Two weeks ago, I wrote a little column for Scripps Howard about a little movie called Facing the Giants that seems to have started a little controversy. I have given up trying to predict when people are going to react to a column. You know? Anyway, I've been on a radio show or two and done interviews with Variety and the Los Angeles Times (more on that in a moment). I don't want to replay the whole mini-drama, but the news hook is that the Motion Picture Association of America has given this ultra-low-budget film -- which comes from a Southern Baptist congregation in Albany, Ga. -- a PG rating because it contains "thematic elements" that might trouble some parents.
Ah, but what are the troubling thematic elements? Here is what I wrote:
"What the MPAA said is that the movie contained strong 'thematic elements' that might disturb some parents," said Kris Fuhr, vice president for marketing at Provident Films, which is owned by Sony BMG. Provident plans to open the film next fall in 380 theaters nationwide with the help of Samuel Goldwyn Films, which has worked with indie movies like "The Squid and the Whale."
Which "thematic elements" earned this squeaky-clean movie its PG?
"Facing the Giants" is too evangelistic.
The MPAA, noted Fuhr, tends to offer cryptic explanations for its ratings. In this case, she was told that it "decided that the movie was heavily laden with messages from one religion and that this might offend people from other religions. It's important that they used the word 'proselytizing' when they talked about giving this movie a PG. ... It is kind of interesting that faith has joined that list of deadly sins that the MPAA board wants to warn parents to worry about."
Now, according to a story by Jim Puzzanghera of the Times, the MPAA has been swamped in emails -- 15,000 or so -- protesting this rating. That's 10 times the previous record and, sure enough, this mini-revolt has even spread to Capitol Hill, where there are people who know a good fundraising letter headline when they see one.
... (The) third-ranking House Republican has written to MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman demanding answers.
"This incident raises the disquieting possibility that MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence," said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
The MPAA rarely discusses its decisions about ratings, electing to work in a cloud of mystery. This is, I think, a strange way of doing business in the age of the Internet and all of its helpful niche reference materials. However, Puzzanghera did get a response.
Joan Graves, chairwoman of the MPAA's rating board, said Tuesday that the decision had nothing to do with Christianity but was based on football violence as well as the inclusion of mature topics such as depression and infertility. In a rare interview granted in an attempt to defuse what she calls a controversy born of miscommunication, Graves said that although infertility and depression are involved in the coach's "crisis of faith," the religious story line itself did not raise a red flag.
"If we see somebody on the screen practicing their faith and indicating they have a faith, that's not something we PG," Graves said. ...
"We think our rating is correct," she said of "Facing the Giants." "I think it gives parents an alert that there may be something in the film they'd want to know about."
Frankly, I think the PG rating is fine, if the MPAA is going to be consistent. If the goal is to warn parents about movies that contain scenes that may offend a sizable number of modern Americans, then Facing the Giants should get a PG rating. There are tons of secular and liberal people out there who, if they wandered into a theater without a warning, would be very offended by this movie's in-your-face evangelistic content.
So when Puzzanghera and others have asked me what I think of this application of the PG rating, I have tried to give them a three-part answer. (1) I think the rating is appropriate. (2) I agree that there are legions of parents, some of them with lawyers, who would be offended by the pro-Jesus material in the film. However, I also think that (3) the MPAA now faces the challenge -- if it wants to be consistent -- of applying this standard to other films.
But that is a big "if." Will other world religions be considered equally offensive? Vague environmental pantheism, perhaps? How about political viewpoints that would offend many parents? If the MPAA is worried about offending blue-zip-code parents, will it also strive to protect the children of red-zip-code parents?
I think that's an interesting story and, you know, I may just have to write that one myself. So far, other journalists have not been very interested in that angle. Maybe my three-part answer is too nuanced for a headline or a sound bite. You think? It doesn't work on religious talk radio and it also flopped with the Los Angeles Times. I'll let you know what Variety ends up running.