three billboards backlash

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has all the makings of an Oscar frontrunner. The festival favorite boasts a riveting turn from lead Frances McDormand, a deliciously sharp screenplay from director Martin McDonagh, and a tour-de-force performance from Sam Rockwell as a self-loathing corrupt cop. It received near-universal praise at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. At key awards ceremonies, Three Billboards swept — winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama, the SAG Award for Best Ensemble, the TIFF People’s Choice Awards, and landing a spot in the AFI top 10 of 2017.

Most importantly, it was timely. Three Billboards is a story about a bereaved mother Mildred Hayes who shakes up a small Midwestern town with her bitter attacks against the beloved Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his department’s inability to find the culprit behind her daughter’s rape and murder. The film hit the festival circuit right at the crest of #MeToo movement, an industry-wide reckoning of the systemic abuse and harassment of women at the hands of Hollywood’s most powerful men. It seemed fitting, then, that the Oscar frontrunner would be about righteous female vengeance, led by a middle-aged actress whose furious performance threatened to sear through the screen.

And yet, Three Billboards finds itself facing its own reckoning, with a backlash as fierce as Mildred’s single-minded quest for justice.

You could chalk it up to the usual polarization of the Oscar race, wherein the nuances of the best films of the year are boiled down to their most basic flaws. La La Land fell victim to this last year — seeing itself transformed from “charming love letter to classic Hollywood musicals” to “nostalgic relic emblematic of the racial tumult overtaking America.” Backlash and Oscar favorite almost always go hand-in-hand, with public opinion turning on a perfectly fine film for want of a narrative with a villain and an underdog.

Opening to Critical Acclaim

The thing about Three Billboards is that it seemed poised to take on that underdog role. When the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, it was presented as the polar opposite of Oscar bait: a brutal, barbed black comedy that dared you to like it.

Its borderline farcical approach to grief cut away any semblance of pretension, yet it carried an Important Message on female wrath in the form of McDormand’s caustic Mildred Hayes. Owen Gleiberman wrote in his Variety review, “She’s woke, she’s fierce, she’s beyond shame or scruples, she’s screaming truth to power, she’s charged up with the wrath of an avenger.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote in its rave review, “McDonagh couldn’t have anticipated the moment when his movie would arrive, a time when sexism in its most virulent forms has been revealed in a daily drumbeat of stories recounting unspeakable exploitation and abuse.” In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, Mildred soon became the standard bearer for the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, 2017’s embodiment of female rage.

The movie hit a nerve. It won a standing ovation at its premiere at Venice, where McDonagh won the best screenplay prize. It would win the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival over crowd-pleasing movies like The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, and Molly’s Game. But the movie’s initial full-bodied support would soon change once it hit general theaters.

Out of the Festival Bubble

As Three Billboards spilled out of the festival circuit, there were rumblings among critics of color about the film’s clumsy (some would say non-existent) handling of race. The criticisms were aimed at Sam Rockwell’s Dixon, a racist, violent cop who was rumored to have tortured a black man in custody. Rockwell plays Dixon as a pathetic dope rigged to explode, and for the first half of the film, Three Billboards doesn’t ask you to sympathize with him. He’s an alcoholic, he commits horrific, senseless beatings, he lives with his emotionally abusive mom. But Chief Willoughby is convinced that underneath that veneer of intolerance, there’s a “good man” in Dixon, which triggers a transformation in Rockwell’s character, from revolting villain to sympathetic ally.

Vulture’s Nate Jones points out, “The second half of the movie largely belongs to Sam Rockwell’s Dixon, a ne’er-do-well cop with a history of racist violence who gets some measure of redemption by the end of the film. Dixon’s arc has made Rockwell a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor races at the same time as it’s rubbed some viewers the wrong way thanks to a noticeable bit of sleight of hand: McDonagh never lets us meet the black person Dixon is said to have tortured, which lets his past crimes stay entirely in the abstract.” Jones’ Vulture colleague Kyle Buchanan notes that the film’s only other black characters are all “good-hearted ciphers.”

The issue of redemption remains the point of contention for many defenders of Three Billboards. “What if Three Billboards is a tale of damnation, not redemption?” Washington Post critic Sonny Bunch writes. The film “has a much stronger message about the dangerously fascist impulse that goes along the desire for total and perfect justice.”

In the most thoughtful analysis of Three Billboards and its race problem, Allison Willmore at Buzzfeed astutely points out that the film takes place in the state where three years ago, tensions between police and the black community came to a head after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. But “in striving to make Ebbing feel like a lived-in place, rather than just an idea of one, Three Billboards treats racism like it’s just another quaint regional detail — part of the local decor,” Willmore writes. “Three Billboards is so sharp when it comes to depicting Mildred’s pain, and yet so clumsy when it comes to depicting the habitual racism of the place in which she lives, that it feels indicative of the terrible fallacy that we can only focus on one type of oppression at once.”

Willmore points to McDonagh’s roots commenting on Irish working-class conflicts as the issue, which the director attempts to try to transport to Middle America. The Daily Beast‘s Ira Madison doubles down on this assertion, writing “Whether it be through malice or ignorance, McDonagh’s attempts to script the black experience in America are often fumbling and backward and full of outdated tropes.”

These kinds of criticisms continued to roll in as the film expanded to general theaters in November. Why the sudden outcry? NPR’s Gene Demby posited that the film’s rave reception at Toronto was an indictment of the overwhelming whiteness of the festival circuit and the critical establishment. Demby said on Twitter, “I think festival audiences are so used to the centrality of white people’s inner lives treated as the Actual Emotional Stakes that they don’t get what’s janky about a movie set in a town where cops torture black [people] but the plot is about thwarted justice for a white lady.”

Catapulted to Awards Favorite

The difference between Three Billboards and past Oscar “favorites-turned-pariahs” is that this criticism began before the film became an awards frontrunner. But as awards season kicked into gear, it became apparent that Three Billboards was the clear favorite. Three Billboards swept the Golden Globes, winning the most film awards of the night with Best Drama, Best Supporting Actor for Rockwell, Best Actress for McDormand, and Best Screenplay. It also won the Best Ensemble Prize at the SAG Awards, an award that often goes to future Best Picture winners.

The Golden Globes was Hollywood’s first public show of the reckoning of men in power. Actors and actresses wore black in solidarity with the anti-harassment and abuse coalition Time’s Up, series and films dealing with the sexual assault and the female experience won big (Big Little Lies, Handmaid’s Tale), stirring speeches against sexism were given by Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey. Three Billboards, with its wrathful tale of female vengeance, became part of that narrative with its four wins. Some critics accused the night of being “performative” in its wokeness, while others were encouraged by how these movements would rock the Academy Awards, an institution that is well-documented to be averse to progress.

Essentially, critics are saying, it’s hypocritical for a film that has been propelled to the front of the Oscar race because of its pertinence to one movement (#MeToo) to be completely indifferent to another movement (#BlackLivesMatter). It all sounds very political, because awards season inevitably is political, New York Times writer Wesley Morris writes. Three Billboards “can’t be just the misfire that it is,” Morris says. “The enthusiasm for it has to represent the injustice the movie believes it’s aware of — against young murdered women, their suffering dysfunctional families and black torture victims we never see — but fails to sufficiently poeticize or dramatize what Mr. McDonagh is up to here: a search for grace that carries a whiff of American vandalism. Of course, few movies can predict their moment, but “Three Billboards” might be inadequately built for this one.”

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