically accurate film about white women’s experiences at the time. Should she have included a whitewashed version of the character? Would that character have been a prop because she wasn’t fully fleshed out like the two black characters in Three Billboards? The truth is, I don’t know, but it warrants discussing.
In an online conversation, I said something along the lines of, “We just need more black stories told by black artists,” like Get Out and Mudbound. A person of color hit back saying, in essence, this kind of writing still needs to be called out. As a white male, my own blind spot for giving white artists a pass on these obvious, avoidable flaws needed called out, too. And as a queer person, I also understand how important fully realized representation is. I should know better. Two years ago, I probably would have ignored the criticism and defended my stance. But today, I had to write this post, not to be defensive, but rather to look deeper into my own biases and blind spots. Our cinematic artists need to do that, too.
My initial problems with Three Billboards had nothing to do with any of the criticisms above.. I didn’t fall madly in love with McDonagh’s movie because he consistently overindulges in his own writing, less so here than in Seven Psychopaths, but it’s there. (His fans will disagree, but that’s what makes cinema interesting.) Still, McDonagh’s focus on writerly tidiness and thematic consistency is also part of the reason he never addressed the black characters in a way that would have made them more than background figures. Another director might have seen the issues, or surrounded her/himself with people who would have, and asked for another draft. But again, I really don’t know.
Three Billboards, for better or worse, is the most representative movie of this moment. It’s a film that understands the constant rage cycle that we’re caught in, be it in Washington, in our communities, or on social media. It’s a well-meaning film with laser-focused dedication to its core idea, but it also lacks breadth, which comes of as lacking in empathy. There’s an unreasonable-ness to Three Billboards—and to its fans and critics—that equals how entrenched our ideologies have become. In this world, one that we’re troubled to make sense of, it seems like the only thing that does make sense is how divisive Three Billboards has become.