Three Billboards, I, Tonya, and the value of a complex narrative

In the past few weeks I saw two of the best movies I’ve probably seen in many years. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I, Tonya (both movies with commas in their names) are both frontrunners for a number of Oscars and have been big hits this summer. 

Both have also been controversial! Three Billboards has been critiqued as being racist and portraying short statured people in a reductive way, while I, Tonya has been criticised for valourising a criminal at the expense of the real victim, Nancy Kerrigan.

In doing so I actually think these two films also have a lot in common. Dealing with issues of sexism, class and racism, the critiques of both films highlight some of the weaknesses of a purist form of identity politics, and in turn highlight the value of complex narratives when it comes to issues of identity and oppression.  

Before we go ahead beware that there are spoilers for both of these movies contained below, although for I, Tonya it is less relevant as I only write about historical facts that are already in the public domain. 

Why Three Billboards treatment of complex characters isn’t racist

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri follows the story of Mildred (France McDormand) as she seeks justice for her daughter, who was brutally raped and murdered approximately a year before. Mildred buys out three billboards outside her local town attacking the local police for not solving the crime, setting off a firestorm with the community. 

The main critique of Three Billboards has been that its racist, in particular in the way it deals with the local police. Mildred works both against and with the local police, in particular a disgraceful racist cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). While never shown (something which itself is criticised) Dixon has a history of violence and torture against black people, with at one point Mildred asking him “how is that n****r torturing going for you?” Three Billboards however is criticised as over time, according to some, Dixon seems to be redeemed without actually paying for his crimes. While he does eventually lose his job on the force, Dixon soon plays somewhat of a hero role after he is brutally beaten in an attempt to solve the crime at the center of the story. By the end of the film Mildred seemingly befriends and joins with Dixon in an attempt to seek justice, the two setting off to in their truck with plans to engage in vigilante justice against a man they believe to have raped another woman.

To me this criticism of Three Billboards is quite frustrating, and more than anything highlights a problem with a purist form of identity politics. While I think Three Billboards confronts difficult issues often in a non-PC way the idea that it justifies and excuses the racism of Dixon through redeeming him confuses me. 

While Three Billboards certainly approaches the issues of race, sexism and police violence in often a blunt way, what I think it does really well is show real complexity in the characters and the way they deal with the situation put in front of them. The characters in the movie are not black and white — they all have this real mix of good and terrible, some more than other. While Mildred is the heroine of the movie, she is often violent, and at the end of the movie decides to engage in a form of vigilante justice that is very hard to justify. While Dixon is clearly racist and abuses his power as a police officer, he also, after reflection, genuinely wants to solve the crime at the center of the film.

This is what I value so strongly from the movie. It is far more realistic than if the movie had just painted Mildred as the pure poor mother who was seeking justice, and Dixon as the evil racist cop who is always evil and racist. While both clearly have those traits, they also have other traits. Mildred is violent and somewhat abusive, while Dixon does good things. If they didn’t have this complexity they would have just been caricatures, and in turn not real people dealing with a really fucked situation. 

This is why I really don’t get the argument that Dixon was redeemed. In fact I think it is the opposite. He does not get his job back, nor does he get painted as some hero. In the end he and Mildred go off on a vigilante mission to kill someone they have no proof is actually a rapist or a murderer. If that is someone being redeemed then I am confused!

But that is the value of the movie to me. The only way that Mildred and Dixon can become friends is because they are such complex people, dealing with complex issues in a very complex way. She clearly despises a lot about him, but she also cares about her daughter and sees an opportunity to work with Dixon on those issues, so they can connect in this way. Does the fact that we clearly connect with her, and that she connects with him, forgive his racism? No, I don’t think so! I think more interestingly it begs us to challenge our connections with these people and most importantly challenge our perception that there are people who are just good and others that are just bad.

I, Tonya: a movie that challenges many of our perceptions

It is this complexity that I think I, Tonya does amazingly well.

I, Tonya is a movie written in a mockumentary style, depicting the life of the figure skater Tonya Harding. Harding was one of the world’s best figure skaters in the early 1990s. Born to an extremely poor family, and with an abusive mother, and then an abusive husband, Harding was rejected from the skating community as not being graceful enough for the sport. Harding was then engulfed in a massive scandal after her then ex-husband organised a violent attack against one her key competitors, Nancy Kerrigan. Harding has frequently been blamed for the attack, despite repeatedly claiming she knew nothing about it, and ended up being banned from figure skating for life because of it. 

What’s interesting to me about I, Tonya is that her story challenges many small-l liberal notions of how we should and do react to the situation Harding was placed in. In a great interview I listened to with Harding on the The New York Times’ The Daily Harding comes across as what some would describe as a complete “redneck”. She is from the country, is rough, not particularly PC, and talks about how she would be a Trump voter, if she could vote. In other words she comes across as everything that is despised by liberals at this point of time — a bigoted “deplorable”.

Yet what I, Tonya shows is a situation that is far more complex than the caricatures we often put on to someone who is of her class and her voting pattern. The movie shows a woman who faced not just extreme poverty, as well as abuse from her mother and her husband, but also abuse, of a form, from the media, politicians and more. In the fake interviews in the movie Harding speaks directly to the cameras, saying that the media were her abusers just as much as anyone else. It is gut wrenching. In her interview the The Daily Harding also speaks about her anger that during the peak of her career high profile feminists, many of whom are now writing think pieces about her, never came to her defense. She talks about how she was abandoned by those who we think should have defended her — maybe because she was not palatable enough for a liberal movement.

In doing so Harding’s story — both in real life and through I, Tonya — brings to light some of the complexities that drive our current political moment. Her story challenges the notions of people such as her as being a “deplorable”. Looking at her history, one of someone abandoned by elites all through her life, it is hard not to see why she would end up voting for someone such as Trump. More importantly, her story shows a situation where we can sympathise with that decision, understanding the complexities that can often dictate her, and our, politics, but which often get ignored.

The value of complex narratives when it comes to identity

While these movies are different therefore, I believe they have a connected, and extremely valuable, message of why complex narratives regarding identity are important.

For me so much of recent approaches to identity politics have become extremely reductive. Discourse around bigotry increasingly paints a black and white picture — there are those who are “bigots,” and in turn our enemies, and those who are not. There are just a bunch of “deplorables” who are out there — people we hate, and who we cannot save — people who are “cancelled”.

Through their interrogation of class, sexism, and racism, I think both Three Billboards and I, Tonya interrogate these assumptions extremely well. Three Billboards shows that the binary between the “good pure mother” and the “evil racist cop” is not quite as clear as it may seem, and in fact at times can be quite blurry. It suggests that good people can be friends with bad people, and that bad people can do good things, in turn challenging the very narrative of what is a “good” and a “bad” person. Maybe, it asks, are we all at least in some way, just people? I, Tonya meanwhile, although not directly, challenges the very political posturing that leads us to label others as either “good” or “bad”. It presents someone who in society we may describe as backwards and deplorable as someone who has and continues to struggle, and someone we can entirely empathise with. And she is someone we should empathise with, absolutely!

The thing about identity is that it is far more complex than a lot of mainstream identity politics would like to make out. We are all complex human beings, being some form of good and bad all throughout our lives. We all even have different definitions of what good and bad even means. A form of identity politics that simplifies those narratives is not one that is really valuable in actually engaging in the realities of people’s lives. Three Billboards and I, Tonya are a great example of this.

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