"The Hunger Games," the heavily hyped action-filled fantasy flick about children being forced to battle to the death, is likely benefit at the box office from its target-audience friendly PG-13 rating.
Meanwhile, "Bully," a far more modest upcoming documentary about children in a real-life fight for their lives, has been saddled with an R rating that’s likely to reduce the number of youngsters who see the film.
The comparison isn’t meant to denigrate "The Hunger Games," but rather to note the Motion Picture Association of America's shortsighted decision to, in essence, penalize “Bully” because the F-bomb is dropped twice. The move is enough to make us hunger for some common sense.
The documentary traces five families impacted by childhood bullying, including two cases that ended in suicide. We haven't seen the movie, which opens March 30. But it seems clear the power of language would be key in a film about young people driven to desperation by hurtful words.
As "Bully" director Lee Hirsch recently told The Washington Post, in explaining why he won't simply cut or bleep the F-word, “I actually think that the language is what makes this film powerful because it’s what makes the bullying real."
Bullying has become more real in recent years paradoxically as it's become more virtual, with campaigns of torment being waged on the web, packing perhaps a larger resonance than schoolyard taunts. We got a grim reminder of the cost of cyberbullying with last week’s conviction on invasion of privacy and bias intimidation charges of a man who trained a webcam on his Rutgers University dorm roommate during an intimate moment with another man. The roommate, Tyler Clementi, later killed himself in a heartbreaking case that drew national attention.
The MPAA appears to live in world in which language is more harmful to youngsters than the violence that fills many PG-13 popcorn movies. Meanwhile, gratuitous epithets turn up all over TV and elsewhere in the media, and, sadly, too often in common speech. As Roger Ebert aptly put it in the headline of a recent blog post decrying the MPAA's decision, "Hey, kids! Anybody here not heard the F-word?"
The MPAA, as we've noted previously, has proved somewhat inconsistent in its ratings decrees. The fun "Date Night" survived an F-bomb with a PG-13 rating, while "The King's English" got slapped with an R for a crucial scene in which King George VI dramatically unleashes a profanity barrage in frustration over his stutter.
The Academy Award-winning movie was produced by The Weinstein Company, the powerful outfit behind "Bully." The company's stature has helped put the "Bully" cause in the spotlight, drawing backing from the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep.
More impressively, an online petition started by Katy Butler, a 17-year-old victim of bullying, had attracted nearly 450,000 backer as of Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps most significantly, legal powerhouses David Boies and Ted Olson, who successfully fought California’s Proposition 8, are mulling court action against the MPAA for turning down The Weinstein Company's appeal, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
It’s heartening to see folks banding to fight for a movie that battles bullying. It’s distressing to see the guardians of movie morality play semantic games when many children and adults could benefit from watching a cinematic mirror trained on a national scourge. In the case of “Bully,” it’s clear that "R" doesn't stand for "reality."
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, milt-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.