Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: A Few Key Questions

I have a few questions after seeing Martin McDonagh’s latest feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I guess the first one is on me because, for some reason, I thought this was a true story right up until I actually saw it. I have no idea why, but if anyone else thought it was based on a true story, please let me know so we can all not feel so confused together.

Aside from that, I have a lot of other questions.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows Mildred Hayes  (Frances McDormand) in her attempts to find her daughters murderer. Seven months after her daughter Angela is brutally raped, killed and set on fire, the Ebbing police department have still not caught the killer. In order to keep the case in the public eye (and also encourage the cops to do their jobs), Mildred rents three billboards just outside the town to ask the question; why has no-one been arrested for this crime? Woody Harrelson plays cancer-cop (he has cancer, he doesn’t arrest it) Chief Willoughby, who seems like a stand up guy apart from the fact he defends co-cop Dickson (Sam Rockwell) who is renowned for torturing black people in custody. Which seems like it should matter more, but the Three Billboards forgets this pretty quickly as Chief Willoughby is portrayed as someone doing their best, and then someone quickly committing suicide after having sex with his wife, a few metres from their children playing by the river (???).

The town blames Mildred’s billboards for Chief Willoughby’s death, even though his multiple suicide notes explicitly state that he killed himself before his condition deteriorated, and things get a bit weird. There’s a weird redemptive arc for Officer Dickson, whose racism, homophobia and bigotry seem to be off-set by the fact that he saves Angela Hayes’ files from the police station. I don’t want to go too into here, because there are a LOT of other people who are more qualified, and who have articulated better than I ever could (Ira Madison’s article at The Daily Beast is the best op-ed I’ve read on it), but trust me when I say that it’s a bizarre bait-and-switch as far as I’m concerned.

Though McDormand is phenomenal throughout, McDonagh spends at least half the film  exploring Dickson’s inner turmoil and his home life, time which (in my humble opinion) would have been far better spent exploring Mildred’s grief, mental state and acceptance of her daughters death. I have a lot of of nit-picky questions about this film, about character intentions and just general confusion, so I’ve decided to break it down below.  Lets go!

Why is Chief Willoughby’s wife half his age?

Okay, so this may not be the most pressing issue but it is one that I took umbrage with. There’s a lot of focus on the fact that Mildred’s ex-husband is dating a much younger woman (it’s implied that she is barely out of her teens). So it’s a bit odd when we see Chief Willoughby’s wife and no-one makes any kind of mention as to the fact that she is 21 years his junior. Maybe not the biggest issue with this film but it annoyed me so it’s on the list.

Why so many offensive slurs?

I know that a lot of white people (and I say this as a white person) think it’s big and clever to use offensive language to point out how offensive it is, and how it proves people are racist if they say it. Well, guess what – you saying it, even trying to prove a point, is also racist. I was really onboard with Three Billboards until the scene where Mildred and Dickson are talking about Dickson’s torturing of black folks, and there’s a back and forth where the N word is liberally applied. Perhaps there was a point behind it all, but I fail to see it.

The film also employs offensive slurs against the LGBTQ community, the kind which many of us (I am sure) last heard in the playground at school whilst having things thrown at us. Considering McDonough didn’t actually cast any LGBTQ actors, or write any LGBTQ characters into the film – what possible justification is there to use these terms?

Why are the only black characters there to support white characters in their journey?

Following on from my previous point… the only characters of colour in Three Billboards are in the film solely because they are black. They have no other personality traits, narrative arcs or reason for being other than their blackness. Denise, Mildred’s friend, is arrested on possession of marijuana (original) to prove that the police force are prejudiced and will do anything to stop Mildred. Willoughby’s replacement, Abercrombie, is a black man, seemingly only to rile up Dickson and the other white cops in the precinct.

When was this film set?

Following on my THAT – when on earth was this film set? This question led myself and three friends to have an incredibly detailed debate as to when it was actually set (something I feel you should NOT have to do – establishing the time period is a VERY basic requirement of cinema). We concluded that, with the use of smartphones and Dickson’s reference to googling, it must be set within the last five years. Which begs the question: why is everyone so cool with bigoted language and attitudes in the town? Mildred seems to be a very progressive woman (at least, we assume from the pedo-priest conversation), so why is she using slurs too? Adding to this the constant jokes aimed at Peter Dinklage’s character, the film felt incredibly dated….

Unless this is just how rural America is? I could be completely mistaken. Do let me know if this is the case, and if you live in an area like Ebbing, you should also let me know so I can try and start a Go Fund Me to get you out of there.

What’s the deal with Mildred’s son?

This is kind of self explanatory, but what is his deal? One minute he’s spouting some crap about how the domestic violence charges against his Dad were only Mildred’s word against his, the next minute he is holding a knife to his father’s throat as if this had all happened before.

One minute he hates Mildred, the next minute he supports her. It’s all a bit weird, and he seems to change depending on what the narrative needs him to do rather than any kind of character development.

Why does Mildred tell her daughter she wishes she was raped?

Just….no.

Does being on fire lead to a complete personality transplant?

The real lesson I took from Three Billboards is that we need to take all racist, bigoted, homophobic police officers in rural America and put them in a burning building but ensure that they survive the ordeal. Apparently, this leads to a complete personality overhaul and they become nice decent people almost instantly.

Is this film going to win best film at the Oscars?

Probably.

I FINALLY saw ‘Get Out…

So, I finally saw Get Out. Took me long enough. Fortunately, I was still able to see it at the cinema, which I would 100% advise you to do – and quickly as it is set to leave UK cinemas by the end of this week.

I also am completely aware that the last thing the internet needs is another white girl’s opinion on Get Out, a film which talks explicitly about the insidious racism and duplicity of white people. Which is why I am going to keep this relatively short. Get Out is such an important film to discuss, but I am not ignorant enough to believe that I am the right person to facilitate these discussions. So as I said, this review/discussion will be short and sweet.

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris, a nice, normal every-man. He’s a photographer with a nice apartment, a nice girlfriend and nice dog. He leads a seemingly nice, normal and happy life. Or so we might think, if we hadn’t watched the pre-title sequence which depicts a young black man in a suburban neighbourhood being jumped by a stranger in a sports car. From there on, we are uneasy, waiting for the worst to happen.

Inevitably, it does. Chris and Rose (his white girlfriend, played by Allison Williams) take a trip up to the literal middle of nowhere to visit her parents in their grand, and very creepy, house which is miles away from anyone else. Secluded in the countryside, Chris is subjected to a weekend that begins with slightly ignorant racist comments and concludes in full blown violent racial warfare. A metaphor for the new Trump era? Maybe…

Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford are Missy and Dean, Rose’s parents who seem, on the whole, a charming albeit a little backwards. Dean repeatedly calls Chris ‘my man’, makes references to Obama and apologises for employing black workers because he ‘knows how it looks’. Honestly, he reminded me of most of the white people I know over the age of about 50. A little ignorant maybe, but harmless. Rose apologises for her parents, Chris shakes it off. But then things take a turn for the worse…

The strength of Get Out lies not only in it’s ability to be a successful horror film, but in its completeness. From the very first frame to the last, Peele knows what he wants to show us and the whole film is spent leading us down this terrifying path, unsure of exactly how deep the rabbit hole goes. He has spectacular control of the dialogue and the pacing – enabling Get Out to be authentically horrific rather than relying on cheap jump scares or bloodbaths. The monsters are not ghosts or ghouls, but rather your girlfriend’s parents or your favourite art buyer. Everyday people, in and around your lives. His command of humour punctuates the film in all the right places, allowing us a few well needed laughs. This is helped enormously by casting Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ best friend Rod, the actual hero of the film. 

Peele is also masterful at utilising visual metaphors and motifs to help us identify with Chris’ paranoia throughout the film. Chris is a photographer, and thus is someone who is concerned with seeing and observing. In this way, we instinctively trust him when he notices the oddities in the Armitage house and at the party. In the same way, Chris uses what he knows to inadvertently break Lakeith’s hypnosis – by taking a photo of him. Chris also discovers Rose’s deception through the photographs in her bedroom which depict her previous boyfriends, all of whom are black, despite her telling him she had only ever date white men. Photography, cameras and the idea of observation (passive observation being the only thing the Armitage’s victims can do after surgery) are all constants throughout Get Out  and serve to re-frame the narrative through Chris’ eyes.

Similarly, deers are a recurring motif throughout the film and one that gives a deeper gravity to Chris’ experiences. On the way to Rose’s parents, the two of them hit a deer with their car, killing it. Chris, seemingly unaware of his actions, follows the dying deer into the woodland and becomes emotional upon watching it’s distress. We are unsure of Chris’ motivations here, but it is revealed later in the film that Chris’ mother died in a hit and run. He is transfixed by the deer’s eyes, feeling some affinity for the animal. It’s inability to move also foreshadows the situation Chris finds himself in later in the film – paralysed and awaiting death.

More than this though, the deer also represent the idea of a trophy. Known for being a hunters prized kill, deers are commonly hung on living room walls and shown off to affluent peers. They are a trophy among the “hunting” class. Of course, the Armitage’s have their own deer head mounted inside their house. Chris discovers it in the latter part of the film, right before they are about to make a trophy out of him. The mounted deer stares down at him from across the room, and Chris knows that this is what he is about to become. A trophy body for white people – to be shown off and used to demonstrate their wealth and “skill”. In a similar vein, Chris is very much hunted by Rose who, as we see near the end of the film, stalks her pray before pursuing a relationship with them. Vague Visages also notes how ‘buck’ has, in the past, been used as a slur to describe black men who refused to bend to white authority – which certainly seems incredibly relevant in this context.

Watching Get Out, for me, was a measured exercise in being constantly uncomfortable. I was on the edge of my seat, always waiting for the inevitable to happen. I say for me because I am white, and I imagine my experience will differ from that to a POC. But hey, please do not take my word for it. Read Cassie Da Costa’s Feministing review, which sums it up better than I ever could.

And for goodness sake, go and see it…

5 Films For the Upcoming Apocalypse: A Guide

I’ve tried to put a funny spin on this because at this point if we don’t laugh, we are going to continually cry.

This could have been a list of informative and useless films to help us combat life under white supremacy. It isn’t. Instead, this is a list of films that I think accurately predict the dystopia we are now on the verge of living in. It’s not heart warming, and it won’t make you feel better about what is happening and for that, I am truly sorry. Try watching Mamma Mia if you want to feel happy for an hour and a half (though we all know Meryl Streep is totally overrated, right Donald?). If you want to wallow in the misery of the next four years and beyond – then come with me on a journey of apocalyptic doom and watch the following.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Fury Road makes the list for a number of reasons, not least because Donald Trump and Immortan Joe share the same hairdresser. Both of their ruling ideologies are rooted quite firmly in toxic masculinity and are clearly destructive to all who live under them. Immorten Joe thrives off his power over the water supply, and the crowds who gather beneath him when he finally lets them have a drink. Bet those crowds aren’t as big as Trump’s inauguration though…

It’s Immortan Joe’s treatment of women that is suspiciously similar to Trump’s opinions too. They are commodities, there to be objectified, sexualised or pumped for breast milk. Trump also treats women like commodities – I am sure we are all very familiar with the grabbing quote by now. It just shows how much he dehumanises women and feels we only exist to be fodder for powerful men like him. WE ARE NOT THINGS.

Also, as we have seen with the Trump’s persistence regarding going ahead with the Dakota Access Pipeline, Trump really fucking loves oil. Like Joe, he’ll do pretty much anything (including sacrificing human life) to get at it. In Fury Road, Australia has been turned into a dystopian wasteland because of the pollution and carnage to the planet. America will surely follow suit under Immorten Trump’s leadership.

 

Children of Men

I don’t think that Brexit or Trump have set off a chain reaction of infertility across the world – though there’s definitely a joke in there somewhere. Children of Men though, paints a fantastic portrait of what happens when the government decides to close of its borders and treat refugees and immigrants as if they are subhuman.

We have seen the beginnings of this. During the Brexit campaign, Nigel Farage once stood in front of a billboard depicting displaced young men coming from war torn countries having experienced horrifying events, the likes of which most of us could never imagine. The caption? ‘Breaking Point’. No, he didn’t mean breaking point for the thousands of people dying in Syria – he meant it was breaking point for the UK. This is a small snippet, a tiny glimpse into how the leave campaign used immigration as their main talking point, encouraging xenophobia and Islamophobia in the process.

This is what happens in Children of Men. A whole country turns a blind eye to the mistreatment, executions and torture of refugees at the hands of the government. The last scene, as Kee and Theo arrive at Bexhill-on-Sea, we see how those in the camp are treated. It’s stomach churning. The scariest part is that we aren’t worlds away from this now – detention centres like Yarls Wood are notorious for their lack of abuse and dehumanisation of its residents. With Brexit pushing racial hate crimes up by over 41%, attitudes in the UK are shifting very dangerously towards Children of Men’s depiction of humanity.

Most recently, with Trump’s ‘not-a-Muslim-ban’, we are closer to a Children of Men attitude towards refugees than ever before. Fortunately, the executive order has been halted for now, but it hasn’t done anything to relieve stigmas towards immigration and refugees.

 

Look Who’s Back

This indie film has made a few waves, and not only because it features Hitler time travelling to 2014 and instigating the reprisal of fascism in Germany. The strength of Look Who’s Back lies in it’s ability to make you laugh along with Hitler (yes, a phrase I never thought I would say) and then pull the rug very firmly out from underneath you when the realisation hits. You, like the characters in the film, have been normalising Hitler the whole time by laughing along.  

This is something that can seen across the UK and America. Instead of treating Neo-Nazi’s as the scum they are,  during Brexit the BBC actually interviewed one of them on the 6 o’clock news – essentially giving the swastika-tattooed young man a platform to air his bigotry. Likewise, Jimmy Fallon invited Donald Trump onto his show and, instead of showing Trump for the bigot he is, Jimmy Fallon ruffled his hair and sent him on his way. Nigel Farage has spent the last year posing for photo ops in local pubs. Nazi’s, in the Western world, are now called the ‘Alt Right’ – as if they are just a different version of the right wing, not bigoted maniacs. There was even an outcry when self-confessed Nazi Richard Spencer was punched live on air. I’d recommend watching the remixes here – very satisfying stuff. 

In Look Who’s Back, we watch in shock and horror as Germans around the country salute to Hitler, take selfies with him and agree with him on foreign policy. The hard-right is alive and well in Europe, and one of the reasons why Brexit ended up quite how it did. The thing is, the first half of Look Who’s Back posits itself as a comedy. We laugh at Hitler (what’s he like!), until he decides that actually, someone needs to really take back control of the country. We all laughed at the idea of Trump becoming President, but this is where we are now. Too late.

 

Dr Strangelove

There’s two very important reasons for including Dr Strangelove. Firstly, the image of twenty or so white men sitting round a table, very incompetently discussing nuclear warfare is something I think we will be very familiar with in the Trump administration. Sure, they’ve already had a room of white men discussing abortion, and (I quote twitter) there are more black people in Beyonce right now than there are in his whole administration.  I can just see Mr Trump on the phone to Putin, apologising for the small misunderstanding regarding the nuclear warhead that is now heading directly towards them. Then, boom. We’re all dead.

Secondly, Dr Strangelove depicts the American military as people who will go along with orders without questions, regardless of the possible consequences. I don’t imagine this will change much with Trump in charge. Though we have seen certain members of the judiciary system speaking out against his executive orders, we have yet to hear anything from the military. We all know that the US Army and patriotism go hand in hand, and judging by Trump’s inauguration speech – that isn’t going to change much.

 

Snowpiercer

Last but not least, we come to the environment. There’s no doubt in any of our minds that global warming is going to get a whole lot worse (hotter) because Trump believes it’s a conspiracy from China, and without EU regulation, the UK doesn’t have to adhere to climate change reform. So we should all be buying factor 50 as soon as possible.

Snowpiercer actually depicts a world which has tried to combat global warming, but has failed with disastrous consequences. Having left it too late to reverse the effects naturally, scientists attempt to cool the earth down but the effect is to plunge the plant into an Ice Age, the only surviving inhabitants circumventing the globe on a never-stopping train. Of course, Snowpiercer also depicts a world where the poor are shunned, exploited and made to live in horrendous circumstances for the benefit of the rich – which doesn’t sound too dissimilar from our current situation where 62 people have the equivalent wealth of the rest of the world put together.

It is the harsh realities of making the planet uninhabitable though which makes Snowpiercer a film to add to this list. The frozen tundra rolls by the windows of train, reminding all the passengers that they are stuck in their locomotive world due to their own incompetence. The inability to save the planet. I don’t believe that we will end up on a train, circling the Earth. It might be a lot worse. Especially considering that London went over it’s yearly air pollution “allowance’ for the year, within the first five days of 2017. This is in addition the fact that Trump thinks that global warming is a Chinese conspiracy… 


 

The one silver lining we can possibly take from this list is that there is always a glimmer of hope for the protagonists. Also, the protagonists are (quite firmly) not racists, misogynists or Nazis. In fact, it’s the antagonists that encompass these charming values. And what do we know about films? They are always right, right?

LFF Round-up: 13th

An exploration of the prison system and race in the US, 13th takes it’s name from the 13th amendment. To paraphrase, the amendment states that the restriction on rights associated with slavery will not be upheld for any citizen in the United States, except those who have committed a crime. Safe in the hands of the extremely talented Ava Duvernay, 13th paints an astonishing and appalling picture of the longstanding systematic racism that has led to 1 in 3 black men being incarcerated at some point in their lives. From the slavery, to the phenomenon that is mass incarceration, Duvernay produces a compelling documentary that screams out for change.

I don’t pretend to know much about the legal system in the States (equally I know very little about it in my own country) so the first thing that struck me about 13th was how accessible it is for a uninformed audience. Roughly chronologically, Duvernay takes us on a journey from the tail end of slavery, segregation, through various Government administrations right up to present day legislation – all through the lens of ‘law and order’. A commonly used phrase, as we see, and one that has been used time and time again to justify racist legislation. 13th uses infographics combined with archive and interviews in order to explore the racism inherent in the criminal justice system under the guise of ‘law and order’. For someone who is aware of the issues, but has little understanding of how it got the point we are at today, the film is saturated with information, as well as being visually and emotionally compelling.

Without giving too much away (because it’s far better to listen to people like Angela Davis, Marie Gottschalk, Jelani Cobb etc talk about this, than to read my words on it), there are some jaw-dropping statistics. The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the States. Likewise, 1 in 3 black men in the United States will, at some point in their lifetime, do prison time. 13th charts the rise of the prison population from the Nixon era (ending in 1974) to the end of the Clinton administration (2001), where we see the prison population of America basically quadruple in size.

It’s very easy for documentaries to spout statistics, but without context and explanation they are essentially meaningless. Duvernay validates these disturbing figures by surrounding them with interesting and articulate interviews with a wide variety of professionals, academics, senators and activists – many of whom have been on the front-line of this battle. Davis is one of the most emotive interviewees, her words made stronger by archive footage of her arrest in 1970. She talks at length about the crimes being done to black communities, the level of systematic violence directly targeted at black men and women. Her words, though 45 years old now, are still so relevant today.

The word ‘criminal’, and it’s association with black folk, recur several times throughout the film – exploring how the word ‘criminal’ is now interchangeable with black people. Of course it’s incredibly important to have an understanding of where this came from, and how society (black and white alike) have been conditioned to see the black population of the US as criminals. There is a segment of the film which focuses on analysing the DW Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation, a film which is full of racism and bigotry – but a film that was still being heralded as a masterpiece when I attended film school (only a few years ago). The Birth of a Nation is often talked about in these terms, being one of the first films to use the editing techniques we still see today in cinema, yet it’s representation of black people (all played by white actors in blackface) is key in understanding how society views race today. They are presented as criminals, rapists, degenerates. Did you know that the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan was a direct result of the release of The Birth of a Nation? I didn’t…

Duvernay concludes the film in the present day – with talk of what comes after mass incarceration, and the work that the Black Lives Matter movement do on a daily basis. Though the footage of victims of police brutality (Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice amongst many, many others) have been shown repeatedly on media networks, watching them in the context of the film is a very different experience. This footage, shot on mobile phones, is even more horrific (if that’s possible) when we have just seen the complete history of state sanctioned violence against communities of people. There is raw emotion behind these sequences, the strong editing giving the film real conviction in it’s message.

A lot of reviews (Guardian, LA Times)  have described 13th as ‘fiercely angry’, yet I feel this undermines the incredible work that has been done here. Describing it as ‘angry’ only plays into lazy stereotypes of black people (black women in particular) – irrationally angry. Naturally there is a lot of anger around the subject, but the film itself is calm, collected and polished. It speaks to both those who have an understanding oppression and institutional racism, and to those who are coming to the film with no previous knowledge of it.

13th is an accomplished documentary speaking out about a taboo topic. It’s controversial and incredibly important. Every interview, every animation is detailed and precise – and it definitely warrants a second viewing. Duvernay, though propelled to fame for her fiction films, draws heavily on her past in documentaries and has produced a stunning film.  I’ve barely scraped the surface talking about it here, it is really one you should see for yourself.

To learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement, click here.

 

Movies From My Childhood: ‘Holes’ & ‘The Mummy’

Recently I seem to have got into the habit of watching films that I loved as a child. Maybe it’s a bit of denial about actually being an adult, or maybe it’s because there just aren’t that many good films around these days (“back in my day!”). Continue reading “Movies From My Childhood: ‘Holes’ & ‘The Mummy’”