The new documentary Bully takes on the issue of harassment in American high schools, depicting real scenes of school bus torture, schoolyard violence, administrative indifference, and the tragic fallout in explicit detail. Now, the Motion Picture Association of America has made sure that most American high school students won't be able to see the film: It's slapped the doc with an R rating.
That's a problem for producer Harvey Weinstein, who had lobbied for a PG-13 label so he could tour the film in middle and high schools. The MPAA admitted that the documentary "can serve as a vehicle" for student discussion around bullying, but insisted that the film nevertheless "contains certain language" that requires it be rated R. The result? Teenagers will be barred from watching a documentary about what teenagers actually say and do to one another.
Weinstein is fighting back. He's threatened to withdraw The Weinstein Company, which produces films like My Week With Marilyn and The Artist, from the MPAA's rating system altogether. MPAA ratings are voluntary, but filmmakers fear that releasing an unrated film spells box office failure, as many movie theaters won't show films that don't undergo the regulatory process. "I have been through many of these appeals, but this one ... is a huge blow to me personally," Weinstein said. He's not alone. Alex Libby, one of the bullied teens featured in the film, also "gave an impassioned plea and eloquently defended the need for kids to be able to see this movie on their own, not with their parents, because that is the only way to truly make a change."
This is not the first time the MPAA has inspired a filmmaker's righteous indignation. Independent filmmaker Heather Ferreira has advised her fellow filmmakers to offer their movies for download on the internet instead of through the studio system to sidestep the MPAA's censorship. In the unrated 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Boys Don't Cry's Kimberly Pierce, and Requiem for a Dream's Darren Aronofsky all railed against the MPAA's puritanical and often arbitrary rating system. The documentary exposed the MPAA's cadre of untrained anonymous raters, who are meant to represent regular American parents, but are really free to impose their own backwards values on the rest of the population. These untouchable judges rate gay sex as more explicit than straight sex, view sexual content and crass language as more troubling than horrific violence, are directly influenced by members of the clergy and are not necessarily even parents of teens.
But of course, Bully is a much different film than South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut. The documentary is the first unambiguously feel-good film in recent memory to take a stand against the MPAA's rating system, and to do so in the name of children's welfare, not just artistic freedom. Because Bully is a film that parents will actually want their children to see, it stands a chance to make a serious dent in the MPAA's stranglehold over movie ratings.
I hope Harvey Weinstein does withdraw from the MPAA, and that other major film producers join him. The MPAA's reign rests on the financial fears of filmmakers, but if big Hollywood producers refuse to play along, it would become bad business for movie theaters to not show unrated films. Parents are right to be concerned about the content their children are watching. What they don't need is an anonymous lobby of other parents to decide what's good and bad for them—especially if it means stopping their kids from watching a film as important as this.
Bully screenshot via YouTube