This Film Is Not Yet Rated (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's long past time that a filmmaker has shown the courage to expose the MPAA Ratings Board for what they are: censors working under the guise of servants to the public good. For those who have followed the ins-and-outs of the MPAA over the years, Kirby Dick's exposé, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, won't offer many shocking revelations. However, for those who naively believe the MPAA is offering a helping hand to filmmakers and parents alike, prepare to be aghast. In a little more than 90 minutes, Dick explores the hypocrisy of the way the MPAA treats sex, nudity, violence, and profanity; provides insight into the arbitrary and secretive ratings process; and names names – those men and women who comprise the ratings and appeals committees.

In making his film, Dick courted the NC-17 rating by incorporating scenes from feature films that caused those movies to be hit with an NC-17. This Film Is Not Yet Rated takes a close look at why Boys Don't Cry, The Cooler, American Psycho, and A Dirty Shame (amongst others) were looked on unfavorably by the ratings board. It has to do with sex and nudity. Certain things - like a female orgasm, simulated gay sex, or pubic hair - can be enough to result in an NC-17. On the other hand, graphic bloodletting is usually accorded an R, while bloodless killing may get nothing more restrictive than a PG-13. If that seems hypocritical and bizarre to anyone reading this review, imagine how filmmakers like Kimberly Peirce, Wayne Kramer, Mary Harron, and John Waters felt. Even actress Maria Bello couldn't comprehend how a shot of her pubic hair and a close-up of her face during an orgasm could cause a controversy.

The MPAA hides behind a claim that it doesn't engage in censorship because the ratings process is voluntary. This is technically accurate but realistically untrue. Films that are released unrated, like those bearing the NC-17 kiss-of-death, cannot be advertised in many markets, cannot be shown in some theater chains, and cannot be obtained on DVD at certain video stores. Four times as many NC-17s are given out for sex/nudity than violence, and independent films are more likely to be scrutinized than studio productions - perhaps because the MPAA is funded and controlled by the studios.

One of Dick's goals is to discover the secret identities of the ratings board members. To do this, he employs a trio of detectives: Becky Altringer, Cheryl Howell, and Lindsey Howell. The film is at its weakest when it follows this trio on stakeouts and provides background about their personal lives. While it's necessary to spend some time with the detectives to understand how they obtain their information, Dick becomes too infatuated with them and their presence dilutes the focus of his thesis.

So who are the ratings board members? Not, as we are led to believe, "average" parents with teenage children. Many are older, conservative Americans with children in their 20s who bring nothing to the table in the way of prior experience. Since they are all drawn from a small geographical region in Southern California, one can hardly consider them an accurate cross-section of the country. Essentially, this is a group of eight to twelve anonymous individuals whose value judgments are impacting how films are made, marketed, and distributed. As someone who values the freedom of directors, I find that disturbing and a little scary.

The final act of Dick's film follows the process as he submits his movie to the MPAA for a rating then, once it is accorded the expected NC-17, his appeal. Since the MPAA officials do not give him permission to record their voices on phone calls (except in one instance) and do not allow cameras in the appeals room, Dick relies on sketches and re-creations during this portion of the movie, but he makes his point. The ratings system is a sham and the appeals process stacks the deck against the filmmaker. (The number of ratings overturned on appeal is miniscule, about 15%.)

The rest of the film is comprised primarily of archival footage from feature films; interviews with directors, critics, and lawyers; and scenes of Dick and his three detectives doing laborious investigative work. Despite being a little rough around the edges (as is often the case with the work of maverick documentarians), This Film Is Not Yet Rated is more than just an angry diatribe against the MPAA - it's something that raises a lot of legitimate questions about the ratings process and its results. This movie is guaranteed to change your view of alphanumeric combinations like G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (United States, 2006)