Who Gets to Change? Representation in ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’

The crowd erupted Oscar night when Frances McDormand took the stage for Best Actress and announced, “I’m hyperventilating a little bit so pick me up if I fall over because I’ve got some things to say.” It was classic McDormand for those who’ve followed her since her other Oscar performance in Fargo: A little 30’s screwball comedy, wide eyes and manic gestures, that can drop into a tell-it-to-you-straight tone. She went on to call out the industry and asked actors to consider an inclusion rider, a contract clause that would pressure a movie to hire more diverse casts and crews. Her new film, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, nominated for Best Picture, also aspires to tell you something straight, the rage of a small-town mother. Mildred Hayes’s teenage daughter was raped and killed; in response, she rents three billboards that call out the sheriff for failing to solve the case. Reviews have been overwhelmingly favorable. Rotten Tomatoes’s “top critics” gave it a 94 percent "fresh" rating. One, Alexandra MacAaron of Women's Voices for Change, said, “The movie is one of the angriest films in recent memory. Yet it has moments of unlikely (yet hilarious) comedy and sincere tenderness, along with acts of nearly unwatchable violence.” It’s the violence off stage that drives the rage. When the movie opens, McDormand’s daughter is already dead. Now, we have the freshness of a woman in a role usually reserved for grieving, vengeful fathers like Liam Neeson (there’ve been so many men in the role there’s a listicle). Unlike them, McDormand doesn’t have a clear target for revenge, since the killer may’ve been a drifter passing through. She does have the police to bother, comically portrayed by two likable actors, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. In fact, much of the movie is shot in a darkly comic tone that differs from the dread of classic revenge-flicks like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. It’s this tone that characterizes all of director Martin McDonagh’s movies. It worked to brilliant effect in his first, In Bruges, where the comic tenor is shattered by bouts of intense violence. Three Billboards so successfully combines that keep-you-off-balance tone with a great cast (indie favorite John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage) that it seems to have masked its racial problems to the critics. Nineteen years ago, another Oscar contender, The Green Mile (also starring Rockwell as a racist redneck), was critically praised despite its plot reliance on the Magical Negro trope. (Michael Clarke Duncan was nominated for his portrayal).  Three Billboards doesn’t feature a valiant black character whose role is to teach the white protagonist—in fact, there are disturbingly no black characters featured for a movie focusing on racism. We see McDormand interacting with her black co-worker, played by Amanda Warren, in a way that suggests friendship. But we aren’t shown what that looks like beyond one scene that establishes she has the proverbial “black friend,” another trope, and assures us McDormand is cool and, for all her crass talk, humane. Soon, she hears that Rockwell’s character has thrown her friend in jail for McDormand starting trouble. Like Mitch McConnell, he doesn’t realize that she will persist. We don’t see Amanda Warren’s character again until the end when she is released and back hugging McDormand. The other black characters also play limited roles: Darrell Britt-Gibson is Jerome, the young billboard-hanger yelled at by Rockwell’s character to make sure we know he’s the racist cop. Britt-Gibson returns to knock at McDormand’s door after the billboards are later torched. He, too, is around to show McDormand is loved by black people: He happens to have more posters they can all put back up together. Two other black characters in non-speaking roles pop in and out, Eleanor T. Threatt as a nurse and Wallace Sexton as an uncredited paramedic. It’s never clear how McDormand has earned the love of all the people of color in town. Some “fat Mexican guy” gives the ad man’s girlfriend $5,000 to keep the billboards up. Again, this happens offstage. We never meet the man or learn why he is so generous. The suggestion is that McDormand is a surrogate for whatever implied injustices have been done to the brown people of the community, casting her as a white savior. The great Clarke Peters (The Wire) is wasted in the final half as the new Chief of Police. In his few minutes on screen, he does his role: He fires the racist deputy. The right thing has been done and now Rockwell’s character can face redemption. Humanity. Justice. These are the roles, the symbols, the black characters play. Had Martin McDonagh attended a VONA writing workshop (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation), or the other too-few spaces that center the experience of writers of color, he couldn’t have avoided basic authorial questions like: What characters have plot arcs? That is, who gets to change? That is the heart of storytelling, the essence of humanity. To deny characters this degrades their role to functionality. In many cases, that’s fine; that’s what secondary characters do. Watson is there to tell Sherlock Holmes’s story. But even Watson was respected with a backstory and screen time. [millions_ad] So who gets to change? The two white people, like the ones English director Martin McDonagh saw from a bus window over 30 years ago. The angry white, the poor and racist. While touring America, McDonagh passed through Vidor, Texas, and saw three rough, handwritten signs erected by James Fulton: “Vidor police botched up the case;” “Waiting for confession;” “The could happen to you!” In 1991, Fulton’s daughter was found strangled in what was made to look like a car accident. Fulton, now 86, still believes her husband is the killer and that the Vidor police didn’t do their job. So, he put up the signs. "It was this raging, painful message calling out the cops about a crime," McDonagh said. "The title came from the concept and the concept came from that image, which stayed in my mind for years. What kind of pain would lead someone to do that? It takes a lot of guts—and anger." If McDonagh had stopped and talked to the people of Vidor he would’ve discovered the guts it took to live there. The majority of lives that have been changed in Vidor are black, not white. Located in southeast Texas, the area has long been known as Klan territory. As recently as 2006, a white resident felt comfortable telling a reporter he wished blacks and whites were still separated. Another said, “"I don't mind being friends with them, talking and stuff like that, but as far as mingling and eating with them, all that kind of stuff, that's where I draw the line." So many black families have left that the city has put up its own billboard with the close-up of a little black girl in hopes of showing tolerance and bringing people back. Just up the road in Jasper, 49-year-old James Byrd was notoriously murdered in 1998 after being dragged behind a truck by Lawrence Brewer, a former “Exalted Cyclops.” The incident led to the passage of a 2009 hate bill. Brewer was not nearly as congenial as Sam Rockwell, whose character’s history of beating a black prisoner, again, takes place offstage and is never explored. Would we feel the same way at his redemption if we’d viewed him committing the act? Or if his pistol whipping of the ad man was a person of color and not a whiny white teenager? As NPR journalist Gene Demby tweeted, “you can say that it’s not supposed to be about the black characters, which: okay, but McDonagh also didn’t have to write the cop as a racist. He could’ve just wrote him as a generic asshole. But since he did write him that way, then we should talk about how he treated that idea.” Three Billboards does suggest that education and love, as we see between McDormand and Rockwell at its conclusion, is the redemptive key. Scholars like Prof. Ibram X. Kendi suggest otherwise: Self-interest drives racist thought and racist thought grows out of discriminatory policies and structures. Despite Rockwell’s torturing of a black man, we see his gosh-shucks police chief tell him in a letter that he’s a decent person, and that he has the makings of a detective if he can get out of his own way. Who wouldn’t agree with the comic-wisdom of Woody Harrelson’s folksy voiceover? Critic Francine Prose did in The New York Review of Books, calling the character “a profoundly decent, intelligent, hard-working, and conscientious man.” Only the ignorant, poor, and angry--like Rockwell’s character--can be racist, not his middle-class boss caught up in the legal system. There are echoes here of how pundits explained the presidential election as white working-class anger despite evidence that the white and wealthy overwhelming gave the victory to Donald Trump. The heart of the problem lies in McDonagh's directorial choices. The few critics, predominantly people of color, who found his movie manipulative (here, here, and here) and historically tone deaf agree this is our generation’s Crash: where white characters learn a lesson on the backs of black people. The sexual violence, the rape of McDormand’s daughter, is equally problematic, though not mentioned even in passing in The New York Times review. After all, who could question a grieving mother? But as The Independent’s Amrou Al-Kadhi asks, “Why is it that even when telling the stories of women, conflict is centered round the white male struggle?” The use of rape as a plot point joins a growing trend that has hit a fevered pitch, with Game of Thrones the main culprit. “In 2017, rape on screen almost feels passé: it’s the suggestion that comes up when you’re stuck for a story arc on a slow afternoon in the writers’ room,” The Guardian’s Zoe Williams writes. It’s obvious McDonagh wants you squirming in your seat—and in In Bruges it worked. (Though it’s interesting to note that not all critics agreed, including the ones who felt he used Irish characters, and Irish state funding, to his own purpose.) But crossing the ocean has been problematic for the English-born director. He is also a playwright, and in his first American play he employed the same shock value he used on his working-class Irish characters in previous plays. In A Behanding in Spokane, Christopher Walken plays a man who’s surreally lost his hand and has searched for it for 27 years. When he finds one, it’s not his but the black actor Anthony Mackie’s, whose character of “Toby” is “played like a character that would be ripped to shreds on social media if he graced a film or television screen in this day and age.” The effect on the reviewer-of-color: “It nauseated me.” Rape, gender, race–McDonagh’s thrown it all in. He even added a literary touch. Look closely when McDormand’s character is buying the billboards; the ad man is reading Flannery O’Connor. Clearly this is an homage, and we should expect violence to lead to an emotional lesson, maybe grace. McDonagh brings his many talents to the film–making someone laugh at violence is a difficult thing to do–and was helped along by strong performances, most notable, of course, that of Frances McDormand. Who doesn’t want to watch a brilliant actress stomp around dressed like Rosie the Riveter giving overt racists hell? (We’re never told why she dresses like that; she works in a gift shop.) It’s as if the image, like the billboards McDonagh saw passing through Texas, were too enticing to bother with the film’s many flaws around race. Was it laziness? Ignorance? Why did all those that reviewed it found it praiseworthy? These are not questions from the P.C. Police but meat-and-potato storytelling considerations, though McDonagh thinks differently. “I can’t happily defend [the movie] at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe.” To return to McDormand’s admirable speech: A clue to why this movie was made comes after she announces, "I’ve got some things to say,” exciting the crowd. She thanks the director, humorously adding, “We are a bunch of hooligans and anarchists, but we do clean up nice.” It’s in this vein of anarchism that I think we find a closer explanation for McDonagh’s movies, the work of a provocateur. Why not throw the kitchen sink of hot-button issues at viewers and see how they respond? Sensationalism as a tool for story chaos. Unlike Flannery O’Connor, who knew the South and cared about her characters, McDonagh’s movies are more interested in emotional pyrotechnics, leaving the heavy lifting of character development to its actors who are very good. And if no one asks questions that any VONA workshop might about core issues of representation, we’re destined to see more Oscar nominees like Three Billboards, Crash, and The Green Mile perpetuating the treating of people of color like props—and more positive reviews. It might not matter if McDormand’s call for inclusion riders comes about. Five black actors were in the film about racism that won her an Oscar. We barely saw them.