Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Race and Redemption in 'Three Billboards'

Three Billboards Race and Redemption - Illustration - H 2018
Illustration by Michael Marsicano

Focusing on how the Oscar-nominated movie trivializes racist police brutality misses its bigger message, writes the NBA legend and THR cultural critic.

[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.

What understandably rankles people is that the film uses Dixon’s racist brutality as a literary device — a baseline for his entitled cruelty — and therefore trivializes it. Add to that Chief Willoughby’s implicitly condoning such behavior by not firing Dixon or charging him with a crime. That seriously undercuts our sympathy toward Willoughby even more than it does with Dixon because Willoughby clearly knows better. Having these levels of racism introduced but never directly addressed is definitely frustrating, but not enough to take away from the film’s rich rewards.

The film makes it very clear that these are deeply flawed people, the twisted wreckage of living the unexamined life. Their lauded heartland stoicism doesn’t give them solace or feed the soul, instead it results in the inability to articulate internal pain except through violence against others. Mildred kicks teenagers and hurls Molotov cocktails, her abusive ex-husband slams her against the wall, her son puts a knife to his father’s throat, Willoughby shoots himself, Dixon throws someone out a second-story window. Not people seeking to get in touch with their inner children.

Willoughby’s redemption is discovered postmortem: Before he kills himself, he pays a month’s rent for the billboards, in part acknowledging his sins. Mildred is able to reconcile her anger toward her ex-husband and his dimwitted girlfriend. But Dixon has the farthest to travel for redemption, so it’s fitting that his hardships are the most brutal. He deliberately endures a trial by fire, resulting in severe burns, and a beating in an attempt to solve the mystery of who killed Mildred’s daughter. Appropriately, he turns out to be wrong about the killer because the trial is not about receiving a reward but about being the kind of Christlike person willing to suffer for others. 

The ending makes clear that Dixon and Mildred are still a shaky moral work-in-progress when they decide to hunt down the man who was cleared of killing her daughter because he is undoubtedly guilty of something. Even as they have doubts about the righteousness of their vigilantism, they’re unaware that by forgiving each other, their quest is already successful. 

In “The Pardon,” Richard Wilbur’s poem about self-forgiveness and death, the tormented narrator writes, “I dreamt the past was never past redeeming.” This is the spiritual foundation for most societies: We don’t have to be defined by past mistakes but can forgive ourselves, and one another, to evolve into better human beings. This is also the theme of the movie. Though it’s unfortunate that the highly sensitive issue of police violence is used but never fully addressed, the movie isn’t about that. It’s about the search for the ember of humanity in all of us, and fanning that ember until it burns bright, even in the darkest of us. In doing so, it reaches all people of all backgrounds and asks us to take a single step toward enlightenment. That’s what our best works of art should do.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.