Why the “Three Billboards” Backlash is Getting it Wrong

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh (2017)

(Minor spoilers regarding the film’s themes)

It’s interesting and usually nothing more than annoying when “Oscar Backlash” strikes a film. And the controversy usually comes from out of context, has very little to do with the film(s) it surrounds. In the case of Three Billboards, there’s some small, passing, and certainly annoying (in a “mosquito buzzing near your ear” kind of way) backlash claiming that the film glorifies racism. This has to do with Sam Rockwell’s character, who is a racist cop. I will avoid plot details and instead focus on the themes explored through his character.
After seeing the film, it was difficult for me to even understand the source of the backlash other than maybe it was due to McDonagh’s dark sense of humor, but then I realized—and later read—that the controversy surrounds how the story treats Rockwell’s cop, the arc he follows. And I’m disappointed that there is backlash at all.
Here’s where the spoiler comes in. Three Billboards is about a lot of things, not the least of which is redemption and forgiveness. It has a lot of bite in its humor, its philosophies, its themes, but it is also disarmingly beautiful. It suggests, through Rockwell’s cop, that the answer to this country’s problems with hate and racism is not to meet it with more hate. You can’t match hate with more hate and expect to win. Most progressive movements seem to forget this in the mainstream and become just as bad as the things they’re fighting against; they swing too far the other way on the pendulum and their supposed empathy becomes apathy toward the other side.
That’s where the backlash is getting it wrong. It misunderstands the film’s message, or maybe doesn’t understand it at all. The answer to racism isn’t more hate, it isn’t to embrace the increasingly toxic “call out” culture which is to call out for the sake of doing so, but not to educate, not to have compassion enough to make progress. If Rockwell’s character arc can be seen as symbolic, then this film says the answer is compassion, common ground, even forgiveness.
Love, really. You see? 🙂

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Cody Lakin Written by: