In early January, Sam Rockwell won the Golden Globe award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of a racist cop in the Golden Globe-winning best motion picture "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
In late January, Rockwell and "Three Billboards" took home similar honors at the SAG Awards. When I saw the movie, pre-awards, I thought its cartoon brushstrokes and easy sentimentality made it less-than-superlative, but de gustibus, concerning taste: according to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Screen Actors Guild, the movie was a winner.
Sadly and pitifully and, I would suggest, dangerously (and not just for art’s sake), a number of discontent voices emerged after Rockwell’s win. These protests had nothing to do with the film’s quality. The furor was about a movie character’s character, namely Sam Rockwell’s character. Let’s be very clear about this: Characters are written to create drama, tension, which is how movies tell stories and these stories, in turn, highlight larger themes. The story "Three Billboards" dramatizes is about a grief-toughened woman, whose daughter was recently murdered, and how she uses three billboards to shame a small-town police force into digging a little deeper for the murderer.
Racism and misogyny and hate and anger (examined and unexamined) are the film’s emotional underpinnings from which the film’s themes emerge. The character who embodies these underpinnings in the most blatant way is Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon, whose very name is meant to evoke lines between slave and free-soil states. Dixon is a southern racist, a hateful, violent, abusive man spawned by a hateful, abusive, racist mother. By movie’s end, Dixon becomes a more tolerant man — the movie’s last scene between Rockwell and Frances McDormand (who plays Mildred, the grieving mother, a character that earned McDormand Best Actress honors) shows a feel-good moment that smacks more of Hollywood, less of independent, boundary-pushing film making. But that’s not the point. The point is, redemption or not, Officer Dixon is a character.
Sam Rockwell is an actor. His job is to make a fictional character seem flesh-and-blood real. If you watch "Three Billboards" and feel disgusted by Dixon, Rockwell has acted well. In fact, this movie’s broad strokes ensure that we despise Dixon, certainly the racist Dixon who acts out in the movie’s first half. So Rockwell does his appointed task. But as The New York Times pointed out right after the Golden Globes aired, some fierce debate emerged over Rockwell’s win, not based on his performance, but because the character he plays is racist.
In essence, these protesting voices are suggesting that any character in a film who does not operate in a politically correct way should not be recognized as worthy of artistic recognition. This is absurd. And it’s unconscionable when artists seek to diminish the boundaries of art, which is where this very slippery slope could lead. Artists are supposed to be the arbiters of free expression, expression that usually leads to change, change that usually satisfies those labeled politically correct.
In a time when we have a president who was elected because he fought political correctness, it’s especially discouraging to see artists siding, seemingly unbeknownst to them, with the very man they despise. I’m no Trump fan. But more than that, I’m no fan of anyone who limits freedom of expression, a founding principle of our country and a guiding principle of art. Not art for art’s sake. Not art for Golden Globes’ or Academy Awards’ sake. But art that pushes, that forces us to examine, that disturbs. If a film or a novel or a poem or a painting or a photograph doesn’t disturb, at least a little, what’s the point?
Among the outraged tweeters was Roxane Gay, an acclaimed writer who prides herself on waxing irreverent. She tweeted this after Rockwell’s Golden Globe win, “Let’s pretend Sam won this for Moon” (referencing his leading-man role in the 2009 film). My response would be: Let’s not. If his performance was deemed worthy, then Sam Rockwell deserves an award for whatever role he plays, be it a racist pig or a heroic astronaut.
But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. This is the same Roxane Gay who guest judged an anthology of The Masters Review, a litmag for “emerging writers.” On her tastes in fiction, Gay wrote:
"I love stories that make me both think and feel. I want to forget I am reading and become immersed in the world the writer is building in their story. I am also looking for plot. In fiction, something needs to happen and that something needs to be interesting. I am not at all interested in stories about white people in sad marriages, or writers, or college students."
Again, de gustibus. But to negate a good story because the characters are white people in sad marriages or writers or college students is to put limitations where they shouldn’t be. If characters are interesting, if the artistic work pushes boundaries or at least makes us think, if the writing or film-making is superlative, that should be enough. I recognize Roxane Gay’s desire to hear literature’s many potential voices, but I question this tack.
Just as I question all the outraged voices who can’t separate a character from a performance, who are implying movies should be written without racist characters, or (let’s slip on the slope) without any characters who are morally questionable. In the right hands, the morally questionable are racists. In the wrong hands, the morally questionable could be liberals. Therein lies the danger.
It’s easy to tweet. And tweets make for good reading because they’re quick and fast and usually emerge, unfiltered, from gut-level places (where we like to see our real-life characters operate). But tweets have dangerous implications and often highlight ugly truths.
When artists can’t see art’s big picture, when their knee-jerk reactions are not considered, when inclusion creates exclusion, when censorship turns righteous, artists hurt their cause, which ideally (and morally) is to expand free expression and to reward free expression when it’s done artistically.
The writer/director of "Three Billboards," Martin McDonagh, recently defended his movie and his movie’s complex characters by stating, “I’m not making films for six-year olds.”
The backlash to Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of a racist character is, to put it in six-year-old terms, stupid. We’ll see if the too-easily and simplistically outraged voices influence this year’s Academy Awards. The Golden Globes and SAG Awards are often harbingers of Oscar wins, so Rockwell should be a shoo-in. But Hollywood, for all its posturing (which is usually ineffectual) and self-congratulating (which is usually incestuous) and self-professed innovation and bravery (which is usually canned and glossed with Hollywood sheen), may cave.
Should the unexamined P.C. reactions to a character named Officer Dixon take hold, even just a little, and should Sam Rockwell lose because of these reactions, art (and more than art) will also lose on Oscar night.
Adam Berlin is the author of "Both Members of the Club" (winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize), "The Number of Missing,” "Belmondo Style" (winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award), and “Headlock." He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and co-edits "J Journal: New Writing on Justice" (AdamBerlin.com). For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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