The MPAA: Censorship in American Film

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How many of you have seen the film Last Tango In Paris? Although an Italian film, the artistic masterpiece contains much English and even more importantly, one of American Cinemas greatest actors Marlon Brando (The Godfather! Apocalypse Now!). So why is it, that a film so critically renowned, containing one of the most popular actors ever, still answers that question with “not many of you”?

Well, the answer is unnervingly simple: its rated NC-17. Not only do most theaters not release NC-17 films, but any major store that sells movies (for example Blockbuster or Walmart) doesn’t carry them. That means that if you are an independent filmmaker trying to make even enough money to support another film, you better not get an NC-17 rating. And if you aren’t an independent filmmaker, well then you simply wont be able to release your film with that rating at all. Its all based on whether or not the content is deemed “appropriate” and its as close to censorship as America can get without being too blatant about it.  

So who’s in charge of deciding which films get released and which don’t, and what are the rules and guidelines to the rating process? Well, they call themselves the MPAA, the Motion Picture Association of America. They were founded in 1922, but it wasn’t until 1930 and the adoption of the Hays Code that they became important to the film geek. Every film that wants a wide distribution must pass before its board of raters, and in doing so receives either a mark of approval (a rating of G through R) or a promising comment of you-better-remove-some-of-your-film-or-no-one-will-ever-see-it (an NC-17 rating.) Here’s the real suspicious part of it though, the MPAA keeps all the names of the people on the board of raters a secret. That means NOBODY knows who’s rating the films being constantly made. The filmmaker gets a short meeting or phone call with the representative or speaker of the board that lets them know whether their film will be widely distributed or not. If not, they must go back and cut out parts of their film, or they can appeal the decision but that very rarely works in their favor. Often the board holds up the same decision. 

The problem with the rules and guidelines that make up the rating system, is that they are so vague there might as well be none. According to the MPAA’s website, an R rated film may contain “adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements.” However a film gets an NC-17 rating if it contains “violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.” Funny, how the requirements are same, except for the fact that an NC-17 film is one that parents would consider “too strong” for their kids. So, all of America is forced to let a completely nameless group of individuals decide what is, and is not okay for their children to view. It is of COMPLETE opinion to decipher between an R and NC-17 rating.          

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It gets worse. When looking back on films rated NC-17, it is almost always because of the films sexual content. But we aren’t talking about porn trying to make it into theaters here. Most often, it is because of a simple close up on a characters face during a sex scene. If too much pleasure is being shown, well then its simply not fit for our children’s eyes. And this is ESPECIALLY apparent when it comes to a female character. A film can chop someones head off, throw their legs in a wood chipper, hand an M16 to a four year old, and call it a day. But if a woman is having too good of a time in bed, damnit we want answers! God forbid our children (or really anyone at all) see that. Just another example of how as a country, we prefer violence to sex any day.  

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Well then, what can we do? Unfortunately, not very much. The rating system will continue to be as strong as government censorship as long as stores and theaters continue to refuse to release NC-17 rated films. Filmmakers will continue to cut away at their films, removing potentially artistic content in favor of an R rating. And the board will continue to make sure their names are secure, lest anyone find out who’s hiding behind the highly guarded walls (quite literally) of the MPAA headquarters. But cheer up, because Last Tango In Paris is available on netflix (for now). And there is an endless list of other NC-17 rated jewels, that although the majority may not see, can be found on the ol’ interweb and enjoyed in the version in which the directors intended. 

For more information on those bastards at the MPAA, please watch the film that this article is inspired by: This Film Is Not Yet Rated.