For a film that’s 93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with critics, and an audience score of 87%, it’s hard to imagine how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could be considered controversial—the overwhelming majority of people enjoyed it.
And it’s gotten a fuck tonne of awards and nominations to boot.
But some—Vulture, Vox, and other self-proclaimed “woke” commentators—have taken exception to the dark comedy set in the fictional town within Missouri, a US state considered both the Mid-West and the South.
Not with the idea of a bereaved, fed-up, wise-cracking, kick-ass mother in the form of Mildred, who’s seeking justice for her murdered teenage daughter by way of calling out the local cops with three giant billboards demanding answers. But with its apparent “blind spots” on race. First, the fact its few black characters have peripheral roles. And second, in the form of supporting character Officer Dixon—an openly racist and uneducated white cop who almost failed the academy, who is manipulated by the mother he lives with, has serious anger issues, and beat a black man in custody. By all accounts, a fuckwit.
But let’s tackle the lack of black characters and their peripheral roles first. This isn’t a film about race. Or inequality. Nor is it an ensemble cast where each character’s story is as important as the others. From a character perspective, it’s about a grieving mom and a bad cop. Everyone else is secondary. It’s also set in Missouri, where 83% of the population is white. And just 11% black. Where political correctness is even harder to come by than an organic yoghurt shop. Of said peripheral black characters, one becomes the new police chief, while the others are a young shop owner, and signwriter. Both friends of Mildred.
So far as Officer Dixon goes—played to critical acclaim by Sam Rockwell—he’s a stand-alone symbol of the discriminatory South of old, in stark contrast to the rest of the townspeople who have more progressive views: signs of change that make Dixon uncomfortable.
White cop Dixon is morally bankrupt and criminally aggressive. A drunk, too. But where it gets murky is that he also delivers some of the funniest lines in the movie, most at the expense of himself. And those lines serve as a timely reminder that even people with misguided values and opinions—your grandma, your dad, your best friend from your hometown—can have endearing personality traits on the surface. Charisma even.
Thing is, in Dixon’s case, we as the audience know the bad that lurks beneath his clueless exterior. We see him for who he really is. We learn he’s racist and previously beat a black man in custody. We see him threaten Mildred, abuse his power and throw a man out of a window. Despite all this, at the end of the film he is befriended (albeit grudgingly) by Mildred.
It’s this so-called redemptive arc that the professionally outraged have taken issue with. A “redemptive arc” that includes Dixon losing his job, having half his face burned off in an arson attack by Mildred, and having the shit beaten out of him by a suspect in Mildred’s case. A redemptive arc where having lost everything, Dixon attempts to do the right thing.
Hence, the film’s critics have labelled what they consider redemption “unearned”, “undeserved” and insisted it “denigrated the experience of the film’s few black characters, particularly the unseen ones Dixon had tortured—as if their lives really didn’t matter except as props for a white man’s redemption”.
Yes, unseen characters. Unseen characters in a supporting character’s backstory that informed his actions, but had nothing to do with the central crime or character (Mildred). Questionable script choices aside, the PC brigade’s major source of contempt raises a wider societal issue: do we want people to right their wrongs and correct their paths, or stay stuck in their discriminatory ways forever? You can’t scream for change and then complain when people make an effort. You don’t have to forgive them for their past indiscretions, nor forget them (though the good Christian folk of Missouri would) but surely having people face their wrongs and act an example to others is a step in the right direction. Be it in prison or on the streets.
And, at the end of the day, it’s also a fucking fictional movie. Not a public service announcement for equality and police brutality. Oh, spoiler alert.