When I first heard that the Weinstein Company had lost its appeal to overturn the R rating that the MPAA had given to Lee Hirsch's film Bully, I was taken back to 2005 when we opted for an appeal for our Iraq War film Gunner Palace after it also received an R for language. At the time, the war was raging in Iraq, young people were dying every day, coverage of the war was in decline and we thought it was imperative that high school students have access -- unrestricted -- to a film that could help them relate to the conflict. An R rating would make that impossible, not just in the immediate, but also in the future, because few school districts purchase R rated films for their libraries.
So, I flew out to Hollywood with Andy Robbins who ran marketing for our distributor and screened the movie for the appeals board -- which consisted of a juror of a dozen industry representatives and a priest. After they watched the film, we presented our case, Joan Graves from CARA made a rebuttal and we were allowed to close our arguments. As I said my final remarks -- fighting back emotion -- I felt like we were defending not just a film, but an experience, one that the young soldiers in the film lived and we had captured. The language in the film wasn't gratuitous, it was unfiltered reality and if it was offensive, then I reminded the board that war is the greatest profanity of them all.
When we were finished, Andy I were taken to a holding area while the board tallied their votes. An assistant came back a short time later and said the vote was (I believe) 9 to 3. Joan Graves consoled us, as if to say, "Better luck next time fellas." The assistant then said,"No, Joan, they won."
We were elated and thanked the board -- in our eyes, they had done their job that day, which is to say, rules will be challenged and it's imperative that a body that claims to safeguard the community standards of a nation be aware of the currents in that community. The film was released, the MPAA was not bombarded with letters from pressure groups and the film now sits on the shelves of most school libraries. A few years later I was asked about the appeal and in retrospect, it occurred to me how difficult it is to rate reality. Is the little girl running down the street -- burnt by Napalm -- in Nick Ut's famous photograph a PG or an R? What about Buchenwald? Or Abu Ghraib? Are those NC17? When does the public good outweigh the pressure to censor and restrict access to images and words?
Fast forward seven years, as a filmmaker and as the parent of a sixteen year old girl, I'm hugely disappointed that the MPAA upheld the R rating of Bully -- one originally given for six uses of the F-word or variations of it. In the eyes of the MPAA, once you pass two F-Bombs, you automatically have an R. Never mind that in one of the scenes where the F-word is used, a boy is bullied on a school bus by an older boy who also tells the younger that he's going to cut him and assault him with a broom handle. Watching this -- and many scenes in the film -- you often forget that you are in a middle school and not in a prison yard. These are ugly real threats and the escalation and use of language is essential to the film. At it's heart, "Bully" is about the power of words. To understand what these kids are really experiencing you have to hear the language. Editing or bleeping would be an insult to that experience. But the MPAA is not worried about that or the best interests of kids, rather, they are worried about angry pressure groups and commentators, the same sort of people who, ironically, love to throw around words like slut at their enemies.
I thought we were beyond this as a culture -- especially after our appeal -- but it seems that Joan Graves and the MPAA will always have one foot firmly planted in the '50s, a time when the F-word and Allen Ginsberg were threats to their way of life. It's about time that we rethink how we rate movies.