Update 9 p.m. EST: The MPAA upheld the film’s R rating after the hearing today. Yauch has ">not backed down on his protest
The well-regarded holocaust documentary A Film Unfinished goes before the Motion Picture Association of America today to decide if it deserves the R rating it received last week from the ratings board. To appeal a rating is not unusual, but this case proved especially fraught because of heated comments by Adam Yauch, former Beastie Boy and founder of Oscilloscope, the movie’s distributor. He publicly branded the decision “bullshit,” a particularly vocal takedown of the MPAA’s long-maligned history of apparent double standards and dubious reasoning for ratings decisions.
His beef? That the rating, delivered for “disturbing images of holocaust atrocities including graphic nudity,” would essentially bar the movie from classrooms with underage students. “Why deny them the chance to learn about this critical part of our human history?” his statement went on. “I understand that the MPAA wants to protect children’s eyes from things that are too overwhelming, but they’ve really gone too far this time.”
His chief point is debatable: Many of us have memories of Schindler’s List and other graphic holocaust movies in grade school, and the question of what is appropriate for audiences in public schools is largely defined locally, not by any universal or federal standard. And yet, of course, Yauch’s complaint suggests an inherent unfairness in the system, which fails to draw a distinction between a gross-out comedy and a holocaust movie but makes an influential decision on what is appropriate for young eyes.
There is some history of flexibility, especially when it comes to documentaries steeped in history and conflict. In 2005, for a recent example, the MPAA granted a rare PG-13 rating on appeal to a movie with multiple uses of “fuck” (in that case, the documentary Gunner Palace, about a group of soliders in Iraq with a fondness for four-letter words). The favored argument held that the movie was a powerful portrayal of the forces on the ground, and that exposure to the harsh language outweighed the good the movie might do for young people considering the war in Iraq.
A Film Unfinished makes as coherent a claim as any movie for this standard. It concerns footage of an unfinished Nazi propaganda film, which was deemed historically invaluable by more than one critic after screenings at Sundance this year. No one disputes the MPAA’s description of the movie’s content, only its judgement on who should see it. (In most contexts, an R rating requires parental accompaniment for people under 17.) Is a rating “objective” when it only considers the literal content on the screen, or even useful?
It isn’t an easy question, and whatever the final decision, it will be largely symbolic because the MPAA considers unique appeals like this on a case-by-case basis. But if nothing else, Yaunch’s uncommon outburst has brought the debate to the public—where it probably should be in the first place.
Watch the trailer for A Film Unfinished: