We’re coming into the full swing of spring and if you didn’t know any better, you might think it was the beginning of the summer movie season considering the straight month of new, big-budget releases that March has coming. The good news is that it has a little bit of something for everyone. Want a rock-em, sock-em Gorilla and one, make that two -er three (?) Marvel alumni wandering around an island for the whateverth time? You got it. Want a not-yet-Marvel-but-soon-might-be superhero (but not traditionally superhero) movie starring the only member of the X-Men not to get replaced in some campy way? Absolutely. How about a conveyor-belt style, live-action Disney remake starring a young English actress/humanitarian with world-wide name recognition? Yes! Well, unless you happen to be under sixteen and living in Russia. Though the highly-anticipated film hasn’t even been released yet, the Ministry of Culture in Russia has decided to give the film an ’16+’ rating – the equivalent of an ‘R’ here in the US. The benevolent cultural curators over in Kremlin-town have come to that conclusion based on the fact that the film promotes ‘perverted sexual relations‘ aimed at minors. In short: the upcoming Beauty and the Beast movie is far too gay for the Russian youngsters, despite it only pertaining to one minor character: LeFou, played by Josh Gad (does Josh Gad just become gay when he sings or something?). The fact that it is going to play at all is actually a bit of a surprise considering the BBC thought the Russians might get the film banned entirely a few days ago. And in this day and age, you might expect this kind of backlash to run parallel with the Western push for social equality in Russia. I mean, how petty does one have to be to prevent a movie from being shown because one character doesn’t really gel with you? That would never happen in the west. This problem isn’t a new problem. Censorship of cinema is a wonderful tradition that has pretty much existed since the beginning of filmmaking. This scenario happens to involve an upcoming blockbuster and comes at a time when tension continues to rise between Russia and its’ NATO frenemies. But geopolitics aside, the Russian kids aren’t gaining anything by not being exposed to Beauty and the Beast. And that goes for everyone when a film is censored or banned.
One of the first banned films was The Johnson-Jeffries Fight. The film, released in 1910, was the equivalent of a pay-per-view event today and pitted a black man against a white man for the heavyweight boxing championship title. Considering that racial tension was pretty high in America at the time, the fight garnered a fair amount of press. When Johnson won and became the first African-American heavyweight champion, it stirred up a great deal of controversy and led to a fair amount of public backlash in the US. But as bad as the reception was in the US, it wasn’t banned. The country that decided the filmed fight wasn’t going to cross it’s borders was South Africa, a country with a widely-publicized racial divide…even today. Naturally, the white ruling party at the time didn’t want a film about a black boxer defeating a white boxer to cross it’s borders, for fear that it might inspire the wrong ideas. Similarly, a few years later in the US, a little film called The Birth of a Nation (1915) was released. At the time, the D.W. Griffith-directed film was praised as a masterpiece of cinema by many including President Woodrow Wilson, who called it “writing history with lightning“. However, many cities banned the film citing the racist tone, which presented the KKK as liberators of a country in ruin. They didn’t want to have anything to do with the movie. As the years went on and cinema developed, more and more films were banned. In the US, the Hays Code was implemented, which developed a standard of decency that films had to adhere to. Obscenity, sexuality, radicalism – these were things that were commonly used to prevent a film from poisoning the minds of the masses. The idea was that people shouldn’t have to be exposed to certain types of ideas, aiming to keep a fairly rigid moral standard for society. That sort of went hand in hand with representations of the era, although it would be naïve to think that people back in the day were ideal puritans. Regardless, this kept a standard of film at the time and therefore acted as a kind of filter for cinema.
Cinema is an expression of idea. Sometimes the ideas are simple – maybe involving cars falling out of buildings and The Rock redirecting a missile with his hands – and some are a bit more complex. Either way, stories are ways to share more than just a conglomeration of witty lines and visceral delights. They can be a vessel for thought. And film, with it’s ubiquitous nature and mass-production capabilities, can be used most effectively to broadcast these ideas to the world. Therein lies the danger. Some cultures aren’t exactly as friendly to the idea of these ideas being shared freely. They hold the belief that cinema can be used as an igniting spark which will tinder the fires of dangerous ideas. Think about how Beauty and the Beast would impact the youth of Russia. What horrors! But Russia, of course, has a rich history of censorship which is obviously still being written. This history extends beyond the reach of film, but their early cinematic involvement may have helped them understand the powerful tool that cinema could be in relaying information.
When cinema was in its infancy, the Soviets were quick to experiment with the new art form. They invented a lot of the necessary cinematic tools and techniques which would be used from then onwards across the world. Films like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) are classic staples in film education. The Russians were pioneers in the world of cinematic editing and wrote the book on the use of montage as a means of conveying ideas. From the onset, they understood the possibility film had to broadcast an idea or ideology across an entire nation and beyond. Eisenstein, notably, became a tool for the Russians to spread the good Soviet doctrine. His earliest montage sequences promoted the idealized image of the communist manifesto in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. October (1928), one of Eisenstein’s most respected masterpieces, was a glorification of the October revolution which set the pace for the shifting geopolitical landscape in Russia. It set out to spread a specific agenda which some might call a much more overt (and egregious) campaign compared to Bill Condon’s repurposed Beauty and the Beast film. But it wasn’t seen as some kind of propagandist material simply because that was the status quo. Now fast-forward a few years and Eisenstein is working on a project commissioned by Joseph Stalin on the famous Russian leader, Ivan the terrible. This project was so enormous that the film had to be split into two parts to make for a reasonable running time, Ivan Part I (1945)and Ivan Part II (1958). Interestingly enough, there was supposed to be an Ivan Part III, but the film was never seen and much of the footage has been destroyed. Apparently the third film features a more sympathetic Ivan seeking the forgiveness of his people, which would have marred a proud figure in Russian history. There’s no way the could stand for that! It’s a wonder this guy wasn’t poisoned. The third piece presented an idea which was nuanced enough it might plant the seed of doubt in many of its viewers and that – the mere presence of an alternate reality – was scary enough to have the footage destroyed and the film never screened.
These were films being banned in an age where movies were being put away left and right. This was on a global scale, mind you. Organizations like ‘The Catholic Legion of Decency‘ in the US could hinder box office returns with a mere statement of obscenity and certain film code rulings at the time prevented on-screen kisses from lasting anymore than thirty seconds (along with other hilarious rules, like you had to have one leg on the ground). But those were the ways of the past for the most part. Since the advancement of ease communication, such problems faded away from most of the world. There are a number of countries today who are still preventing themselves from being exposed to these ideas and they’re shutting themselves out from access to more than just films, they’re declining knowledge. Saudi Arabia is one of the wealthier countries in the middle east and a cultural beacon in terms of Islam. The cinematic industry there is practically nil as it might “open the door to evils“. Movie theaters have been officially banned since the 1980’s and the only truly Saudi film that reached western audiences in the last decade was Wadjda (2012, al-Mansour) which was notable for it’s female director and transgressive stance on the social standards in that part of the world. The country has shut its gates entirely to an entire facet of culture (and limited many other facets of culture in the process). Why? Because that’s their way of controlling information. It’s their way of determining which ideas should and shouldn’t be allowed in their country. But the rub here lies in the fact that we live in the internet age. Except for a few (notable) countries, the world able to access a slew of information within seconds. Movies have been playing a more and more prominent role in this as time goes on. Look at the prominence of streaming which seems to find a new iteration every couple of years. Those millions of Netflixers are accessing a database full of ideas and information; they’re walking into a digital library of agendas.
Russia’s ratings aren’t going to prevent children from being able to access the film. Ratings, like in the US, serve as a guideline for the level of appropriate content a movie has in regards to younger kids. I understand the thinking behind this, but at a certain point, it gives a lot of power to a few people who are determining whether or not your child will understand what a naked person looks like. It also, in theory allows for personal biases to play a part in the system, allowing certain ideological outlooks a glorious seal of approval and being quite harsh on others. I’m not trying to wage a war on the MPAA, there are whole documentaries dedicated to that. But I do believe that there is no good that can come from sheltering entire societies from ideas. Often that approach only verifies the old adage that we want what we can’t have. And in this increasingly connected world, it’s not too hard to access that kind of content anyways. Even North Korea, which doesn’t even have internet for the vast majority of the population, was hit with a air-propelled blitz of The Interview (2014, Rogen & Goldberg). As Shakespeare said, “the truth will out“. The world changes with each day and society is given a whole new batch of problems to deal with. But just like with censorship of the past, we’re protecting no one by telling them which movies they can and cannot watch. We can’t act as a cultural filter for our people as that creates selective realities and subjects them to a limited scope of information. In a world where Michael Bay is invited to continue phoning it in with his Samsung Galaxy 7 style filmmaking and yet Russian kids aren’t mature enough to see Beauty and the Beast, someone has to say ‘nyet’.