Murder, Molotov Cocktails, and Burning Police Stations: Black Lives Matter, White Feminism, “Three Billboards,” and Intersectionality




A MURDER. POLICE FAILURE. Police brutality.

Molotov cocktails. Arson. Burning police stations.

These words and images probably bring to mind the ongoing events that have followed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in late May and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality that have roiled the United States and the world in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the media and on the political right, protestors are cast as rioters and looters, unreasonable and threatening. Now, two lawyers in Brooklyn face the possibility of 50 years in prison for throwing Molotov cocktails into an empty police car.

If one had read the same series of words and images just two years ago, one might have been reminded of the critically acclaimed film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). The film starred Frances McDormand in the role of Mildred Hayes, a tough-as-nails mother who will stop at nothing to get justice for her murdered daughter, including committing arson and throwing Molotov cocktails at a police station, setting it ablaze. Mildred goes toe-to-toe with the local police department, holding police chief Bill Willoughby to account by renting out a set of billboards emblazoned with messages questioning his competence, and clashing with the violent, racist Officer Jason Dixon, who was well known among locals for having battered a Black man.

The similarities between the film and our present moment are in many ways uncanny.

On May 25, George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer. Two lawyers, Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis, sat in a New York jail for over a month after being arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails during the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. They were finally released on bail, June 30. It is not surprising that both are people of color from immigrant families. Despite having no previous criminal records, they now face a mandatory minimum of almost 50 years in prison if convicted and a maximum of life imprisonment. If life imitates art, it’s certainly revealing the racial injustices that we already know to be true.

On that same day, Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the cops on Christian Cooper, a Black man, who was birding in Central Park. Her canny understanding of how her subject position as a white woman could be weaponized against a Black man in a park is shocking. Weeks later, in San Francisco, Lisa Alexander would similarly harass Filipino American James Juanillo for chalking #BlackLivesMatter on his own property. In recent weeks, countless videos have demonstrated the rise of the “Karen” — a term denoting a privileged white woman who is disproportionately demanding or entitled, often playing the victim and marshaling her privilege specifically in order to attack or otherwise abuse people of color. The fragility of white feminism and the understanding of how it can at once be aligned with issues of injustice when it comes to gender and weaponized when it comes to issues of race reveals a lack of intersectional understanding on a broad social level. That the images from Three Billboards might resonate so differently from 2017 to 2020 shines a light on the pressing issues of racism and the danger of white female fragility at this moment.

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to explain the unique oppression of African American women as a result of “a problematic consequence of the tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis.” Revisiting the film in 2020 as an uncanny reflection of our present moment makes very clear the failure of the mutually exclusive ways in which we think about issues of injustice with regards to race and gender. Can we pump our fists in support of the unrelenting white mother who threw Molotov cocktails to burn down a police station and then say nothing about the egregious maximum-term sentencing of two lawyers of color for throwing Molotov cocktails into an abandoned police car in Brooklyn?

The film’s two triumphs in the acting categories at the Oscars in 2018 — as well as the general critical acclaim with which the film was cheered in Hollywood and mainstream American culture — offer a painfully on-the-nose metaphor for the ways that white feminism has always been at odds with the fight for racial justice. Frances McDormand won Best Actress for her portrayal of a certain kind of welcome feminist heroine at a moment when many viewers (and certainly Hollywood producers) were content to see women’s struggle without an intersectional understanding of how race factors into the feminist movement. Sam Rockwell won Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the cruel, violent, and racist Officer Jason Dixon, a character known for torturing Black people in custody and who is never arrested, an ugly demonstration of the callous disregard for Black life and Black suffering that in recent months has galvanized hundreds of thousands of protesters across the world. Closer to awards season, the film invited a wave of controversy for what many viewers read as Dixon’s redemptive arc. The character is never punished for his violent racist crime, an impunity that accurately reflected our intolerable reality then and the ongoing injustice against which the public raises its voice today.

The success of Three Billboards hinged on championing the fight against injustice by glorifying a white woman at the height of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, when the Harvey Weinstein saga grabbed headlines across the country and the spotlight was trained on women who were preyed upon by powerful, connected men. Hashtags and (mostly white) actresses were dragooned into action. It is ironic, but not surprising, that many do not know that the #MeToo movement responsible for galvanizing the feminist support for Three Billboards was started in 2006 by a Black woman, Tarana Burke. The movement gained widespread attention in 2017 following tweets by Alyssa Milano and other white Hollywood actresses following a pattern that, as Crenshaw observes, centers “the narratives of gender […] on the experience of white-middle-class women.” Conversely, Crenshaw notes that “the narratives of race are based on the experience of Black men.” In fact, according to Kyla Schuller, sex difference is itself a racist structure: the category of “woman” was born out of, and has always been, elaborated as a quality of whiteness, and therefore has always excluded women of color. The issues taken up by Three Billboards similarly demonstrate the horrors of racialized and gendered responses to injustice: a quest to see justice for the murdered white girl is unquestioned (its pursuit is what barrels Mildred — and us — through the film), while the torture and battery of the Black man is forgotten, as good as forgiven.

But while Dixon’s crime seems to have been swept under the rug by the end, the viewer is in fact repeatedly reminded of Dixon’s racism throughout the film — though it is never addressed in a meaningful way. While in custody, Mildred goads Dixon by asking, “How’s it going in the n*****-torturing business?” to which Dixon responds righteously and unironically: “It’s the persons-of-color-torturin’ business!” Papering over of the violence of racism with comedy makes visible the grotesque impotence of politically correct approaches to racism. Racism is racism, whether you use a slur or not, and even the film’s most amenable characters are complicit. When asked why Dixon is still on the force after having tortured a man, the benevolent Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, chuckles in dismissal: “If you got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings you’d have three cops left. And all of them are gonna hate the fags.” The line lands as lame comedy, and an example of the sort of toothless excuse that has resulted in the perpetuation of a violent police force responsible for the unjust murders of Black Americans.

In Three Billboards, the casual dismissals of racism can also be seen in the way the film effectively segregates the visibility of suffering. We never see the murder of Angela nor the torture of the nameless Black man. This is not a bad thing. The fact of violence should suffice to enrage us. In the case of violence against Black people, such representations (in, say, the form of viral videos and other media) often retraumatize individuals and the community and problematically fetishize Black death. Yet it is telling that the longest scenes of violence in the film are not against a Black or female body, but rather against white men. After surviving an arson attack, Dixon appears redeemed and changed, only to be further exonerated by the beating that he endures at the hands of Angela’s suspected rapist. But nothing about Dixon suggests that he should receive forgiveness. For starters, it is not even sought. And further, such forgiveness is not the viewer’s to give. Willoughby is recruited into this endeavor too, writing to Dixon:

I think you’ve got the makings of being a really good cop, Jason, and you know why? Because, deep down, you’re a decent man. I know you don’t think I think that, but I do, dipshit. I do think you’re too angry though, and I know it’s all since your dad died and you had to go look after your mom and all, but as long as you hold on to so much hate, then I don’t think you’re ever going to become, what I know you want to become — a detective. […] You’re a decent man, and yeah, you’ve had a run of bad luck, but things are going to change for you.

Finally, the insidious violence of Willoughby’s incompetence and complicity is subsumed by his own suffering — he is dying of pancreatic cancer. The only act of violence we see him perform is self-directed: suicide. The emotional lead up to the suicide scene raises him to the level of a martyr or a saint — untouchable by personal guilt or failings. The elision of racial violence in Three Billboards forces us to reckon with the fact that we more easily forget, or even forgive, what we do not see.

Historically, the pursuit of justice for white women has too often resulted in the violent deaths of Black men (and women), as evidenced in the murder of Emmett Till and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. In fact, Mildred’s activism (and, in turn, the film’s) draws from a history of Black women’s activism. When Mamie Till’s 14 year-old son Emmett Till was brutally murdered by white men after he was accused of offending a white woman, she held an open-casket funeral so that the world would have to bear witness to, would have to see, the horror of what had been done to her child: “I want the world to see what they did to my baby.” The shock elicited by the brief glimpse of Angela’s burned and blackened face which ignites a desire for justice is not unlike Mamie Till’s rationale for her son’s open-casket funeral. The aggressive visibility of Mildred’s looming and omnipresent billboards and the visceral violence described by them — “Raped While Dying” — have the same effect.

The problem, of course, is that Mildred’s quest for justice, like the co-optation of #MeToo from its Black founder by white feminists, eclipses the bravery and battle that Black women and Black mothers face every day. This turn away from justice for one group to shine a spotlight on another is obliquely embodied in the exchange between Mildred and her son, Robbie.

ROBBIE: Do birds get cancer?

MILDRED: Huh?

ROBBIE: Birds. Do they get cancer?

MILDRED: I don’t know. Dogs do.

ROBBIE: [snapping] Yeah, well, I wasn’t talking about dogs, was I?

Robbie and Mildred’s conversation demonstrates the problem with the #whitelivesmatter or #alllivesmatter responses to #blacklivesmatter. But the conversation can also be flipped on its head — thinking laterally and associatively about the suffering of one group should lead us to think more empathetically about all other groups. The Combahee River Collective Statement, one of the most famous documents of Black radical feminist tradition, is bitingly honest about the position of Black women in society, and how poorly they have been treated by those who should be their allies — including Black men. “If Black women were free,” the statement argues, “it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” If one reading of the conversation converges to the poisonous logic of white supremacy, the alternative reading — which is to say, the antidote — points us to Black radical feminism.

This moment requires intersectional thinking, as does the undoing of the long histories of racial and gendered injustice that are once again coming into public light. Revisiting Three Billboards from the vantage of the present helps us think about #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. But what about Breonna Taylor? And Tony McDade? The Black Lives Matter movement is not exempt from the patriarchal society it is mired within. While many know the name of the movement, far fewer may know that it was launched in 2013 by three radical Black women, each of whom is invested in highlighting “the egregious ways in which Black women, specifically Black trans women, are violated.” The movement is disproportionately invoked in rallying for justice for Black men, even though police violence toward Black women is rampant, and Black trans women experience violence at a greater rate than other populations. Launched in December 2014 by African American Public Policy Forum (AAPF) and Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) (founded by Kimberlé Crenshaw), the #SayHerName campaign aims to bring “awareness to the often invisible names and stories of Black women and girls who have been victimized by racist police violence” and to “advance a gender-inclusive narrative in the movement for Black lives.” Outrageously and heartbreakingly, on September 23, 2020, 65 years after Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted, not a single police officer was charged for the murder of Breonna Taylor.

In Three Billboards, Mildred’s quest is most enabled not by Dixon, or even Willoughby, but by the Black and marginalized characters in the film. Red, whom we are to understand as queer, calls Dixon out for his racism, takes a beating, and runs Mildred’s ad. James, a man with dwarfism, repeatedly helps Mildred out. Jerome, one of two Black characters in the film, lands the first indictment of Dixon as a cruel bigot, and later brings Mildred a backup set of printed ads to replace the ads that were burned. Denise, Mildred’s Black female friend, tells her “you go girl, you go fuck those cops up” and gets arrested as part of Dixon’s attempt to intimidate Mildred, modeling a form of brave and unflinching allyship. Together, Denise and Jerome stop Dixon from being beaten to death. It is possible that Mildred was not the hero of the film, but rather that these Black and marginalized characters at the fringes were.

The words “And still no arrests?” tower behind Jerome, floating not only as Mildred’s challenge to Willoughby, but also as the unarticulated specter of Dixon’s culpability. Dixon is interpellated by Jerome as a racist cop.

Today, the “Karen” overwhelmingly demonstrates the dangers of a violent and dogged white feminist heroine. Amy Cooper was viciously hysterical; Lisa Alexander, spuriously respectful. In truth, they are two faces of the same coin. It is Alexander’s chillingly unmoving smile, the clench-jawed image of tolerance that gives the lie to white feminism as a possible form of allyship. Tolerance casts difference as something one deigns to endure. Performative, rooted in entitlement, and embodied as endurance, white feminism always already plays the victim.

Mildred is dogged, unflinching, and unyielding. There may be something to admire about her quest for justice. But she is also cruel, violent, and selfish, blind to injustices other than her own. How do we feel about the renegade white feminist hero when her alter ego emerges in 2020 as a “Karen”? The rise of the Karen figure today enables renewed recognition and critique of Mildred, taking the focus away from her and allowing the real heroes of the film, already there but in the periphery, to enter our field of vision.

Ultimately, the failure of Three Billboards is an intersectional one. Yes, the film fails Black people. The purification of white humanity through suffering is vilely contrasted with the elision of Black suffering — suffering which Black dehumanization sanctions. The film casts moral courage and activism in a patriarchal society as a virtue monopolized by a white woman, and the pursuit of justice as the domain of white people. But the film does not shy away from holding racism up to the light. Through an unwieldy analogy to 1980s racist Civil Gang Injunction laws [1] in California, Mildred accuses the Catholic church of being a white gang. By yoking the two together, Mildred reveals the racism that motivates these laws. It is our work as viewers to reflect on the moral judgments we make, whom we recognize as heroes and why, which elements of the film we were willing to ignore, to interrogate if and why we get caught up in certain narrative arcs and privilege a crime against a white woman over those committed against others, to question if we neglect to see courage in the acts of friendship and community by Black and marginalized characters. Mildred may be presented, fairly or unfairly, as the “heroine” of the film, but the heroic acts of bravery and sacrifice of the Black and marginalized characters in Three Billboards are equally there to be seen.

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Jerrine Tan was born and raised in Singapore. She has a PhD in English from Brown University and currently teaches Global Anglophone Literature in the English department at Mount Holyoke College. Her Twitter handle is @jerrinetanew.

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[1] The ACLU of Northern California has long opposed such gang injunctions for being ineffective and for their “great potential for racial profiling.” Despite the documented existence of white gangs, no California gang injunction has targeted a white gang.

 

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