'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' Is Hopelessly Bad on Race

Many critics have praised Martin McDonagh's nuanced portrayal of bigotry. But his black characters are mere devices—and the bigot's redemption never really feels earned.
By Hanif Abdurraqib ,

Frances McDormand in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

(Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Before mentioning Frances McDormand's truly mesmerizing performance, and before mentioning the way Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri imagines the joys and grievances of small-town America, and before mentioning the film's meditation on the rage and grief that are often siblings to loss, I would first like to mention the joke.

About halfway through Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, there is a joke, really just a gag in the model of Abbot and Costello's "Who's on first?" McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who looks to town authorities for answers about her daughter's unsolved rape and murder. Sam Rockwell plays police officer Jason Dixon, a character presented as somewhat oafish at first. The first thing we learn about Dixon is that he was responsible for the torture of one (or more) of the town's black residents while questioning them. There are no details given, and the viewing audience doesn't actually see the torture, but the understanding is that Dixon has tortured black people and kept his job as a police officer.

The gag goes like this: In the midst of being questioned by Dixon, Hayes shoots out "How's the nigger torturing business, Dixon?" Dixon, flustered, offers a response along the lines of "You can't say nigger torturing no more, you gotta say peoples of color torturing." The gag goes back and forth like this, Dixon becoming more and more flustered as Hayes eggs him on, before Woody Harrelson's Sheriff Bill Willoughby enters the room. When Willoughby asks what's going on, an exasperated Dixon exclaims: "Sheriff, she asked me how the nigger torturing business was going, and I said you can't say nigger torturing business anymore, you gotta say peoples of color torturing."

Willoughby excuses Dixon, only slightly annoyed. When Dixon leaves, Willoughby explains to Hayes that Dixon has a "good heart" and if all police officers with "slightly racist leanings" were removed, there wouldn't be any police officers left.

During the "nigger torturing" exchange between Dixon and Hayes, everyone in the theater around me laughed. It was, of course, supposed to be comic relief. I was the only black person in the theater, lured to the film by its glowing reviews—at the time of this writing, it holds a rating of 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, boosted by several notices that gush about how the film is a dark but honest look at humanity and grief. I haven't seen many reviews mention the nigger-torturing gag. I haven't seen any review that asks about the joke's purpose, or who the punchline might be serving. The joke is that the white cop who tortures black people is trying to stop calling them niggers. Or maybe the joke is that McDormand, the righteously angry white protagonist, has a black friend (one of two black people we see in the town) but still thinks provoking a joke about niggers is funny. Or maybe the joke is that if we got rid of every racist police officer, we'd have no police at all—according to the white police chief.

In the conversation about being The Only One in the Room, we mainly talk about black people in professional settings. I think about it in those moments, of course, but I also think about it in movie theaters, particularly when I'm at a movie that uses race as a narrative vehicle—a movie that uses black people as part of a storytelling device, but doesn't cater to black people or show the faces of (m)any black people onscreen.

I imagine, then, that perhaps the problem of Three Billboards is one of who it is being made for: the type of people who might laugh at an extended gag about nigger torturing in the first act while looking forward to the redemption of a racist and abusive police officer in the third.

I would like to say here that I believe redemption is something earned—in real life, yes, but I'd also like to see that played out in the characters I'm expected to find a connection with. I will not spoil Three Billboards for anyone who hasn't seen it by revealing too much about the nuances of the plot. The film does center on a stunning performance by McDormand, presenting a portrait of grief that we don't often see: the kind that can lead to a disconnected anger, leading the griever to focus on a mission in hopes that it might bring them healing. For anyone who has spiraled through every stage of grief and found themselves still in it, the film might offer a bit of comfort. The failures of the film are not in the performances of the actors, but rather in the script, which presents a conclusion that left me frustrated, given the way it turns a portion of its focus from a grieving and determined mother to the redemption of a racist and abusive police officer.

Again, without spoiling the film: In the third act of Three Billboards, Officer Dixon beats an innocent, unarmed man. Before this, he targeted and detained a black woman on a bogus charge, but here, he is beating an innocent, unarmed man. He then throws the man out of a third-story window before knocking out a woman with the handle of his pistol. Dixon, in full police uniform at the time, calmly and casually steps over the writhing body of the man he's just assaulted and walks back into the police station. I found the scene difficult to watch, and likely would have been jarred by it longer if not for what happens next: Dixon is fired, by the town's new chief of police, who—of course—is black. It was almost comical, as though the writers had thought the casting decision constituted some small justice.

Dixon serves no jail time for assault. We are to believe he feels bad, but no change of heart actually plays out on screen. Shortly after his assault, a tragedy befalls him (still, no spoilers), and this is how the fourth act of the film begins: building a redemption narrative for the disgraced cop. By the fourth act of the film, some viewers might even have forgotten about Mildred Hayes altogether. Dixon's redemption becomes the center of the movie, as he takes on a renewed interest in cracking the case of Mildred's daughter. In this way, we are to see him as tortured and complex—he goes from racist buffoon to concerned detective on The Right Side of Things over the course of what appears to be weeks.

A word thrown around a lot by fans of Three Billboards is "nuance." But nuance is a single plank in the bridge to redemption, not the entire bridge. It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist and abusive police officer in the name of his own redemption, but it is asking even more of the audience if Dixon himself does no actual work in the name of earning that redemption. In the fourth act, Dixon is sad and newly determined, but he's still the police officer who used his power to torture black people and terrorize innocent men and women in his town. The narrative, then, becomes "even bad cops can be good if you dig deep enough," and the movie bends toward this narrative from the moment when Willoughby— perhaps the movie's only truly sympathetic character—enters the room and forgives Dixon's racism after the "nigger torturing" gag.

I'm interested in how much people are asked to invest in the interior of racists. It doesn't take much work to see how—in our actual lives, not just in movies—Americans are not asked to invest in the same way in the interior of the marginalized, particularly after the marginalized have died. I didn't know why I should care about the interior complexities of Dixon. After what I watched of him and after what I knew of him, I was so uninvested in the character that I had zero interest in complicating him. I was more interested, for example, in the interior of the woman he busted on a bogus drug charge—a woman presented as one of just two black people in town, who seems loyal to McDormand's character and interested in protecting her at all costs. There are Jason Dixons everywhere.

It is also worth mentioning that race didn't really need to be a topic in Three Billboards at all, especially given that writer-director Martin McDonagh handles the topic so clumsily, and never really sees it through. Black people in this movie largely exist as victims, seen and unseen, of the town's violence, and as I watched I found myself wondering why they existed there at all. As a final point of hilarity, the only two black people we see in the town end up on a date together after laying eyes on each other for a few seconds. The movie didn't need racial provocation to get its point across, and McDonagh clearly wasn't the writer to handle it anyway. In this instance, I would have gladly bowed to a landscape bereft of black.

It is awards season, and Three Billboards will certainly be nominated for several. It is the kind of story that critics love, focusing on the human condition above all, ending without hard answers and asking viewers to find where they land on their own. I think there's merit to all of those elements in art. It's just that, in my case, that search led me to a place of deep distaste for what the film was asking out of me. When the movie ended, the small group in my theater applauded. That's when the laughter arrived for me, several scenes too late.

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