Out here in Central Illinois, many schools will be ending their 2017-18 terms in two weeks. There will be final exams, of course, and graduations. And, inevitably, there will be movies. While some students may be watching Captain Underpants or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, many students will be seeing films of texts they’ve read in their classes, such as, A Wrinkle in Time, Of Mice and Men, or Romeo and Juliet.
Your school likely has a policy on showing films in class, and nearly every policy I’ve seen uses the MPAA film ratings (Motion Picture Association of America) as guides for how films should be chosen for school use. I want to point out that MPAA Ratings Are Not Curricular Guidelines and, in fact, as I’ll illustrate below, these ratings have nothing to do with why you might select a film to complement the curriculum. In fact, MPAA ratings may hamper your being able to show the film at all.
Take A Wrinkle in Time which has an MPAA rating of “PG for thematic elements and some peril.” The rating describes all the “offenses” by category: Sex & Nudity; Violence & Gore; Profanity; Alcohol, Drugs, & Smoking; and Frightening & Intense Scenes.
- Under Sex & Nudity, the movie is rated as MILD, noting, for example, “Mrs. Whatsit briefly sheds her clothes, seen only from the shoulders up, before transforming into a plant creature.”
- Under Violence & Gore, once again a MILD rating describes “A girl is shown to be in pain after magically transporting to another realm. A woman who doesn’t have much experience with humans lightly kicks her to see if she’s still alive in a manner which causes you to think, ‘Hey! That is not normal.’”
Absolutely nothing in the rating mentions the many redeeming qualities of the movie which features child characters from elementary to middle school age on a quest against evil. And, in fact, while you’d likely show this movie at the upper elementary/lower middle school level the PG rating may be a rating too high for that age group according to your school’s policy.
Two films of classics taught in middle and high school come with ratings that also may not pass muster with your school’s MPAA film policy: Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet.
The 1992 version of Of Mice and Men, a novel which has a history of being challenged, is rated PG-13 for some scenes of violence.
- One violent scene mentioned is “A bunkhouse row, a shooting, and a character gets his fist crushed in another character’s powerful hand in a scene that’s painful to watch.”
- The film is also flagged for mild Sex & Nudity, noting, “Curly’s wife flirts with all the men with the exception of her own husband, no sex is shown or implied.”
- And mild Profanity is noted, “10+ Uses of ‘God’; 20+ Uses of ‘Damn’ and ‘God Damn’; Infrequent use of ‘Son Of A Bitch’; Other milder profanities found in most other PG-13 movies; A couple uses of ‘Nigger’.”
The 1996 film version of Romeo and Juliet also holds a PG-13 rating for scenes of contemporary violence and some sensuality.
- Examples of moderate Sex & Nudity noted in the rating are “A man licks his nipple to encite a reaction from some Catholic schoolgirls. Sexual innuendo, passionate kissing. Mercutio cross-dresses at a party, wearing a tight mini-skirt, bra, wig, and lipstick. He acts flamboyant towards other men even when out of drag.” and “Romeo enters Juliet’s room on their wedding night and they kiss. She removes his shirt, and he hers (she isn’t wearing a bra, but only her bare back is seen). They kiss passionately, though all we see is his upper body and her back and shoulders.” and “The scene ends there, but the next morning they wake up naked in bed together (her bare back is seen again). He stands (barely covered by sheets, you see his naked thigh and side of his butt for a second) and puts on some boxers, and is seen in them for the rest of the scene. He gets on top of her and kisses her momentarily wearing only boxers — his arms blocking any views of her breasts. The scene ends there.”
- Moderate Violence & Gore are noted: “A man is shot and falls, and there is some blood on his torso and face.” and “A woman shoots herself and there is some splattered blood on her face.” and “There is a very graphic shooting scene which is shown twice, once as a flashback. It is predominent to the film’s story.” (One reviewer thought this broached an R rating.)
Last is a classic, challenged and in the news lately, and its 1962 film which has NR (No Rating – because it was made before the ratings system was put into practice). To Kill a Mockingbird is noted as having moderate Profanity, mild Sex & Nudity (“The film is based around a black man being charged with the rape of a white girl. This is mentioned and discussed throughout, but only in fairly mild terms, such as ‘taking advantage’.”), and mild Violence & Gore (“A rabid dog is shot, but it is unlikely to upset the viewer since it was shot at a great distance and it’s injuries are not visible in the scene.”) Most school policies don’t consider films without MPAA ratings.
This blog cites a California court case from the early 1990’s, when the Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Richard Patsey
held that adoption of a blanket rule prohibiting all use of [R-rated films], regardless of their content, the purpose for which the film was to be used, the class, the age of the students, etc. is in violation of the California Constitution.
If you’re wondering about what the MPAA ratings say about a film you’d like to show, find the full text on the IMBd site under “parental guidance.” If you’re having difficulty showing the films you’d like to show your students as part of the curriculum, you might consider working with some colleagues to demonstrate to your administration why MPAA ratings are not appropriate ratings for evaluating film used in classrooms. The NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center would be happy to help—email firstname.lastname@example.org.