A seemingly endless variety of signs were on display at the March For Our Lives this weekend, but look closely and you may have noticed a few common trends emerging.
One is the bright red sign with bold black text, sometimes accompanied by others like it and usually calling out specific individuals or institutions for their inaction in the face of tragedy. Like so:
The origins of these billboards and Three Billboards
If you’re a movie buff, you may recognize these as a nod to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, one of the Best Picture nominees from the past Academy Awards ceremony.
The Martin McDonagh-directed film stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a Midwestern mom grieving the brutal murder of her teenage daughter. Frustrated by local law enforcement’s inability to find the killer, she puts up three enormous billboards meant to shame the police chief.
Collectively, they read: Raped while dying. And still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?
Three Billboards is not based on a true story, but it is inspired by true events. In interviews, McDonagh has said that he got the idea for Mildred’s billboards from a series of real signs he saw during a bus trip two decades ago. (He has since said that they were probably the ones erected by James Fulton after his daughter’s 1991 death.)
The “three billboards” tactic is taking off
McDonagh’s film, in turn, has inspired signs protesting all sorts of injustice. In February, activists deployed three moving billboards (attached to cars) in London to call attention to the lack of progress being made in the investigation surrounding the Grenfell Tower Fire.
That same month – just ahead of the Academy Awards – conservative street artist Sabo erected three billboards in Hollywood calling out the industry for its history of sexual harassment and assault.
And just this week, the New York Times spoke with Kat Sullivan, who was moved by the film to post ads about her own rape and plead with the New York State Senate to pass the Child Victims Act.
In fact, today isn’t even the first time we’ve seen red billboards about the Parkland shooting. Within days of the tragedy, mobile billboards were spotted around Senator Marco Rubio’s office in Florida, demanding better gun control.
On a lighter note, the “three billboards” approach has also been used to direct attention to less urgent issues, like recruiting LeBron James to the Philadelphia 76ers. They’ve become a popular meme online as well, for matters both major and minor.
Hundreds of billboards at the March for Our Lives
Today, billboards like these are out in full force at March for Our Lives protests all over the world. You can spot them in Washington D.C.:
New York City:
As an Oscar nominee, Three Billboards was a controversial one, with detractors criticizing its awkward handling of race relations and police brutality. As with any film, its long-term legacy will only be revealed with time. In terms of its short-term impact, however, Three Billboards clearly packs quite a punch.
So much so, you may be surprised to learn Three Billboards didn’t actually win Best Picture, though it did take home Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. (You probably remember the Best Actress speech for introducing the term “inclusion rider” to the broader world.)
The Best Picture honor went instead to The Shape of Water – and though that film hasn’t been nearly as visible a presence in contemporary American activism, at least one protestor decided to pay homage.