This story contains plot spoilers for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
In the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, it seems like everyone—the town priest, the kids at the local high school—is trying to convince Mildred Hayes to take her billboards down. The 2017 crime drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri centers around the large red signs that Mildred (Frances McDormand) puts up along the road near her home, in order to call out the town’s police chief for not catching the man who raped and killed her daughter, Angela.
The billboards, which read “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests?”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?,” are extremely divisive in the small Midwestern community. While many in Ebbing empathize with Mildred’s grief, they don’t support her blaming the police chief (who, viewers later find out, is dying of cancer) in such a public and aggressive manner.
And yet, Mildred keeps her billboards up. They become symbols of her tireless search for justice—and, as my colleague Christopher Orr has written, they’re the physical manifestation of “a community struggling to deal with both the horrifying memory of Angela’s murder and the difficult reality of Mildred’s response to it.” The signs, which serve as the film’s visual focal point, are striking as a tool of protest—concise, silently confrontational, memorable. And just a few months after the film’s release, the billboards have begun to inspire activists around the world and inform a wide range of calls for justice.
Days ahead of the Academy Awards ceremony, where Three Billboards is a major contender for Best Picture, a street-artist called Sabo put up three billboards in Hollywood to call on the Oscar nominees to use their platforms to fight sexual harassment. The signs read: “And the Oscar for biggest pedophile goes to…”; “We all knew and still no arrests.”; and “Name names on stage or shut the hell up!”
Three Billboards has resonated outside of Hollywood as well. As the humanitarian situation in Syria continues to worsen, many observers blame the inaction of the international community. To broadcast that message, a coalition of medical and humanitarian organizations put up three red billboards in late February outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City to urge the Security Council to vote for a ceasefire in Syria. The billboards read “500,000 dead in Syria”; “And still no action?”; “How come, Security Council?” (The Security Council has since passed a resolution calling for a temporary ceasefire.)
In recent weeks, there have been many other examples of similar billboards erected to call attention to government or institutional inertia on issues as diverse as gun control, sexual harassment, and press freedom. After a high-school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead earlier this month, an activist group called Avaaz put mobile billboards on trucks and drove them around Miami to call out Florida Senator Marco Rubio for his response to the shooting. They read, “Slaughtered in school”; “And still no gun control?”; “How come, Marco Rubio?”
The Three Billboards approach has been put to use outside of the U.S., too. In London, an activist group named “Justice4Grenfell” plastered three red signs on the side of moving vans to highlight the lack of prosecutions in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people last June and left hundreds of residents homeless. They read, “71 dead”; “And still no arrests?”; “How come?”
Perhaps the most noteworthy of all the real-life billboards erected across the world are the ones that were up for the shortest amount of time. In the small European nation of Malta, just over four months ago, the investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered for her work exposing the government’s systemic corruption. A self-declared “movement of nonpartisan people led by women” called “Occupy Justice Malta” put up three billboards to commemorate the anniversary of Galizia’s death. The group was quoted in the Maltese press as saying: “We were inspired by the film [Three Billboards], because with the Maltese government’s disregard for the rule of law, living in Malta at the moment is pretty much like living in a mafia movie.”
These signs were simple and compelling : “A journalist killed. No justice”: “A country robbed. No justice”; and “No resignations. No justice.”
Please retweet. These are the messages that the #Malta government is desperately trying to hide from local and international attention. Billboards were taken down mere hours after being put up. They can't take down Twitter. #Justice #wewillnotbesilenced #DaphneCaruanaGalizia pic.twitter.com/fum6guylCj— Stephen Pace-Bonello (@Stephenpeebee) February 17, 2018
Within hours, the billboards were taken down: The Maltese Planning Authorities said the signs violated preexisting removal notices—but, as the local newspaper Times of Malta pointed out, “around 40 illegal billboards around the island remain standing” despite receiving similar notices.
This isn’t, of course, the first time on-screen entertainment has influenced real-life activism. In 2014, several students were arrested in Thailand for using the “mockingjay” salute—inspired by the popular dystopian Hunger Games movies—as a sign of protest against the country’s military government. After the release of the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017, activists wore the show’s characteristic crimson robes and white bonnets while marching for women’s reproductive rights and gender equality in cities across the U.S.
Edward Walker, an associate professor of sociology at UCLA, has studied how movies and other cultural products can change perceptions of social issues and influence political outcomes. In a 2015 study, he found that local screenings of the anti-fracking documentary Gasland in a given state spurred anti-fracking mobilizations, which, in turn, affected the likelihood of passing fracking bans in those states. But part of the reason Gasland ignited such large-scale public protests was a striking scene in which homeowners lit their contaminated tap water on fire. During the gas boom, the release of methane from natural-gas wells and installations was poisoning drinking water across America—and images of burning water from Gasland served as a potent symbol for activists.
Walker explained to me how, in a moment of heightened social consciousness in the U.S. and elsewhere—in the age of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements and of the backlash against the Trump presidency—movies have a critical role to play. “[Films] give people a … vivid image of how social change can be enacted,” Walker said, suggesting that both topical documentaries (like Gasland) and narrative movies (like the Hunger Games franchise) can lead to such change.
The question of why some approaches, like the billboards, seem to take hold more than others has to do with the concept of “tactical diffusion.” Sarah Soule, a sociology professor at Stanford University, conducted a study on the spread of the shantytown-protest technique—students taking over buildings and camping out in symbolic shantytowns—from apartheid South Africa to American college campuses in the mid-1980s. She found that the tactic spread most rapidly within schools with similar institutional structures, endowment levels, and rankings. This means mediums of protest will spread more when people identify with it in a deep, cultural way, as Soule wrote: “Students at colleges and universities similar to one another … more easily forge collective identities.”
In the case of Three Billboards, the central injustice running through the movie is a perceived inaction on the part of the authorities. Similar concerns animated the billboard protests in Malta, Miami, New York, London, and Los Angeles, leading Walker to conclude that the signs are “a vivid, attention-grabbing mechanism that works well for the idea that the authorities are asleep at the wheel.”
This new brand of activism hasn’t gone unnoticed by the people involved in the movie that inspired it. During her BAFTA acceptance speech, Frances McDormand praised “well-organized act[s] of civil disobedience” and said she was “thrilled that activists all over the world have been inspired” by the film.
In Three Billboards, Mildred brushes off most efforts to get her to take her billboards down, hitting back against both intimidation and violence. But the most moving plea (and the one that ends up being the hardest to ignore) comes from her ex-husband, Charlie, who tells her: “Those billboards aren’t gonna bring her back, Mildred.” Relatedly, it’s worth asking whether using this tactic in real life can prompt meaningful change, with the Syrian crisis or gun-control legislation, beyond stirring the public’s emotions. But, then again, perhaps making people feel something is the whole point.