Three Billboards and an urgent lesson

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri – an unprepossessing name, perhaps, but the acclaim this film has received is well-deserved. Uncomfortably funny, desperately sad and painfully shocking (often all at the same time), it takes hold of the reader in a way that it logically shouldn’t, with a combination of languor and pressing need that build together to make for compulsive viewing. If you can handle the profanities, I predict that despite your best efforts, you will be gripped.

Whereas the action in many great films ranges across cities and continents, Three Billboards keeps us locked in a single place, beyond which the world barely seems to exist, where outside perspectives seem both exotic and somehow discordant, and yet where the immense depth of human existence is explored and laid bare. Three Billboards is about human imbalance, out of which emerges indomitability, amongst other things; it is in many ways a resounding call for human beings to break free of the shackles that bind them, and see how the world can be different, but it is also a stark reminder that humanity is not to be found in superficial glimpses of two-dimensional characters who have straightforwardly simple moral choices. Humanity, we are reminded, has to be lived and experienced in the raw, relentlessly delving deeper, taking time to understand people and their worlds before we judge them.

And this is the urgent lesson – it is when people feel misunderstood or dismissed that they will find a way to strike out and make themselves heard. The groundswells of dissatisfaction with established politics seen in the last couple of years in countries like the US and the UK have shown us this in practice. These groundswells may have been prompted by complex motivations, and it now seems very possible that people have been manipulated in ways that we do not yet quite appreciate – but when we take time to understand people and their lives, their actions can seem explicable and justified, even if we do not agree with them. If we take time genuinely to empathise and to walk in people’s shoes, we gain a deeper, closer understanding of their humanity.

Understanding people does not cause us to be like them; we can (and I would strongly argue should) simultaneously seek to transcend these same experiences and understandings, in the quest for a shared, more balanced, kinder, more considerate, more loving humanity. But understand them we must. There is no doubt that travel broadens the mind, exposing people to different ideas and ways to see the world, but we should not kid ourselves into thinking that a superficial glimpse into places, cosseted in familiar-looking hotels, gives us the right to say that we understand – culture or people.

We need to walk in other people’s shoes; we need to take time to listen, to hear and to understand. We need to feel their pain as well as their joy, and we need to connect to their souls, sharing in their humanity, if we are to have any chance of working together to be better than we are.

Watch Three Billboards and reflect … because the world really can’t wait much longer for us to get our act together and understand one another.

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