You gotta love Oscar season, right? Some people who barely flinch at social injustice all year long can turn into crusaders when it’s time to judge winners and losers for movie awards. Then suddenly everyone cares. Suddenly everyone wants to be attached to a cause. When the BAFTA and the Globes shut out Lady Bird and Get Out, all we saw were big splashy articles about the woman getting dissed. Column after column, think piece after think piece, Natalie Portman after Natalie Portman, all went after the voters for neglecting to grant a Best Director nomination to Greta Gerwig, whose Lady Bird swept the National Society of Film Critics with 4 top honors. But you know what almost no one wrote about? Very few people seemed bothered that Jordan Peele didn’t even get a screenplay nomination at the Globes. They didn’t talk about Dee Rees getting shut out for Mudbound, that’s for sure, and they certainly didn’t mention how the BAFTAs have nominated 6 women since 2000, but only one black director.
No, instead there’s a faction of complainants who have decided to take aim at Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri for its depiction of the Sam Rockwell character — which some say is a symbol of racism who redeems himself too easily to be credible by the end of the movie. Before we get into that, let’s look briefly at a some very different reactions from important voices in the black community. Let’s first look at the Black Film Critics Circle who awarded Best Film to Mudbound, Best Director to Jordan Peele, Best Actress to Frances McDormand and this was their top ten:
BLACK FILM CRITICS CIRCLE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2017
2. Get Out
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
4. The Shape of Water
5. The Post
8. Wonder Woman
9. I, Tonya
10. Blade Runner 2049
Should we not trust the view of black critics who clearly believe that Three Billboards has significant merit and delivers an important message? Should we not think their point of view matters when the film community is dominated almost entirely by white men? Why would they not know racism when they see it?
The African American Film Critics also honored Three Billboards with second place:
AAFCA TOP 10 FILMS OF 2017
- GET OUT (Universal Pictures)
- THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI (Fox Searchlight)
- COCO (Disney/Pixar)
- GIRLS TRIP (Universal Pictures)
- DETROIT (Annapurna Pictures)
- CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Sony Pictures Classics)
- THE SHAPE OF WATER (Fox Searchlight)
- GOOK (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
- CROWN HEIGHTS (Amazon Studios/IFC Films)
- MARSHALL (Open Road Films)
So yeah. I’m conscious as a white writer that I’m in no position to tell people what is and isn’t a fair treatment of racism, or which portrayals are troublesome and which are not. Even if these same critics honored Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, it was shut out of awards season because of its depiction of brutality at the hands of the racist cops. What I’m seeing now with Three Billboards is an easy target in a season that now seems to need a sacrifice to prove something about people. I’m not sure this is the way any of us can move forward in terms of finding Best Picture of the Year because probably the beneficiary of this isn’t going to be a movie about the black experience, like Moonlight, it’s going to be the movie no one attacks. But if you think this is leading to Get Out suddenly becoming that movie, you might find yourselves surprised that it doesn’t turn out that way. Moonlight didn’t win because the “oscars so white” hashtag. Voters do not vote that way. The preferential ballot doesn’t work that way. It won because everyone loved it and no one hated it and most importantly, no one saw it as a threat. Now Three Billboards is suddenly a threat because it stopped being the movie that was flying under the radar and suddenly became a prominent frontrunner, hitting all of the necessary stops along the way, winning in Toronto and then at the Globes. Boom goes the dynamite.
I’ve learned a lot in the 20 years I’ve been doing this, and another thing I learned this year I learned from Get Out: There is only so much that white women like me have a right to say on a topic as thorny as this. I see how some white folks who carry a banner against racism can sometimes seem a little presumptuous or self-serving, even a bit Get Out-ish. I used to think the advocacy I did for, say, Viola Davis or Ava DuVernay was the right thing to do in an industry I saw as fundamentally oppressive and exclusive to mostly white males. I still feel that way but I also know that it’s a fine line between speaking for someone and advocating for something or someone. Now I try harder to listen.
I’m acutely aware that no amount of overcompensating can ever realign my ancestors on the right side of history, so I never pretend to know what it’s like to be black in America. But I’ll tell you this: I put my faith with full confidence in the opinions of the African American film critics and the Black Film Critics Circle. I trust what writers of color tell us about about how they feel a hundred times over before I’d listen to some of the snide elites who latch on to “teachable moments.” I’ve been around the block enough to spot when some people pretend to give a crap about police brutality while a lot of them only want to bring down a movie that they see as a threat to another film that they want to win. When legit issues are hijacked to drive agendas, that’s how whisper campaigns begin.
Whatever valid principles are upheld by awards voters each year, you can bet a good number of those proponents have latched onto handy agendas as fans of other films, films they’d rather see win. Many of these coattail activists seem to think if they target Three Billboards that another film they love more will emerge triumphant.
But make no mistake, there is no similarity this year between La La Land and Three Billboards — either from an awards angle or a more serious thematic standpoint. For one thing, La La Land had been declared the de facto winner as far back as October. That early lead provided plenty of time for detractors to refine their strategy. In the end, the most damaging objection was that the film’s only black character was shown as a celebrity sell-out, while Ryan Gosling got to portray a snow white jazz purist. Right or wrong, once it was framed that way the dichotomy was too fraught to ignore.
To me, the message of Three Billboards runs much deeper. It tells a stark fable about how catastrophic events can cause people to change and change dramatically. Some go from good to bad, others from bad to good. As a lead character, Mildred had never done much of anything, until tragedy turned her world inside out. Previously on track to become a bitter old woman whose husband abandoned her and whose daughter hated her, she transforms into a formidable angel of retribution when her daughter is raped, murdered and left for dead. She becomes something she never thought she could be, a militant warrior propelled by fury, rage, and grief.
Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon was born into a family of casual racism. He’s a fouled-up product of small town resentment and hatred who has chosen a job that brings out the worst in him. In many ways he’s a splintered hybrid of the two brothers in Mudbound — one raised to maintain the status quo, the other who’s witnessed a different kind of humanity overseas in the war. Dixon has all that duality of segregated hate vs smothered compassion battling inside him. He and Mildred are drawn to each other when the trauma of unimaginable violence leave their souls almost literally raw, and together they stumble recklessly toward redemption.
Much discussion revolves around Dixon’s presumed racism — although there’s a marked absence of any racial brutality onscreen. It seems while most people are busy looking for southern racial injustice to get that tingle of being triggered, they overlook the signs of Dixon’s real issue: the bewildered turmoil of a closeted gay man whose identity has been masked so long he doesn’t even recognize it. I never felt that Dixon was a virulent racist who somehow “wasn’t racist” anymore by the end of the movie. Where’s the evidence for any of that? In the same way, there is certainly no indication that Mildred has suddenly turned into a good person and found her softer side. Far from it. She’s as rash and explosive as ever — but she’s begun to find a way to extend her short fuse. Who knows where these two are going to end up — we almost dread to imagine the possibilities. This isn’t a movie that ever intended to give anyone an easy path to redemption or a facile happy ending. It does, however, offer hope for a loosely mapped route out of the sickness and misery, a way to escape the cycle of torment and hate into which some of us are born and raised and trapped.
One of the most alarming things about last year’s election was learning that so many of those vicious white supremacists online were just teenagers. This ignorance and malice isn’t aging out of our culture. It’s festering. It’s enduring. Because the same seeds get planted with each generation. How can it ever end if we can’t find a way to stop it from regenerating?
There isn’t much I can say to convince anyone to rethink how they should interpret Three Billboards. But I can say that I see people whose opinions matter a great deal on this subject and others whose opinion don’t matter a whit to me. I can say without hesitation that I appreciate the effort Martin McDonagh has made to bring to fresh yet caustic perspective about a type of damaged mentality that’s feels compelled to reopen the deep wounds in this country and keep them from healing. I don’t think speedy atonement was ever the point of this film. Three Billboard is about forgiveness and transformation, and wherever that leads is up to the viewer.