Race and the Ratings Game

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in Brill's Content

In January last year, the twelve parents on the Motion Picture Association of America's Ratings Board watched as a camera glided through a Central Park woodland to reveal an eye-opening sylvan tableau: two white girls--actresses Kim Matulova, who removes her panties during the scene, and Bijou Phillips, whose elbow moves rhythmically in the direction of Matulova's thighs--intertwined in a standing embrace with a black man, the rapper Power. Aside from pale flashes of butt and breast, there was no nudity, although plenty of outdoor eroticism was in the air, abetted by the hip-hop grind of LV's "You're a Big Girl Now." The Board came blinking out into the California sunlight and sent word to director James Toback that his film "Black and White would be provisionally rated NC-17 based on this sequence, which precedes the opening titles.

"It's a de facto censorship rating. You can not get a movie released wide or even moderately with an NC-17," says Toback, who after arguing in vain with the Board, submitted a series of recuts in which Phillips elbow was progressively less energetic, until at last the Board certified the film R. But executive producer Hooman Madj was convinced that the initial decision was wrong, and posted before-and-after versions of the sequence at www.sputnik7.com/blackandwhite so visitors could judge for themselves. "The Board immediately called Hooman and told him to take it off right away," says Toback. "And he said no."

"Black and White" features Brooke Shields as a documentarian studying the troubled relationships among a group of New York rich kids and the black criminals, rappers and athletes whom they fetishize. The unorthodox cast includes model Claudia Schiffer, Knicks star Allan Houston, Mike Tyson (playing himself memorably), and Method Man, Raekwon and Power of Wu Tang Clan. Toback recently held a screening at Harvard African-American Studies Department, at the invitation of Chairman Henry Louis Gates. "It's unlike anything else out there," says Toback, "and it is already causing considerable debate."

"So how do I know that they didn't want to censor the movie because it had a black man with two 17 year old white girls?" asks Madj. "I don't. The arbitrariness of the rating bothers me. 'Wild Things' had two high school girls with Matt Dillon, and it had an "R" rating." Toback agrees that "race definitely played a role. In general, the Board is completely out of step with the taste and sensibility of the American audience, particularly where sex is concerned, which they seem to have a phobia about." In the past, Toback made cuts to get R ratings for "Fingers" and "Two Girl and a Guy, and adds with a laugh, "the web site was the first time I'd been able to get under the Board's skin."

"Jim Toback is a wonderful artist," says MPAA president Jack Valenti, who created the Ratings Board in 1968 to replace a complex system of censors, and has had to defend it against charges of censorship like Toback's ever since. The Board functions as an independent body (Valenti appoints its chairman) and he insists that the MPAA simply provides the unbiased consensus of a group of average parents, while protecting filmmakers from government intervention by providing a "voluntary" rating system. "What bothers me is when directors and producers make an economic decision to bring in an R rated picture, and then complain bitterly that their artistic rights are being violated." said Valenti. "Before we came along, there were 44 different censorship boards. I count myself the best friend a free screen ever had."