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updated: 4/12/2012 11:09 AM

Powerful 'Bully' falls prey to its subject matter

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  • Alex Hopkins is one of several victims of bullies in Lee Hirsch's controversial documentary "Bully."

      Alex Hopkins is one of several victims of bullies in Lee Hirsch's controversial documentary "Bully."

  • Alex Hopkins is one of several victims of bullies in Lee Hirsch's controversial documentary "Bully."

      Alex Hopkins is one of several victims of bullies in Lee Hirsch's controversial documentary "Bully."

  • Video: "Bully" trailer

 
 

I am supposed to review Lee Hirsch's excellent documentary "Bully" opening this weekend, and I was prepared to give it a 3˝-star rating.

But the version of the movie you will see isn't the version I saw for review purposes.

I watched Hirsch's original R-rated cut of "Bully" and was bowled over not only by his ability to capture raw acts of banal brutality by students (who apparently didn't even care somebody was photographing them), but shocked by how school administrators and parents looked away and professed nothing wrong was happening to their children.

Powerful stuff.

Part of what made that stuff powerful was Hirsch's unflinching look at the hostile environment of intimidation and degradation created by homegrown bullies on the bus, in school hallways and on playgrounds.

That environment included the harsh utterances of belittling swear words directed at youthful victims.

It was those harsh utterances that prompted the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) to give "Bully" an R rating, restricting it from patrons under 17 without accompanying parents or adult guardians.

As you might already know, the film's distributor, the Weinstein Company, protested the rating and said it would restrict "Bully" from the very audience of teenagers and preteens who stood to benefit from it the most.

When CARA refused to change the rating on appeal, Weinstein threatened to take "Bully" to market as an unrated movie, which it did on March 27 in some markets.

Meanwhile, "Bully" became a cause for people who demanded CARA give the movie a PG-13 to let young viewers see it without guardians, and to let schools with outdated and arbitrary no-R-movies policies show it.

Michigan high school junior Katy Butler, herself a victim of bullying, became the unofficial head of a national movement demanding that "Bully" be re-rated to PG-13. Armed with 300,000 (ultimately 500,000) signatures on a petition, Butler went to Capitol Hill to plead her case with sympathetic legislators.

Movie stars, sports figures and industry leaders joined the call for the less-restrictive rating.

In the end, Hirsch and Weinstein caved.

They removed three F-bombs from "Bully" and CARA rewarded it with its less restrictive (and more commercial) PG-13 rating.

Katy Butler failed. The petitions failed. The "Bully" movement could not press CARA to change the rating on Hirsch's original movie.

I do not know the politics behind Weinstein's decision to cut "Bully."

But I do know the power of those three simple words to set up the atmosphere of hostility and abuse I witnessed watching "Bully."

I haven't seen the cleansed version of "Bully." There was no opportunity for local press to see the cut version before the film's release.

For me to review a version of "Bully" that you will not see (at least until a DVD release) strikes me as not quite kosher.

In their acquiescence to CARA, Hirsch and Weinstein have put the victims of "Bully" into a relatively nicer, less hostile environment.

That no doubt changes the journalistic truth of the "Bully" I saw and admired for its frankness.

My gut feeling is that Weinstein and Hirsch didn't cave to CARA just to increase the market for "Bully," but I could be wrong.

Marketing concerns trump journalistic concerns all the time.

"All the President's Men" showed this when Washington Post reporters removed a public official's offensive language for publication in a "family newspaper."

But deleting expletives that have no bearing or context in a newspaper story isn't the same as the "Bully" situation where the F-bomb-peppered environment becomes the documentary's raison d'ętre.

The real victim of the bullying here appears to be, you guessed it, "Bully."

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