Why ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ deserved to be snubbed at the Oscars

Published: March 7, 2018

The clean-sweep streak of the godforsaken Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was finally broken at the 2018 Oscars.

After a meandering and predictable awards season, The Shape of Water’s victory at the 2018 Academy Awards comes as both, a pleasant surprise and a relief. The former is because it is not often that genre-bending fantasy films are garlanded by the Academy, and the latter is because it breaks the clean-sweep streak of the godforsaken Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; a film that is hopelessly bad when it comes to portraying race in America.

Starting with the Golden Globes in January, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri embarked on a laurel grabbing frenzy, picking up the top honours at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards. The film centres on Frances McDormand, who plays Mildred Hayes, a bereaved mother whose daughter is raped and murdered while the culprit roams free. For seven long months, Mildred stays silent despite the sheer inactivity of the police department. However, she is determined to lull the police into efficacy, which is why she pays for three billboards to be put up, calling out the local police chief for his lack of progress in her daughter’s case.

McDormand is visceral and laceratingly raw in her portrayal of Mildred. Whatever heartfelt and affecting moments there are in the film (though very rare), are because of her achingly humane portrayal of loss and grief. She has rightly received universal praise, solidified by her win for Best Actress at the Oscars. However, it is the character of Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an overtly racist white cop, and the nonchalance with which his bigotry and history of racial violence is portrayed, that is a source of genuine consternation and chagrin. At one point in the film, Dixon’s boss and the local police chief, played by Woody Harrelson, tells Mildred that Dixon is kind at heart, and suggests,

“[If] you got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the fags.”

Many tragic, dramatic and violent episodes later, as the film nears its end, Officer Dixon is a changed man. His racist stunts are now a thing of the past, and his mistakes, now veneered beneath his personal tragedies, have offered him a chance at moral redemption. When Dixon helps Mildred in her daughter’s case, we are expected to forget that earlier in the film he concocted a fake warrant against Mildred’s workmate, Denise, who is one of the very few black characters we see in the film; all of whom are callously portrayed without much depth or substance.

We are also expected to forget that what Dixon is most associated with is his history of torturing African-Americans; but for the sake of his moral redemption, we must now forget about all the black people who suffered at his hands, none of whom are shown to us through their perspective. Here, the torture of African-Americans is not so much a social, moral or political dilemma as it should be, but rather, it is simply an offhand detail to add layers to Dixon’s character, with whom the filmmaker forces us to sympathise. The damage that his unaccounted crimes have done is relegated to the background, while his feelings and attempt at redemption takes centre stage. The black people in the film – both on and off-screen – are merely victimised. They do not exist outside of their suffering, and their suffering is used as a device around which the redemption narratives of the white characters circumlocute.

Hollywood’s failure to see through such a gimmick, and to witness Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri being hailed as one of the best pictures of the year at various award ceremonies, as well as awarding Rockwell the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Dixon, is proof of the industry’s own internalised and institutionalised racist tendencies. This makes one recall the 2006 Oscar debacle, when Crash, an equally racist film, which Ta-Nehesi Coates called the worst movie of the decade, went on to win Best Picture. For this honour, Crash defeated a queer romance beloved by audience and critics alike – Brokeback Mountain.

Sam Rockwell wins the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role

This brings us to another film, which in my opinion is the best film of the past year – Call Me By Your Name. Not only did this film deserve to win the Oscar for Best Picture, but at the very least it should have earned its director, Luca Guadignino, a nomination for Best Director. Although it seemed unlikely from the start, Timothèe Chalamet also deserved the Best Actor Award for his breakthrough performance; however, on the promise of this film alone it is clear that Chalamet has a stupendous career ahead of him.

Timothée Chalamet as Elio in Call Me by Your Name

Nevertheless, the Academy works in mysterious ways, and midway between the best movie of the year and the worst, it found a compromise in The Shape of Water. Director Guillermo del Toro’s film was a daring venture; one the Academy was not expected to recognise. In its own quirky way, The Shape of Water is a queer romance as well, and to see films that break the mould and repeatedly cross the line between fantasy and reality is perhaps a good sign for the future of the Academy Awards, where films will hopefully be honoured on the basis of merit, and not only if they are stories made by white people about white people.

All photos: IMDb

Hurmat Kazmi

Hurmat Kazmi

The author is a Karachi-based freelance writer.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Nihal

    in the film you named there is a black police officer who rusticates Sam. Sam gets injured in the fire when protagonist burns the police station.He gets beaten in his pursuit of getting evidence. And in the end both protagonist and he set up on a journey. the journey which is never going to end. The film itself tells the tale of complexities around us. there is no formula of good and bad in art. Sometimes a big mustache and skin colour is enough to portray villain but that is very simplistic.On the other hand showing someone fair in every way is also very simplistic and not a realistic portrayal of any character. The point is art is not a ground for political correctness. it is the place where we see ourselves. sometimes get different perspective of world around us. This is the motive of art. Going by your definition crime and punishment should not be considered one of the best novel. after all main character in it murdered two elderly women and throughout the novel we see things through his perspective. Anna Karenina leaves her husband and son why should we read about her. When we are talking about race you missed one important film ‘Get Out’ which won the best original screenplay award this year. In this film a black man is honey trapped by a white woman who take him and others like him to her home city where they are hypnotized by white people to become their slaves. Even police don’t help the poor guy because they find his story very bizarre. In the end his friend comes to his rescue. Very intelligent film everyone should see.Recommend

  • jiyala

    It was a good film. Recommend

  • wb

    Do you even know the meaning of the word snub? The film won two Oscars! So, how was it snubbed? Recommend

  • Parvez

    You missed seeing what the producer / director / writer of Three Billboards ….. wanted you to see and have written about what you thought you should have seen.
    I liked Three Billboards…..and thought Shape of Water was worth at best two stars out of five.Recommend

  • gp65

    Tend to agree with you. Movies are supposed to tell a story that is touching and thought provoking, characters that have depth and nuance. It is not supposed to be about making politically correct statements. I liked Three Billboards too though obviously I do not support or endorse racism in any shape way or form.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Just got through watching Toilet ….. you were right it had a necessary message or rather messages plus the human interest story …. but felt it could easily have been cut down from 2.5 hrs to about 1hr 40 minutes.Recommend

  • Khalid

    I think you completely missed the point of the film if you thought Sam Rockwell’s character was a changed man by the end and I don’t think the film did anything to absolve him. I think the ending demonstrated that he had to a degree, seen the error of his ways and he wanted to make some amends but he never came off as a redeemed hero or anything like that. If anything the ending gave his character more depth and made him more human.

    I also think it’s wrong to label the film as a gimmick because it wasn’t even the slightest bit about race relations. Racism is just there. And yeah, it’s uncomfortable. But the thing is that I don’t the film to tell me racism is bad. I know it is. And I think director Martin McDonagh also knows that *most* of his audience is smart enough to know that too. This film confronts difficult subjects like racism among others with truthfulness but they are never the central focus of the film. The central theme of this film almost throughout is anger, rage and how it often manifests itself as a source of pain.

    The reason I love this film and other films by Martin McDonagh is because he loves dealing with moral complexity and tackling moral issues, but avoids preaching. He’s the sort of storyteller who is more interested in asking challenging moral questions rather than being judgmental of his characters or making big, broad political statements and anyone who fails to see that has simply missed the point of this film.Recommend

  • Gp65

    “but felt it could easily have been cut down from 2.5 hrs to about 1hr 40 minutes.”
    I think that comment probably is true about 90% of Bollywood movies.Recommend