On the Censorship of Film

George Bernard ShawAuthors have long condemned most (often all) forms of censorship. Susan Sontag wrote, “I am against censorship. In all forms.” Salman Rushdie stated that the “creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today.” And playwright George Bernard Shaw discussed the relationship between censorship and stagnation:

“All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.”

But what of filmmakers? Since there have been movies, there has been censorship of film. John Waters’s 1972 Pink Flamingos was banned in several small towns in the US, and the 1932 film Scarface (presented by Howard Hughes, not Brian De Palma) was banned in a John Watersfew areas in the United States for violence. And in some other countries, the battle against censorship rages more intensely. Chinese director Xie Fei said that China’s system of censorship “has only become a corrupt black spot for controlling the prosperity of the cultural and entertainment industry, killing artistic exploration and wasting administrative resources.”

While film-banning and overbearing governments are relatively easy to notice, though, there are more covert forms of film censorship. Consider the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system in the United States. The MPAA’s rating scheme has its benefits, such as identifying which films are appropriate for young children, but the rating system can be a form of censorship. When paired with corporations that will only finance films that can make a profit, an NC-17, R, or even a PG-13 rating can mean the death of an original cut of a feature film (or, at the very least, significantly narrower distribution of the movie). For example, the MPAA initially gave Bully, a socially relevant documentary about the bullying crisis in schools, an R rating. Because of this, younger audiences (to whom the Bullyfilm was most relevant) found it difficult to see the movie. The MPAA then released it as “unrated,” which was hardly a step up (though AMC agreed to show the movie to kids with permission from parents). Finally, after great pressure from celebrities and community leaders, the MPAA lessened the rating to P-13. Still, this shows the impact that ratings can have on distribution.

Even if films weren’t banned, and even if the MPAA (and corporations) lessened their grip on distribution potential, could a film still be censored? Yes. Airplanes and FX. I watched Limitless on an international flight, and the airline deleted a mild love scene. Years later, I attempted to watch Armageddon on FX. It was hard to concentrate amid the barrage of poorly dubbed censor-edits. Since then, I’ve tried to endure similar butchering of The DepartedThe DepartedRentPineapple Express, Mr. Deeds, and Scarface on FX and other networks. Of course, you may be thinking, “Well, Big B, just watch Showtime, STARZ, or HBO if you hate censorship so much.” But my counter-proposal is this: FX and other networks shouldn’t show those movies if they’re going to ignore artistic integrity. There are plenty of PG and PG-13 films with less questionable content—show those. If, as a network, they believe that their audience is mature enough to handle the plot of Pineapple Express, they should assume that their audience is mature enough to handle some strong language.

If I watch a movie on an airplane and entire scenes have been edited out, can I really say that I have seen the movie? If, for whatever reason, I try to watch The Departed on FX in the afternoon, can I really say that I have seen the film that Martin Scorsese created? It’s probably best that we filter what we offer to children, but we needn’t censor so aggressively.

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