‘R’ rating may limit reach of anti-bullying documentary

Morgan Engels, Clarion staff

A late February decision made by Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to issue an R rating to the documentary Bully has placed the association at the center of a controversy that now has members of Congress chiming in.

“Bully” is a documentary made in response to highly publicized recent accounts of bullying amongst teens and young adults that has resulted in the suicides of numerous youths. The film chronicles the daily lives of seven Midwestern high school and middle school students who are frequent targets of bullying over the course of the 2009-2010 school year.

The documentary also tells the stories of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley who took their own lives after being tormented by classmates. The documentary has been targeted by the MPAA for violating the association’s policy of allowing one use of the “F” word in a PG-13 film. “Bully” features six uses of the expletive.

Following the MPAA’s initial decision, the film’s director Lee Hirsch released the following statement to defend his use of the strong language, “I made “Bully” for kids to see – the bullies as well as the bullied. We have to change hearts and minds in order to stop this epidemic, which has scarred countless lives and driven many children to suicide. To capture the stark reality of bullying, we had to capture the way kids act and speak in their everyday lives – and the fact is that kids use profanity.”

“It is heartbreaking that the MPAA, in adhering to a strict limit on certain words, would end up keeping this film from those who need to see it most,” Hirsch continued. “No one could make this case more powerfully than Alex Libby, and I am so proud and honored that he is stepping forward to make a personal appeal.”

Shortly thereafter producer Harvey Weinstein, who acquired the film after its premier at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, announced that he would be appealing the rating. Weinstein, who has had two other high profile disputes with the MPAA in recent years over the NC-17 rating of the 2010 romantic drama Blue Valentine and the R rating of the Academy Award winning The Kings Speech (both were appealed, the latter of which was unsuccessful) spoke before an MPAA appeals committee on Feb. 23 along with one of the documentary’s focuses Alex Libby. Later that day it was announced that the MPAA would uphold the rating in a decision that was made by a difference of one vote.

In the wake of the MPAA’s decision to uphold the rating, Katy Butler, a 17 year old Anne Arbor Michigan resident who herself became a target of bullying after coming out as a lesbian,  launched an online petition calling for the film’s rating to be lowered to PG-13.

“These are real people, telling their real stories,” said Butler in an interview with the Washington Post. “I think it could create a big change, and it could potentially save lives if kids are allowed to see it.”

Since the launch of the petition, which can be found at Change.org, more than 400,000 signatures have been collected with notable names such as Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Also amongst the names are 20 members of Congress.

“We are writing to express our sincere disappointment in the MPAA’s decision to issue an R-rating for the soon-to-be-released documentary ‘Bully,’” wrote Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) in a letter signed by both Republicans and Democrats sent to the MPAA. “This important project shows the real life anguish of many teenagers in this country who are tormented, harassed and bullied by their peers.”

“This truth should be shared with as wide an audience as is appropriate and possible. We believe an R-rating excludes the very audience for whom this film is desperately important,” Honda said.