Bully. It opens in Los Angeles, New York and other major cities this Friday.
Bully explores the plights of five of the estimated 13 million students in the US who are harassed by their classmates each year because of their sexual orientation, gender, race and/or physical appearance. The film gives painful yet inspiring voice to these bullied kids and their families, so much so that its distributor, The Weinstein Company, was planning to arrange screenings of Bully in middle schools and high schools across the country.
This noble plan was thwarted last month, however, when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) slapped the documentary with an "R" (Restricted) rating, thereby limiting its viewership to those ages 17 and over unless accompanied by an adult. The MPAA felt compelled to do so because of one sequence where profanity, including repeated use of the "F-word", is hatefully spewed by a bully. There is no sex, nudity, graphic violence or pervasive profanity in the rest of the movie but that one scene was enough for the MPAA to give its second-most restrictive classification.
The Weinstein Company and the MPAA have squared off over ratings before. Last year's Oscar-winning historical drama The King's Speech was similarly rated "R" for one scene in which its subject, King George VI (played by Colin Firth), lets loose with a string of expletives in an effort to overcome his crippling stutter. The studio later re-edited the film to garner a "PG-13" rating in order to allow it to be shown in schools. This time, though, The Weinstein Company challenged the MPAA's initial rating of Bully, arguing that the sequence in question necessarily shows the ugliness of a standard bully's attitude.
Big-name celebrities including Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper and Justin Bieber voiced their support in overturning the "R" rating, as have GLBT advocacy groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and Change.org. Nearly 500,000 people signed an online petition started by a Michigan teenager, Katy Butler, who revealed she herself had been bullied, and a growing number of Democrat and Republican members of Congress were at press time calling for the MPAA to overhaul its antiquated ratings system.
A March screening of Bully in Washington DC that was arranged to help defuse controversy over the "R" rating only added more fuel to the fire. At the event, MPAA President (and former US Senator) Christopher Dodd stated "I don't want the ratings issue to step all over what (director Lee Hirsch) has created." The award-winning Hirsch, who was present, quickly fired back: "The "R" is stepping all over it; that's the problem." Subsequently, California state Representative Linda T. Sanchez told the press, "This is a movie that's all about protecting kids, and the fact that (the MPAA) would offer a rating that won't let kids see it seems really counterintuitive."
Criticism of the MPAA for both its mysterious methods and secret membership has been growing in recent years. The 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated incisively detailed the organization's double standards in how it rates movies, including the way GLBT-themed and independent films are typically deemed to have less merit than mainstream productions. Bully, which is independently produced and deals with GLBT themes, could legitimately be the latest victim of the MPAA's time-honored application of these double standards. The unprecedented, widespread uproar over Bully might be able to provoke actual reform of the ratings system where past efforts to do so have failed.
Meanwhile, despite an MPAA appeal panel's re-evaluation of the rating given Bully, the film's "R" rating was upheld. Dodd responded, "I'm stuck; If we change the ruling in this case, I'll have ten other filmmakers lined up saying they shouldn't be given the "R", and who are we to say why this film should be different than the others?" The Weinstein Company, clearly milking the ratings controversy for all its worth in terms of publicity, ultimately announced yesterday that it would release Bully without a rating. This is ordinarily the kiss of death for films in wide release, since most theater chains won't show movies without an MPAA rating. However, Weinstein secured a pledge in advance from the nation's largest exhibitor, AMC, to play Bully without MPAA approval.
Having seen the film, I can attest that the "R" rating is excessive and that this great, eye-opening movie should be seen by students as well as (most especially) by their parents and teachers. But will it be a hit at the almighty box office? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the bullying goes on.
For more information about Bully and where it is being shown, visit the film's official website.
Reverend's Rating: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.