Films that contributed to a change in the law

From fizzy drink sizes to video nasties to employment law, we look at the films that had an impact on legislation as well as culture...

Some films appear in the cinema, entertain their audience, make their money, and then dutifully shuffle off into the mists of history, only to be wheeled out now and again on TV. But occasionally, one comes along that has a lasting impact, and every so often, a movie has at least some influence on an eventual change in the law.

Here, we’re going to look at a few examples of that, as we examine a selection of films that have had an impact more lasting than how much they made at the box office…


Originally conceived as a BBC Play For Today, Alan Clarke’s Scum was pulled by the corporation from its broadcast schedules. Undeterred, Clarke and writer Roy Minton reworked it as a film, and Scum finally saw the inside of cinemas in September 1979.

A terrifyingly violent drama taking place inside a British youth detention centre under the Borstal system, the film attracted no shortage of controversy. Clarke doesn’t shirk from his story of a culture of violence to survive, with an astonishing performance from Ray Winstone at Scum’s heart.

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How direct a change in the law Scum was responsible for is open to debate, but the government of the time abolished the Borstal system in 1982’s Criminal Justice Act, renaming the institutions as Youth Custody Centres (now Young Offender Institutions).


It’s hard to pinpoint just what the catalyst was for the Video Nasty controversies that raged in early 1980s Britain, but Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer was certainly one of the candidates.

His 1979 horror was set for a video release in 1982, and its distributor, Vipco, took out adverts for it. Said adverts showcased the cover of the video, which did not hold back on the violence. Complaints rolled into the Advertising Standards Agency in no small number, and the Video Nasty issue began to take hold. Further titles followed, including Cannibal Holocaust, and Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers’ And Listeners’ Association took an interest. In turn, so did the press, and with a charge led by the likes of the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, the path to the Video Recordings Act of 1984 had been laid. It became law in 1985, and the BBFC had the added responsibility of classifying video releases, ultimately leading to a considerable list of titles that were banned on video in the UK for a long, long time.

Films on the list included The Exorcist, The Damned and Straw Dogs. Some of the films have still not had an uncut UK release on home formats three decades later. That said, over time, the censorship regime has been slightly relaxed. But there are individual cases that still cause the media to fly off on something of a frenzy.


A 1999 French-German co-production, Rosetta starred Emilie Dequenne in the title role as a 17-year old girl, stuck in a miserable life. She lives in a trailer park along with her mother. Her mother is battling alcoholism. Unsurprisingly, Rosetta is keen to escape her life, and tries to find a job to help her earn the money to do so. She’s not entitled to unemployment pay, and her life is one of desperation, violence and pain. It is not the easiest movie to watch.

Yet it is one that’s had an impact. Hugely acclaimed on its release, Rosetta came to the attention of the Belgian legislature, aided by it winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes. As a consequence, the law in Belgium was re-examined, and fresh legislation was introduced that made it illegal to pay teenage workers less than the statutory minimum wage.

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Oliver Stone dedicates his extraordinary film JFK to the young, in the hope that they may one day get to the bottom of what really happened on that fateful day in Dallas back in 1963. But his film did have a consequence that would speed that process up a little.

The film’s success led to a great deal of attention on the assassination of John F Kennedy, but also the ongoing allegations of a cover-up. In 1992, the year after JFK was released, the John F Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 became law in the US, bringing with it the Assassination Records Review Board. This Board then brought together the records relating to the JFK assassination, and gradually began releasing them into public record. The process, however, still won’t be complete until 2017, over a quarter of a century since the release of Stone’s film.


Errol Morris’ documentaries have long been essential viewing, and his 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, remains arguably the most important of the lot. Its focus is on Randall Dale Adams, a man imprisoned for the murder of a police officer in the US. And whilst it didn’t per se lead to a change on the statute books of America, it did result in a re-evaluation of a legal case, and the release of a man now proven to be innocent.

Morris’ film went back through the case in detail, pointing out, via a variety of techniques, the many holes in the case that had been brought against Adams. Garnering fresh publicity for the case, The Thin Blue Line directly led to Adams getting a retrial, where he was subsequently acquitted and released.


Not the remake, but the 1966 original, starring Michael Caine in one his most iconic roles. It’s the haunting abortion sequence that we’re talking about here too, as Julia Foster’s Gilda heads to a back room in Alfie’s flat. At the time, abortion was illegal in the UK, and thus the procedure was undertaken by those not operating on the right side of the law as it stood. It’s a harrowing scene, and Alfie’s reaction to it is just part of the reason why. All of this material was nowhere to be seen by the time that tepid remake rolled around.

Backstreet abortions, as they were known, were outlawed in the UK with the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act. Whether Alfie was a direct contributor to this is open to debate, but its impact was certainly felt just months before the law began to change. That doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence.

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Before Peter Jackson began production on his now-trilogy of Hobbit movies, there was some suggestion that shooting would switch elsewhere (Ireland was in the running at one stage), given impending disputes with New Zealand unions. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy had been, and continues to be, a major boost for New Zealand’s economy, not least through ongoing tourism. The country was thus keen to welcome Jackson and his team back for The Hobbit.

It seems it took a change in the law to make it happen, in a rare case of a movie altering the statute book before it had already been made. Thus, in 2010, it was revealed that New Zealand employment law was changing, which meant actors would be regarded as contractors rather than employees. That, in turn, meant they did not have the right to unionisation, strike action, sick pay and holidays. Once those changes were passed, and tax breaks assured, Warner Bros committed the $500m Hobbit production to New Zealand. Its time as Middle Earth ends this year, but the changes to New Zealand law remain.


Kenji Mizoguchi’s last film, Street Of Shame, was released in Japan in 1956. Set in Tokyo’s red light district, it focused on the women working in one of its brothels, and got right to the human heart of their individual stories.

The film found a sizeable audience on its original release, and it was just a few months later that the Japanese government introduced a new anti-prostitution law. Again, it’s a matter of debate as to how much this was down to the film itself. But at the very least, Street Of Shame – now available via the Criterion Collection – appears to have acceleration the process.


A 50 minute documentary that took over 10 years to make, A Handful Of Ash is the work of Shara Amin and Nabaz Ahmed. Over the course of a decade, they travelled across Kurdistan, interviewing men and women about the horrors of female genital mutilation.

This Guardian article on the film does it far better justice than we could.

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What’s clear is that Amin and Ahmed tackled a subject very much taboo in Kurdistan, encountering many courageous people willing to speak up about the impact and consequences of female genital mutilation. The resultant film, A Handful Of Ash, was shown in the Kurdish parliament.

The horrific practice has now been outlawed in Kurdistan, as a direct consequence of the filmmakers and their film.


This law change didn’t quite work out, igniting a controversy just a year or two back in the States. But then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg had a strong reaction to watching Lee Daniels’ film, Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire. And it was suggested that his attempt to push through a limit on the size of soft drinks for sale in New York City was at least in part a reaction to his seeing the film.

The plan was to stop the sale of fizzy drinks to no more than half a litre. The likes of cinemas, sports stadia and restaurants would no longer be able to sell what’s described as ‘sugar-sweetened drinks’ in individual quantities larger than that.

The New York City Board of Health accepted the limit in September 2012, with the plan being to introduce it properly the following year. Yet after a series of objections and appeals, the limit was overturned before it had a chance to become law. The final hammer blow to it was delivered earlier this year, when the New York Court Of Appeals ruled that the New York City Board Of Health was outside of its jurisdiction in trying to impose such a cap.

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