For many years, polls have shown that the public neither understands the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings nor trusts them. Nevertheless, people assume the MPAA is an impartial body and that the ratings have some basis in moral, ethical or child-development standards. When the public’s confusion drifts over into the press, it is time once again to clarify the issue.
The rating for the recent bigoted and pornographic comedy “Bruno” is a prime example. It should have been NC-17. Some countries even banned it.
“Bruno” contains not only graphic scenes of sodomy, intercourse and sadomasochism, but also a graphic oral sex scene and a close-up of a male sex organ. What arguably is worse, if that is possible, are the movie’s attacks on blacks, Jews and Christians.
Because the MPAA was helping one of its member’s movies by giving it an R rating instead of an NC-17, we decided to ask local authorities to view the movie and rate it according to their community standards. Community ratings boards used to be the norm. At one time, there were more than 300 of them in the United States. In response to our inquiry letter, several district attorneys said they would look at the movie to consider re-rating it.
We also told the public about some of the horrendous things in the movie.
This is not censorship. Censorship by definition is prior restraint by the government. Because the movie already had been made, our action couldn’t be prior restraint. Also, because we are not a government agency, we cannot censor anything. Anyone, however, can warn family, friends and community, and we did just that.
When B’nai B’rith attacked “The Passion of the Christ,” no one called it censorship. When grape growers call for boycotts, nobody calls it censorship. Because it is not censorship. When they hear calls to action, individual Americans can decide whether they want to see a movie or avoid it. This is the essence of free speech.
The MPAA, unlike the ratings systems in other countries, is a private body that represents the six major studios. It has unfairly rated independent movies for years. It does not have standards for its ratings.
Two years ago, a left-leaning group made a movie about the MPAA, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” complaining that the MPAA gives harsher ratings to independent, liberal filmmakers. Christians could say the same thing.
I argued in front of the MPAA because it had given one of the movies from the producers of “Left Behind” an R rating only to restrict the box-office earnings. After I presented the evidence, MPAA lowered the rating.
In most countries, a government body gives ratings. In some countries, it’s the church. It is unimaginable in other countries to let the fox guard the henhouse.
The good news is that the cases have been very rare when we have had to sound the alarm about a particular movie. After a moderately strong opening day, “Bruno” has done poorly. Its box office dropped off dramatically. It lost an unheard of 72.8 percent after the first weekend. “The Golden Compass,” an atheist movie meant to attack Christianity, also bombed at the box office. “The Last Temptation of Christ” made less than $8.4 million. That means just 2 million people saw it in a country of then more than 290 million.
We believe sounding an alarm has to be limited to those very rare cases where it is completely appropriate. “Bruno” is one of those cases.
I personally talked to several students who saw the film. At their stage of development, the movie will provide unwholesome and perverse scripts of behavior and enduring vile images for the rest of their lives. What’s worse is that the movie reinforces anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-Christian bigotry, and many young people are susceptible to bigotry as they try to establish their identity.
As Billy Sunday once said, America will not have revival unless it is distressed about wickedness.
We are called to protect the innocent. We also are called to be distressed by bigotry and perversity, whether we are left, right or center. Only people who are desensitized or perverse themselves would not care enough for our children and grandchildren to sound the alarm.
Ted Baehr is chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission ministry and publisher of Movieguide, CFTVC’s family guide to movies and entertainment.