Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
“In Three Billboards, black and Hispanic characters come to the rescue of white protagonists yet enjoy no character development of their own.”
Title: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Director: Martin McDonagh 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writer: Martin McDonagh 👨🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Film has always been perfect for coping with the harsh realities of life. In shared times of turmoil, filmmakers have turned escapist, providing refuge in starry-eyed idealism as in Pixar’s Coco or the recent feel-good movie Wonder. McDonagh, however, offers a different antidote. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri validates our collective grief and comforts us with the knowledge that no matter how twisted we become by the cruelties of the world, we are—at the core—redeemable.
Performances by Frances McDormand as the stoic Mildred Hayes, and Sam Rockwell as the anti-hero Officer Dixon, paint a moving picture. I was genuinely affected by this film; however, Three Billboards does manage to trip itself up through awkward dialogue. Josh Bell puts it well for Las Vegas Weekly:
“Three Billboards is quite taken with its own cleverness, often to the detriment of storytelling and characterization…[McDonagh] overwrites nearly every line of dialogue, creating characters who are mouthpieces for their creator’s wit rather than recognizable human beings.”
Gleeful slurs like “cunt” or “midget” are thrown around with about as much subtlety—and maturity—as a Good Fucking Design Advice poster. The script would have benefited from a little restraint, allowing us to focus on its message. Luckily, there’s enough heart beneath its try-hard exterior to keep this a highly enjoyable film.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 22% of creative decision-makers were female
Mildred substantiates this film almost single-handedly, making up the majority of screen time and dialogue. She splits the emotional labor with Officer Dixon, a low-level grunt who mirrors Mildred in his blinding anger at the world, and to a lesser extent, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) who deals with pancreatic cancer on top of his search for the killer and rapist of Mildred’s daughter.
I would love to give full accolades in this category; however, while Mildred is a fantastic lead, she is pretty much the only complex female in a testosterone-driven ensemble. In fact, even her positive attributes could be deemed traditionally “masculine.”
We are meant to adore Mildred for being a tough cookie who lights things on fire, swears like a sailor, and calls men “girls” to taunt them. Meanwhile, actual girls like the young girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband, or the admin assistant at the billboard company, are depicted as pretty, bubble-headed morons. Women like Mildred’s coworker, or Chief Willoughby’s wife and two daughters, are simply too flat to be anything more than window dressings in the world largely occupied by Mildred, her son, her ex-husband, Officer Dixon, Chief Willoughby, and the billboard salesman Red (Caleb Landry Jones).
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 0% of creative decision-makers were POC
Although people of color are restricted to support roles, a look at the demographic data for where Three Billboards was filmed—the rural town of Sylva, Missouri—shows that they actually overrepresented onscreen compared to their real-world shares for a county that was 97.1% white in 2015.
Specifically, we see three roles garner multiple scenes, all played by black actors:
- Denise, played by Amanda Warren, is the amiable friend and coworker of Mildred who spends some time unfairly locked up for possession of marijuana.
- An unnamed man puts up billboards and later on surprises Mildred with a gift. He is also seen on a date with Denise at the local bar.
- Abercrombie, played by Clarke Peters, is the new police chief who takes over the station upon [SPOILER] Chief Willoughby’s passing.
I give kudos to Three Billboards for its visible efforts, but it’s clear that a deeper understanding of inclusion is missing. All non-white characters come awkwardly close to falling into the Magical Negro trope—a saintly black character who comes to the aid of white protagonists. (Think Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) or The Green Mile (1999).)
After all, Denise gets thrown in jail for multiple days when the police are after Mildred, seeking to hurt her through her friends. When Denise returns, she harbors no resentment—merely hugs Mildred fiercely and asks after her well-being. The billboard worker swoops in when Mildred is in a pit of despair and graces her with free signage as they all repair the damaged billboards together. Abercrombie saves the station from its racist leanings, as he comes in and whips the rural, podunk officers into some semblance of professionalism. And in perhaps its worst transgression, police-hating Latinos represented solely by “a little brown Mexican boy”—as described by the ditzy admin assistant—literally donate $5000 in cash out of the blue to support Mildred’s billboards.
It’s clear the filmmakers had good intentions when writing these characters. However, stereotypes run rife: Denise is a black girl who smoke marijuana. The immigrant Hispanic worker can’t speak English and is alluded to running with a gang that hates the police. And the two black characters, Denise and the billboard worker, are instantly attracted to each other and go a date midway through the film. We can do better than this, guys.
Speaking of flat characters who exist to further Mildred’s narrative, Peter Dinklage, in the role of wishful paramour James, is utterly wasted. James is almost entirely defined by his dwarfism. I lost count at how many times the word “midget” was used to deride him, but it was gratuitous and didn’t contribute in any way. He’s a sympathetic enough character without the slurs.
I do appreciate his inclusion as a potential love interest, even if Mildred never sees him in that light. Similar to Denise, or to Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), James is just another innocent bystander swept up in the tornado of grief that chases Mildred throughout this film.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.08/5
I will say one thing about the gleeful language in Three Billboards—I fully support the sentiment that you don’t have to be politically correct to be a good person. I would care a whole lot less about James being called “midget” if his character was complex. I would care less about an admin assistant recalling “a little brown Mexican boy” if that kid was around to roll his eyes. And I laughed at the obvious absurdity of Officer Dixon, a racist cop, balking at Mildred using the n-word.
Three Billboards has its heart in the right place—telling human stories with an eye on younger, more diverse audiences. They succeed on the former, but when it comes to truly modernizing for today’s moviegoers, it needs to dig deeper than just the surface.