Unearned redemption outside Ebbing, Missouri
There are few films I have watched recently that left me as conflicted as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
If you can look past its inherent treatment of racial violence as an insignificant plot point, or look past the fact that a white police officer not only gets away with violence against minorities, but is allowed to have a short, unearned redemption story, the film is beautifully shot, and McDormand and Harrelson’s performances are almost flawless. It was a more-than-competent, good movie.
The question that I’m left with is: can I look past its inherent flaws? More importantly, should any of us be willing to look past the way it treats people of color?
After thinking about this for a few weeks, the answer is a resounding no. It does not matter how entertaining a film may be when at the end, it reduces people of color to props upon which white characters “find themselves.” There is no redemption in stepping on Black characters so that racist white characters can be shown sympathetically, even when they have done nothing to atone for, redeem, or even face their racism.
In Who Gets to Change?, Christian Douglass questions this idea of redemption, and how the redemption story at the core of Three Billboards is inherently put on the backs of Black characters:
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.
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.
Amrou Al-Kadhi sums up my thoughts—and my rage at the film, some weeks out—absolutely perfectly:
This vitriolic racism is not condemned or tackled in the film, which, rather than pursuing Mildred’s female-driven storyline, becomes a story about the racist policeman’s white redemption. He is not redeemed for denouncing his racism, no — but for pausing his prejudices to help a white woman find and murder her dead daughter’s killer.
What a brave white man he is to momentarily stop being a bigot to help a woman. Now that’s the saviour we’ve all been waiting for.
Redemption is a valid storyline to pursue in any film, but in Three Billboards, this redemption is unearned, and rather built upon the backs of Black characters who are even further marginalized as the white character is redeemed—adding insult to an already injurious premise.