Why is the MPAA giving R-ratings to ‘historically important’ films?

First, “A Film Unfinished,” about the Holocaust, got slapped with an ‘R’ rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. Then, “The Pat Tillman Story,” whose subject matter deals with the Iraq war, a former football star and a government cover-up got marked with the same fate, igniting a controversy over whether films with historical or political value should be kept from young audiences.

According to the MPAA, an R-rating means “Restricted” and since1968, has meant that anyone under 17-years-old must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Presumably, the MPAA’s rationale is this: teenagers and children under the age of 17 are impressionable and therefore, the content they are exposed to should be monitored. That makes sense with respect to fiction films that showcase gratuitous violence, sex or complex adult themes. But what happens when content deemed to provocative for young people comes from a historically-based documentary? Should we shield young audiences from sordid truths about people in power?

In the cases of both the aforementioned films, the R-rating was appealed, and in both cases, to no avail.

According to a Jewish Journal article, “A Film Unfinished,” about Nazi-staged propaganda films from the Warsaw Ghetto, got slapped with an R for “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities, including graphic nudity” (the nudity, by the way, was of Jewish women being coerced into a mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath). Now, I’m glad the MPAA had the good sense to acknowledge the R-rated atrocities in the film, but as my editor Rob Eshman noted, shame on them for pulling wool over childrens’ eyes when the only way to prevent such horrors is to educate young people on their significance.

With “The Pat Tillman Story,” a harrowing documentary about a military blunder that resulted in the death of NFL star Pat Tillman and a subsequent cover-up, the film was given an ‘R’ for graphic language. One use of the ‘f-word’ that the MPAA didn’t like? When Tillman’s father recounts testimony about his son’s death and repeats his supposed last words while getting fired upon by fellow American soldiers: “I’m Pat fucking Tillman!” The MPAA has a point on this one; I can’t think of a single teenager I know who has ever heard, let alone uses, the f-word.

In their appeals, both films claimed they possess historically important educational value and should not have their audiences limited by an ‘R,’ according to a report at TheWrap.com. They may also possess controversial content, but does that mean teenagers shouldn’t see them? Is any G-rated Disney movie more important for a 15-year-old to see than a documentary about the Holocaust and how the Nazis manipulated its images? Is it more important—or appropriate—for that same kid to see “Toy Story 3” and not a film about the U.S. army at war—something that within three years time they are eligible to enlist in?

Two films does not necessarily constitute a trend, though the MPAA would do well to take a hard look at what kind of precedent is being set. It’s noble to want to protect young minds from the violence of video games and Angelina Jolie action movies, but shielding them from the world’s realities may do them a great disservice. It’s important to ask if by precluding young people from seeing these films, the MPAA is protecting them—or shading them in the dark of Hollywood’s happier illusions?