Drugs, violence, Christian themes and the R rating

Seven years ago, there was a lot of sound and fury over the fact that a low-budget movie made by a church had received a PG rating, rather than a G rating.

Despite the fact that the PG rating is routinely handed out to animated movies, Billy Graham movies and other movies that are aimed at family audiences, there were cries of persecution on the new film’s behalf, and the film itself — which had been produced for a mere half a million bucks — rode the wave of publicity to a box-office gross of over $10 million.

Now a Baptist pastor in Texas seems keen to drum up the same sort of publicity — and this time, it is because the movie produced by his church was rated R for violence and drug use.

Chuck Kitchens, pastor at Retta Baptist Church in Burleson, told Fox News that My Son, the movie produced by his church, is less violent than World War Z and has less drug usage than Jobs, both of which were rated PG-13, and he believes My Son was given an R rating because of its Christian message:

“When you look at the facts and see there are other movies that have been rated PG-13 that have more violence and more drug scenes, you have to say there’s inconsistency there,” he said. . . .

“A group of people out there don’t necessarily like strong evangelical Christianity,” he said. “People don’t like to hear that it’s this one way (to heaven) and nothing else. But if you are a Christian, that’s the message. That’s what Jesus said. That’s what you have to proclaim. People call us bigoted and then they go on the attack.”

I haven’t seen My Son — or Jobs, for that matter — so I can’t comment on whether the film actually deserves the rating it got. But if the film really does have drug scenes, then that would certainly get a PG-13 at the very least; that’s been the case ever since the Billy Graham movie Caught! got slapped with a PG-13 rating back in 1987.

And as for violence… well, here we enter a murky grey area, where things like tone and expectations come into play. And sometimes standards change.

As I’ve pointed out before, most movies about Jesus got G ratings in the 1970s despite having crucifixion scenes, but now those same films get PG or PG-13 ratings if they are submitted for re-ratings. (Campus Crusade’s Jesus movie was rated G in 1979, but when scenes from that film were edited into The Story of Jesus for Children in 2000, the new film — which was made “for children” — got a stricter PG rating.)

Keep in mind, too, that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which was made before the ratings system even existed, got the equivalent of a PG rating in 1968 and then got an R when it was submitted for a re-rating in 1984.

Plus, the MPAA is notoriously lenient on films that have “sci-fi violence” or “fantasy violence”. If you chop off lots of orc heads and spill lots of inky-black orc blood in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), you can get a PG-13. But if you chop off lots of human heads and spill lots of red human blood, you get an R. So, given that My Son concerns “a hostage crisis in a small church”, comparisons to the relatively bloodless and unrealistic zombie violence in World War Z may be beside the point here.

On top of all that, you’ve also got the fact that the MPAA has a notorious tendency to be stricter in its rating of independent films than in its rating of major studio films. It’s an injustice, to be sure, but there’s no need to go around assuming that the MPAA is specifically trying to persecute Christians or anything like that.

Kitchens says the R rating is problematic because many pastors won’t promote the film in their churches if it has an R rating. That might be true, but I would ask if he’s talking about the same churches that helped to make Mel Gibson’s R-rated The Passion of the Christ (2004) such a big, big hit.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the R rating, and some of us had hoped that the success of Gibson’s film — and the release of Woman Thou Art Loosed, an R-rated film produced by Bishop T.D. Jakes, later that same year — would help churches to realize that they can spread their message in films that aren’t designed to be safe for the whole family. Children need stories, but grown-ups do too.

Alas, the stigma surrounding the R rating persists, for some people at least. And if it gives some people a stick with which to stir up the culture war and drum up publicity for their movie, then so much the better for them, I guess.

You can see a trailer for My Son here:

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • Tyler J. Petty

    So, it’s a prequel to My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?


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