Ever wonder who decides if a film is G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17? Filmmaker Kirby Dick certainly did, and he picked up his camera to find out. With his muckraking documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Dick pulls back the curtain on the Motion Picture Association of America, the most secretive advisory group in the nation.
The MPAA works out of a gated compound not open to the public, and the members of the ratings board (and ratings appeals board) are unknown, protected like star witnesses in a mob trial. But Dick hires private detectives to identify the individuals and reveal their controversial practices; adding insult to his injury of the MPAA, Dick hires two happy lesbian P.I.s to do his dirty work.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated clearly presents the charges against the MPAA, the "voluntary" group that has systematized Hollywood censorship (for example, most daily newspapers will not run ads for NC-17 or unrated films). Dick illustrates how the system favors studios and hinders independents; practices biases relative to sex, violence, and religion; and operates under a cloak of mystery that's not to be questioned (one director refers to an appeals board meeting as "a star chamber").
Introduced in 1968, in the wake of Mike Nichols' envelope-pushing film adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the ratings system was the brainchild of Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA for thirty-eight years (he retired in 2004). Though Dick is sketchy about alternatives—and gives voice to the opposition viewpoint that an MPAA void would lead to a muddle of dozens of competing ratngs systems—the director clarifies the absurdities and inconsistencies of the current ratings board under chair Joan Graves.
A film can be rated NC-17 for "the entire tone of the film"—a kiss of death, with no suggested cuts, that often befalls independent films that dare to show explicit and especially pleasurable sex (four times more films are rated NC-17 for sex as opposed to violence, a standard inverse to that of Europe). Dick explores the notions that the MPAA is particularly unnerved by female pleasure, and is homophobic; in one of the film's most clever visual tacks, Dick orchestrates a split-screen comparison of comparable R-rated straight sex scenes to NC-17 gay sex scenes. One stunning revelation involves the active participation, in ratings decisions, of select clergy.
Dick delivers a laundry list of international auteurs who have had to alter their films for U.S. release, and gets several directors to go on record: John Waters, Kevin Smith, Kimberly Pierce, Darren Aronofsky, Atom Egoyan, Mary Harron, Wayne Kramer (with Maria Bello), Jamie Babbit, Michael Tucker, and Allison Anders. Though Tucker describes a success story—on appeal—with Gunner Palace, he's alone in demonstrating any artistic sensitivity on the part of the system.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated probably does the most damage in exposing the MPAA's bogus business practices and public lies. Unclear guidelines are only the half of it; Graves has misrepresented the makeup of the panel (supposedly of parents of children of a certain age, with a cap on years of service) and hidden the input of clergy. The MPAA defends its use of "ordinary people," rejecting child behavioral experts. The gravy train of the cushy job comes with a confidentiality agreement, but Dick sits down with the only two men to ever break the code of silence.
Ultimately, Dick plays attack dog. His willingness to name names and present his recorded conversations with the MPAA—gathered when he, yes, submitted his film for a rating—will give the organization a public-relations black eye and probably force some short-term cosmetic changes. Unfortunately, it may be too much to hope that artists will ever be liberated from the group's power over the content of American films.