‘Three Billboards’ inspires copycat protests

Seeing red: Three billboards stationed beneath Grenfell Tower. © Justice4Grenfell @officialJ4G

Can films change the world? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which has won five Baftas, tells the tale of one woman’s protest against authority. Activists are copying its ideas…

“Raped while dying.” “And still no arrests.” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

These stark words are splashed across three roadside billboards on the outskirts of an American town. They have been put up by Mildred, a local woman whose daughter was raped and killed. Appalled by the fact that the culprit is still at large, she erects the billboards to pile pressure on the police.

So begins Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri . The punchy, darkly funny drama has gone down well with critics and audiences; on Sunday it won five Baftas, including Best Film.

It has impressed activists, too. Last week, the group Justice4Grenfell paraded three billboards through London to protest against the government’s reaction to the Grenfell Tower fire. Inspired by the film, they read: “71 dead.” “And still no arrests?” “How come?”

“We thought this would be effective,” explained group member Yvette Williams, “because we have a younger generation who use... film to often make sense of the world.”

Others clearly agree. In Bristol, a mural depicts three signs — again, modelled on the film’s — that protest at NHS cuts. After last week’s shooting at a school in Florida, campaigners in the state put up a trio of billboards criticising Senator Marco Rubio’s approach to gun control.

Films can influence society in various ways. Sometimes, an element of the plot takes on a life of its own in the real world. Think of these billboards, or — in a much darker sense — copycat crimes. In other cases, a film can lead to a specific change. The documentary The Thin Blue Line helped to overturn an innocent man’s conviction for murder.

Others yet shape society’s view of an issue more generally. Propaganda films set out to do just this. Elsewhere, An Inconvenient Truth caused two in three viewers to change their mind about climate change, according to a survey.

Surveys notwithstanding, a film’s impact on society is very hard to quantify. This has led to a fierce debate about their actual effect. Films, as Williams says, may help us to understand the world. But can they really change it?

Moved by movies

Dream on, say some. With a few modest exceptions — like The Thin Blue Line — films have no lasting impact on what matters in society. Audiences like a good talking point, but as soon as the next big film comes along, they forget the last one. These real-life billboards make for good photos, but nothing will come of them.

How cynical, reply others. Cinema’s influence is subtle but powerful. Films present issues in an entertaining, memorable way, thus raising awareness of them in a way that academia or even journalism cannot. The public’s attitude changes as a result, and slowly society transforms.

You Decide

  1. If you were a filmmaker, would you rather your film won awards or inspired protests?
  2. Is film the most powerful art form?


  1. Choose a political cause you care about. Come up with a punchy slogan, to be split over three billboards, which promotes that cause.
  2. Pick a film that has affected you deeply, and write a review of it, explaining why. (You can film a video review instead.)

Some People Say...

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”

Jean-Luc Godard

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Three Billboard won five Baftas — a record this year. They were: Best Film, Best Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell), Best Original Screenplay (Martin McDonagh) and Best British Film (despite its setting, the film was half-funded by British money). In her speech, McDormand praised those in the room who we wearing black to protest against sexual misconduct in the industry.
What do we not know?
Whether the movie will win big next month at the greatest film awards in the world: the Oscars. Its triumph on Sunday helps its chances, but the British and American awards often go different ways. Three Billboards may also be hurt by a controversy, bigger in the USA than in the UK, over its portrayal of a racist policeman. See Vox’s link in Become An Expert.

Word Watch

The town does not really exist. The film was shot in Sylva, North Carolina.
The highest honours in British film. They are decided by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Among the group’s grievances are that many survivors have not yet been rehoused, and that nobody has been held criminally responsible for the fire. A criminal investigation and an inquiry are underway, but could take years.
Senator Marco Rubio
After a teenager shot dead 17 people at his former school in Florida, Rubio claimed that gun restrictions would not have prevented the shooting.
Copycat crimes
In the 1970s, director Stanley Kubrick pulled his violent film A Clockwork Orange from UK cinemas after it was accused of inspiring vicious assaults.
An Inconvenient Truth
The 2006 documentary, presented by former US Vice President Al Gore, makes a powerful case for why global warming is caused by humans. It was a critical and commercial hit, and is used as teaching material in some schools.
A survey
Conducted across 47 countries by The Nielsen Company and Oxford University.

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