THIS IS NOT A PROFESSIONAL MOVIE REVIEW AND I AM NOT A PROFESSIONAL MOVIE REVIEWER
I saw a mostly fantastic film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” with Frances McDormand and Woody from Cheers and Tyrion from Game of Thrones. Really, friends, I do recommend this film because Tyrion can do ANYTHING – act in ANY ROLE and be just as believable as a hateful egomaniac as a complete badass, or a sympathetic, hilarious, adorable human who happens to be short. I mean, you just believe he is whatever the hell he decides he wants you to believe he is. I love that in an actor. And that voice. I could really close my eyes and listen to him say basically anything and be in goddamn heaven.
Woody from Cheers is equally good and cute and he has grown into a really good acting fellow himself, and Frances McDormand has range out the wazoo. The storyline is heavy and thankfully, at times, hilarious, and tackles some complicated issues with a decent amount of sensitivity and nuance. Suicide, terminal illness, spousal abuse, murder, racism…but…back up.
Yeah. That racism thing. I know a movie cannot be expected to do everything well, but if a movie is lazy on racism, it loses points with me. And this movie…well, it was just lazy.
Don’t get me wrong – there were plenty of times it depicted racism accurately – especially through Sam Rockwell who played the most overtly racist of the cops (Officer Dixon) in the town of Ebbing, Missouri. There was even one scene about racism that was smartly written, in my opinion. (NB: My opinion can justifiably be overruled by any Person of Color, since I am a white American human and my propensity for caucasian nonsense is ever-present, despite my constant efforts to thwart it.)
Here are my problems with this movie’s approach to racism.
White Savior Syndrome. It was in the movie. At all. Why the compulsion to portray ourselves as friends of Black people? I know, I know, no white-presenting human wants to be thought of as a racist. I may be overthinking it, and I saw the movie a week ago, so my memory is fuzzy. I just remember having several moments when I rolled my eyes very hard…like we were supposed to be so impressed with and moved by (and satisfied with) Mildred’s (McDormand’s) character doing the absolute minimum in standing up for Black people. I was way more impressed with Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson) – one of the two Black people in Ebbing (who make it into the movie, anyhow.) In the opening scene he stood all the hell the way up for himself to Officer Dixon, who was more than a little menacing towards Jerome as he was putting up the billboards.
Laziness. The ways in which “Three Billboards” portrays racism in this teeny tiny Missouri town that has exactly two Black people in it (who make it into the movie, anyhow) is lazy. With a capital “L.” Llllllaaaaaazzzzzyyyyyy. It glosses over things I imagine is fucking terrifying and awful for Black people, like being Black in a tiny Missouri town, for instance.
1. Horrible and racist cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell) decides to make life hard for one of the two Black people in Ebbing (who make it into the movie, anyhow) as a way of getting to Mildred. Mildred works in a little shop with Denise, a Black person. Mildred arrives at the shop to find it closed, and with a note on the door from Denise. It says, “I’ve been arrested.” And it had a frowny face written at the bottom. A. Goddamned. Frowny. Face. It looked like this.
TELL ME, PLEASE. Is this the note you would leave if you were a Person of Color who was arrested by Officer Dixon, whose nickname in Ebbing County was “N*GG*R TORTURER?” No. I do not believe it is. I really don’t know how to express my dismay about this.
This movie got so many things right. How can they minimize this part of it like that? A fucking frowny face. This cannot possibly be the note Denise left for Mildred. (Again, I invite my Friends of Color to correct me if I am wrong…this invitation is genuine and perpetually open. I realize my deference annoys many white people, but that’s the natural and fair consequence of centuries of colonization and oppression.)
2. The movie completely glosses over what happens to Denise in jail. In the scene where Mildred storms into the station demanding to know where she is, all the cops just reassure her Denise is fine. Mildred looks skeptical, but just storms out again and that’s the end of it. That’s the end of it?!? I was sick with worry about Denise that whole time in the basement cell of that jail. I imagined the worst. All those racist-ass cops? They did nothing when Dixon threw a white guy out a window for protecting Mildred. Does anyone think they were going to restrain Dixon if he wanted to mess up Denise? The movie completely glosses over and ignores that aspect of it. Lazy.
When, at the end, Denise is released? She drives up and gets out and bounces and skips over to Mildred to hug her like it’s a best friends’ reunion, saying, “They let me out!” The whole interaction had the feel of a teenager telling her best friend her dad lifted her punishment, and now she really CAN go to the prom! It was so minimizing of the experience I imagine Black people would have actually experienced under those same circumstances.Why tackle the subject if you’re going to do it so poorly? Is it just so you can check it off on the list of things a good movie needs to have? Bare minimum lip service paid to the fact that #NotAllWhites? Because as a movie-goer. That really is how it felt to me. In there because it had to be, but don’t dig too deep into the Black people’s pain, and definitely make the white heroine look good for standing against it.
If you’re going to make racism and torture of Black people the core attribute and behavior of a central character of your movie, you do not get to gloss over the effect those things have on the Black people in said movie. You don’t get to show only the fact that the white heroine is pissed Denise was arrested, is happy she was released (in a lame attempt to showcase the white heroine caring about Black people) but then do nothing else with that for the rest of the movie. LAZY.
3. Of course, the two Black people in Ebbing (who make it into the movie, anyhow) end up together on a date. Because when Denise gets out to announce happily that she actually CAN go to the prom, it’s at the billboards where Jerome is helping Mildred hang the new signs, so they do the Joey from Friends “How YOU doin?” thing and the next thing we know they’re in a bar together getting a drink while racist cop Dixon is now reformed and trying to make up for his racist ways.
Now, please understand. I support Black love ten thousand percent. I support racist cops seeing the errors of their ways one hundred thousand percent. What I am against and annoyed by is what I saw in “Three Billboards:” cursory, shallow, lazy treatment of Black people and their experience in a storyline in which one of the main characters tortures Black people for fun.
“Three Billboards” is an astonishingly good movie in many ways. The acting is incredible, the plots of some characters go in very interesting directions, and like I said in the beginning – the treatment of some complex issues are very tender and nuanced. At the same time, it failed for me by giving the Black characters and experience such short shrift. If see it, and if you notice these things about it, consider having your own conversations with your white friends and family about the things you feel are lacking.*
Or, you can go see it, love it, and continue to ignore the fact that Black people suffer at our hands. We can just be cool with glossing over it in the movies as long as we make the white heroines look strong and ally-ish. Yay, White Feminism. We can check that box off our ally-list for the day and enjoy our holiday shopping. Either way.
*If you’re interested in learning about how to improve your allyship, helping to undo the financial and emotional harms of white supremacy, I highly recommend a subscription to Safety Pin Box. I have no professional affiliation with them and they don’t even know I’m doing this plug. They just rock. So there.