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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is homely yet violent – a greetings card spattered with gore

Beneath the little flecks of brain and bone, the Hallmark logo is unmistakable.

Unlike the plays on which Martin McDonagh’s reputation rests, his films (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) evoke a Tarantino-esque flippancy that was already passé before he first called “Action!” He alternates shock effects with cockle-warming ones, but screen violence can seem distasteful when placed alongside homely sentiment as it is in his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The result suggests a greeting card spattered with gore. Beneath the little flecks of brain and bone, the Hallmark logo is unmistakable.

Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is driving home one evening when he sees posters being pasted onto billboards on the outskirts of his town. It is Easter Sunday and those billboards, rented by Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), represent a resurrection of sorts, a demand for a cold case to be warmed up. Her daughter was raped and murdered seven months earlier, and the message is a rebuke to Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for failing to find the killer.

In exchange for her outspokenness, Mildred suffers instances of intimidation which provide an excuse for casual brutality in return – she attacks a dentist with his own drill, for instance, winning the audience’s laughter. The rest of the humour is pitched at the Bridget Jones level. Mildred will say or do something perfectly outrageous, followed by a cut to the target of her anger looking aghast, while a by-stander stifles a smirk. The implication being: she’s a one.

McDonagh is fond of writing dialogue that deconstructs itself. Willoughby points out that cases are usually solved when a criminal brags to a friend; sure enough, that’s where the first lead comes from. Watching a late-night film on TV, Jason’s mother says, “This is the one where the little girl dies,” to which Jason replies, “Always a plus in a movie.” As self-reflexive gags go, it’s effective only if we believe that mother and son, both portrayed as ignorant hicks, would tolerate even 30 seconds of Don’t Look Now, the film they’re referring to, let alone repeated views. Plausible characterisation comes second to movie in-jokes and literary name-dropping.

Mildred is the nearest thing to a complex creation, righteous without necessarily being likeable, but to redress the balance there is also an uncomplicated bimbo for us to laugh at. Lip service is paid to race, with Jason reprimanded for beating up black suspects, though the African-Americans in the film aren’t much more than functional. Mildred has a black female friend, who is only really there to prove that she isn’t racist – and to be thrown in the cells when Jason needs someone to arrest. (Black characters are every bit as useful to the script as a raped and murdered teenager.)

The film is over-loaded with superficial ironies. An injured man extends kindness to his attacker when they share a hospital room. Mildred gives an old foe a bottle of wine instead of clobbering him with it. In absurdly contrived circumstances, she almost kills the one person who has any proof of her daughter’s killer, then befriends him. The subject of former enemies uniting to correct a common wrong is bound to resonate in a divided America. It is only fitting, though, that Mildred owns a copy of Scruples, when the film’s inquisitions don’t advance far beyond the level of a board game.

The Oscar nominations have yet to be announced but Gary Oldman, who plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, must be able to feel the statuette in his hands already. With jowly prosthetics and blustery broad strokes, his portrayal of the Prime Minister during the early days of the Second World War suits perfectly this meretricious film, which is cluttered with showy effects, needlessly flashy camera angles and the sort of electrical-storm lighting that makes any scene set in the House of Commons resemble a heavy metal concert at the O2.

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay takes a history-for-dummies approach. Returning from a meeting with the King, Churchill complains: “He’s never forgiven me for supporting his brother’s marriage to Wallis Simpson.” It’s almost as if he knows he’s addressing a 21st century audience unfamiliar with pre-war gossip. Minor characters recap Churchill’s past for our benefit and there’s a nervous typist (Lily James) on hand whenever anything (Dunkirk, say) needs explaining. The script has been written with the caps lock on and Joe Wright directs accordingly. Everything is afforded the same overwrought emphasis, whether Churchill is contemplating peace talks with Hitler or searching for a mislaid copy of Cicero, so that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the serious and the trivial.

One fabricated scene, in which Churchill steals onto the Underground and canvasses the opinions of some salt-of-the-earth types, epitomises badness of the most exalted kind. Alas, the rest of the film isn’t quite so commendably awful, merely over-lit, over-scored and not over soon enough. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15)
dir: Martin McDonagh
Darkest Hour (PG)
dir: Joe Wright

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist