With the Oscars right around the corner, the end-of-year, three-month red carpet slog politely referred to in most circles as “awards season” is finally, thankfully almost over. By now, any modicum of suspense surrounding the night’s big prize should have been erased by the awards that came before it. But of the nine films nominated for the coveted Best Picture award, it could be argued that there’s still no clear-cut front-runner.
If you’re an Oscar poolie looking for an edge, our advice would be to lean toward The Shape of Water. Guillermo del Toro’s bittersweet fairy tale about a fish-man and the woman who loves him took home the Directors Guild of America and Producers Guild of America Awards, which are historically good measuring sticks for future Oscar success (though we should point out that Moonlight didn’t win either en route to its shocking win last year).
There’s also a burst of momentum for Get Out and Lady Bird, thanks in large part to the shifting makeup of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. With more women and people of color now a part of the voting body, both films have the potential to surprise, whereas in previous years, a coming-of-age story or a horror movie would have had no realistic shot at upsetting the films that qualify as more traditional Oscar fare. In fact, the more we think about it, the more we like Get Out to cap off its historic year with a stunning win. Yeah, let’s go with that.
But the real reason there’s no proverbial favorite this year comes down to a good, old-fashioned Oscar backlash. The enduring cultural phenomenon of a pushback against Oscar movies is a tale as old as the awards themselves, when How Green Was My Valley beat the consensus best-movie-ever, Citizen Kane, for the top prize. But the notion of a real collective Oscar backlash began in earnest in 2006, after Paul Haggis’ race-baiting melodrama, Crash, won over the far more accomplished Brokeback Mountain.
Detractors took issue with Three Billboards’ awkward handling of race—specifically, Rockwell’s racist cop Dixon, who finds redemption by barely lifting a finger.
Since then, scrutinizing every aspect of the year’s most acclaimed films has become something of a sport that’s only intensified with the rise of the online echo chamber known as Film Twitter. Last year, La La Land went from perennial Oscar favorite to full-blown pariah almost overnight for both its lack of representation and the fact that it was seen as the only thing standing in the way of the far more urgent Moonlight getting a Best Picture victory lap.
This year, that dishonor goes to Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, which, like La La Land, exploded out of the gate when it took home the coveted audience award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Its status as the Best Picture lock was only solidified when it won four Golden Globes—including one for best drama—and the Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble. But something funny happened on the way to the Dolby Theater.
As it stands now, Three Billboards is still technically the favorite to win on Sunday, at least according to Vegas. But Martin McDonagh’s tale about a grieving, headstrong woman (Frances McDormand) seeking justice in the titular town after her daughter was raped and murdered has slowly become this year’s La La Land. The film was rapturously reviewed when it came out in November, and McDormand’s Mildred Hayes was seen as a fiery proxy for female rage in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. But as Three Billboards started topping best-of lists and piling up awards—most of them for McDormand and Sam Rockwell, both of whom are still the runaway favorites to win on Sunday—the drumbeat of critics who hated the movie and found it deeply problematic, started to grow louder.
Its most vocal detractors took issue with Three Billboard’s awkward handling of race—specifically, Rockwell’s racist cop Dixon, who manages to find redemption by barely lifting a finger, and whose racism remains an abstraction throughout the film. The noble act he commits at the end of the film feels unearned. “It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist and abusive police officer in the name of his own redemption, but it is asking even more of the audience if Dixon himself does no actual work in the name of earning that redemption,” wrote Pacific Standard’s Hanif Abdurraqib.
Wesley Morris of the New York Times accused the film of “not reckoning with anything,” while The Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III wrote that as a British man, McDonagh lacks the perspective and nuance required to critique racism in America. “Whether it be through malice or ignorance, McDonagh’s attempts to script the black experience in America are often fumbling and backward and full of outdated tropes,” he wrote.
With the backlash mounting, McDonagh came to his film’s defense in what felt like an attempt to save its dwindling Oscar chances. “He’s definitely a racist and a bully, but I wouldn’t say he’s treated sympathetically,” the director said of his handling of Rockwell’s character. “I was trying to see the hope in all these people, so if you’re saying that’s treating a character sympathetically, to a degree that is. But the point of the film, and the thing I hope people come away with, is the possibility of change in people.”
If Three Billboards does win, some will put it alongside Crash in the annals of Oscar’s most famous screw-ups. Or, it will be seen as vindication for all those who have come to the film’s defense. Like the movie itself, it’s complicated.