“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Is Great On Frances McDormand, Bad On Race

by Erika W. Smith

Frances McDormand is won a well-deserved Oscar for Fargo in 1996, but though she’s worked regularly, it’s been a long time since she’s starred in a movie that wasn’t directed by the Coen Brothers (one of whom, Joel, she’s married to). In 2017, McDormand—now 60—is finally top-billed in a movie that lets her prove, once again, why she’s one of the best actors out there. If only the movie had deserved herperformance.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is billed as a “black comedy-drama,” but though there are some funny moments, it’s more of a drama than anything else. Written, produced, and directed Irish playwright and director Martin McDonagh (who has previously directed two films—In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths), the film has a small core cast of characters and a literary sensibility—it’s easy to imagine it as a play. McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered seven months before the film begins. While Mildred’s teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) reacts to his sister’s death with depression, Mildred’s predominant emotion is rage. Fed up with her local law enforcement’s failure to find her daughter’s killer, Mildred decides to rent three billboards and emblazon them with a message to the police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson): “Raped while dying,” “and still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

The billboards are the catalyst that brings the town’s underlying tensions to light. It’s an open secret that Chief Willoughby, who has a young wife (Abbie Cornish) and two young daughters, has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer—which means that few in the town are happy with Mildred’s billboards. Then, in an on-air interview, Mildred speaks out against the police’s reputation for using police brutality against the town’s black population, sparking resentment and hostility from the police. The film’s major failing is that despite this plot point, the three black characters in the film only get a handful of lines each—we spend far more time on a redemption arc for the most racist cop in the police department (Sam Rockwell) than on any character development for them. Additionally, Chief Willoughby is portrayed as a warmhearted good guy, even though, as the police chief, he’s enabled his police force’s brutality against the black population.

The billboards also cause turmoil in Mildred’s personal life. Her son resents the billboards, and her abusive ex-husband—now dating a ditzy 19-year-old—isn’t too happy with them, either. Mildred finds a supporter in a fellow bar regular, James (Peter Dinklage), but it’s Chief Willoughby himself who turns out to be her most surprising ally.

McDormand’s performance stands out as one of her best—more than anything else, Three Billboards is a reminder that she should be starring in movies at least as regularly as Meryl Streep. But Three Billboards also shows just how badly things can go when white directors take on stories about racism without involving people of color. Let’s hope directors learn from both — cast McDormand in more, cast women over 60 in more, and commit to doing better when it comes to telling stories about race and racism.

Top image: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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