Movies maintain an important place in society. They are a reflection of a time, of a culture and of a discourse.

Are we on the cusp, however, of preventing movies from just being movies? Yes, they are culturally relevant, but does looking too far into them destroy the magic of Hollywood?

 In their own creative ways, movies reflect a period of time.

For some reason, I think of Back to the Future. A 1985 blockbuster that scored over 20 times its budget at the box office, as Robert Zemeckis explored all things technological.

Okay, I admit I have never actually seen the movie, but I understand its cultural role. At the height of the Cold War, the movie reflects the space age and the competition between Reagan’s America and the USSR to ‘out-do’ each other in the tech world.

On more trivial notes, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless and Tina Fey’s Mean Girls highlight American adolescence in the turn of the millennium. They offer some sort of window into how teenage life was explored at that time.

But have we started to take that concept of honest self-reflection a little too far?

Do we now expect movies to be 100 per cent truthful and provide us with answers that we ourselves do not have?

Let us take Martin McDonagh’s most recent offering as an example. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri sees protagonist Mildred Hayes seek revenge on the town police service seven months after her daughter is raped and murdered. Frances McDormand has been almost unanimously praised for her portrayal of Hayes, scooping Best Actress at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, Oscars and BAFTAs to name a few.

The story tells the tragic tale of a woman desperately seeking help from men who turn a blind eye, and who is forced to expose them when no one is listening. Told through an addictive concoction of dark humour, violence and emotion, I do not think anybody could deny the movie’s cultural relevance.

So what exactly are people taking issue with?

Few are pointing aim at McDormand, but instead at the narrative of the story itself. Specifically, they are taking aim at the movie’s portrayal of race.

Sam Rockwell’s character, Officer Jason Dixon, is a lamentable bigot: homophobic, racist and small-minded. Throughout the movie however he becomes increasingly humanised.

Some viewers highlight that Dixon’s treatment of black people and the terminology the character uses is problematic, and that McDonagh makes us feel empathy for a character that does not deserve it.

In one analysis, Hanif Abdurraqib argues that race did not really have a place in the movie. After such weak handling of the subject, he says he ‘would have gladly bowed to a landscape bereft of black’. But surely, this too would be problematic? You would be almost certain to find critics asking why race was not included in a movie about policing in small-town America.

If this was the case, the entire premise of the movie would change. The whole reason Hayes is forced to erect her three billboards is because, ‘the police department is too busy torturing black folks’ to concentrate on her daughter’s murder. I would also argue that while opinions on Dixon may change throughout the movie, viewers still observe him with contempt.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie’s portrayal of race is not stellar. It is gimmicky in parts, particularly when Woody Harrelson’s replacement at the police department is a black man.

Nevertheless, the movie explores so many culturally relevant themes: women longing for justice after years of being ignored, homophobia, and the sexual exploitation of the Catholic Church.

A movie is a movie. Three Billboards runs for 155 minutes and simply cannot answer or satisfy everyone’s issues in such a short period of time. No movie can, and no movie really should have to.

If we were to analyse the role of Rockwell’s character however, perhaps McDonagh’s real intention was to show how normalised racial prejudice is in small-town policing. Dixon gets away with it because that is exactly what happens in the real world.

If this were McDonagh’s ambition, the movie’s portrayal of race is sadder and more unfortunate than many may have noticed.


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