Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Race and Redemption in ‘Three Billboards’

[This story contains spoilers for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.]

Despite four Golden Globe wins and seven Oscar nominations, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri asks a lot of its audience. It wants us to forgive the unforgivable. To feel compassion for the undeserving. To root for the unworthy. It challenges us to be our best selves in a world more comfortable with punishment than betterment. For the audience to accept that challenge, we have to sympathize with the spiritually damaged characters’ struggles with crippling guilt and self-loathing and invest in their stumbling journey toward redemption.

Part of that challenge for some is the film’s seemingly glib treatment of today’s profound racial issues, particularly police brutality. For them, the portrayal of violent racist Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is too sympathetic. Keeping his rumored violence against blacks offscreen makes it easier for the audience to forgive his trespasses. Giving him an overbearing, racist mother provides motivation for us to nod in compassionate understanding. To watch his kind and benevolent mentor, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), see a lurking goodness within this dumb-as-a-stump racist cop permits us to accept his abrupt rehabilitation. To these critics, the film seems like a guilty-with-an-explanation plea for support for racism apologists who agreed with Trump when he said of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, “You had some very fine people on both sides.” I get why those criticisms have occurred. But I don’t see it that way.

For me, the core of this film is about how we are imprisoned by our own malignant guilt. Like a child’s finger trap, the more we try to pull away, the tighter it grips us. Mildred (Frances McDormand) struggles with the knowledge that her arguments with her daughter inadvertently contributed to her rape and murder. Willoughby must confront both his inability to solve the case and how his impending death will leave his wife and daughters abandoned. Dixon’s guilt builds more slowly, as befits his less-than-sharp mind. He is inspired by a letter left behind by his father-figure Willoughby that contrasts the faith and hope the chief had in him with the wretched person he has become.

Complete article at HollywoodReporter.com

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