Skip to main content

film Tone-Deaf ‘Three Billboards’ Tries Absolving White People of Racism. And Oscars Season Loves It.

The redemption of a racist cop in the awards season favorite will surely tug at the heartstrings of industry voters. But it’s unearned, manipulative and altogether offensive.


In 2006, Paul Haggis' awful movie about racism that nevertheless made white people feel good about racism won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. You might recall this film. It was Crash. As this year's awards season hurdles forward, it's become clear that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might just end up the next Crash. The film stars Sam Rockwell as a violent and racist cop who finds redemption not through owning up to his racism or doing jail time for his crimes, but because he's determined to solve the mystery of who raped and murdered Frances McDormand's daughter. It's not only an attempt at emotional manipulation that runs cold, but it's also a journey that's played for comedy throughout Three Billboards. Altogether, it's wholly offensive — so is it any wonder that it's a frontrunner at the Golden Globes and most likely the Oscars?

The subject matter of Three Billboards wasn't surprising to me. I've been involved in theater for years, so I'm more than familiar with writer and director Martin McDonagh's previous work as a playwright. I'm actually a fan of his work and often adore his blends of soap opera twists (he watched soaps while growing up), violence, and vulgarity. 

Born in London to Irish parents, McDonagh spent many of his holidays in County Galway. His first six plays were all set in that area and mix his offbeat sense of humor and penchant for melodrama with commentary on the Irish working class. The Beauty Queen of Leenane depicts an emotionally broken working-class woman who becomes dependent on her daughter and in turn, becomes monstrous toward her daughter's burgeoning relationship with a young suitor. The Lonesome West has two brothers at one another's throats and warring internally with Catholicism. The Cripple of Inishmaan depicts a town cripple attempting to get a part in a Hollywood movie so he can escape his impoverished hometown. 

McDonagh's first foray into writing not beholden to his Irish roots was The Pillowman, a dark and searingly funny play about a writer in a police state who is believed to be a murderer because of the content of his books. A landmark success, it won the Olivier Award for Best New Play and received a Tony nomination. Around that time, McDonagh began to make films as well and did it quite well in films like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. I couldn't have been more ecstatic to see Three Billboards, because McDonagh writing about the violence that bubbles within our working-class communities makes for beautiful drama. 

I had no idea that the film would have a lot more in common with the one play of his I distaste… his first American production, A Behanding in Spokane. It first premiered on Broadway in 2010 and starred Christopher Walken as a man who'd been searching for his missing left hand for 27 years. I expected nothing but joy after seeing one of my favorite playwright's Broadway debuts, but what I watched during a Sunday matinee absolutely nauseated me. 

Anthony Mackie also stars in the play as Toby, McDonagh's first black character. Zoe Kazan's Marilyn attempts to give Walken his missing hand, but it's that of a black man's. You can guess what happens next — the word "nigger" flies out of Walken's mouth freely in the scene and throughout the rest of the play. Mackie's Toby is played like a character that would be ripped to shreds on social media if he graced a film or television screen in this day and age. McDonagh's attempts to translate the working-class Irish clichés of his previous writing into America's history of tension between white and black men is more than horribly misguided, it's distasteful. McDonagh, with no clear understanding that to be black in America is more loaded than to merely be poor or working class, loads Toby with offensive and racially horrifying clichés. He might as well Br’er Rabbit in an Uncle Remus story. 

Enough time passed that I’d forgotten about McDonagh’s play. Until I saw Three Billboards. Rockwell’s cop has a history of torturing black prisoners and the callousness with which other characters use the word “nigger” and cackle about his tactics is unamusing. It brought back every uncomfortable glance I felt on my black body, sitting in a Broadway matinee surrounded by an all-white audience in 2010. I laughed so as not to feel excluded and I’m ashamed that I also laughed during Three Billboards. Whether it be through malice or ignorance, McDonagh’s attempts to script the black experience in America are often fumbling and backward and full of outdated tropes. 

While for him, to laugh at the pain of the working class may give him solace from his own upbringing, to laugh at the misery of black bodies in America makes him look like an outsider who wants to fit in with the type of crowd that would laugh along with Chris Rock as he cruelly taunts a fellow black actress like Jada Pinkett Smith for her #OscarsSoWhite boycott. It attracts the type of crowd that likes to reward simplistic tales of racism like Crash, where white people learn how to be good to one another at the expense of black people. 

Rockwell’s violent character nearly dies in Three Billboards and he loses his job, so his only course of redemption is helping McDormand hunt for her daughter’s rapist. He discovers potential information by happenstance, but we’re supposed to believe he has such a moral compass that he springs into action. It’s the type of journey that will surely tug at the heartstrings of industry voters and might just lead to awards success. But more than likely, that “moral compass” was only brought about by the visceral image of a young white woman being violated that sprung him into action. The memories of those black bodies he apparently tortured in custody don’t keep him up at night. And the black Americans who have to watch films like this, or plays laced with the word “nigger,” don’t seem to keep McDonagh up at night either.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

[Ira Madison III is an entertainment writer at The Daily Beast. He has written for MTV News, Vulture, BuzzFeed, Noisey, and can also be seen in GQ. He's well versed in every soap opera your mother has ever watched and has a Hall & Oates tattoo.]