In this week's Gambit, I look at proposed anti-bullying legislation — and speak with families of bullied teenagers, some who killed themselves after constant torment from classmates, in school and online. Most recently, 17-year-old Louisiana student Tesa Middlebrook was found hanging from her school's bleachers on March 2, a school day, hours after her death — her family insists she was driven to suicide from relentless bullying, and demands answers from the school and the authorities.
The controversial documentary Bully opens this week, but it will likely face a limited release. Petitions, filmmakers and producers demanded the Motion Picture Association of America lower its R rating to PG-13 in hopes that more kids can see the film. It's loaded with offensive slurs and F bombs — and the MPAA refused to budge (and, likely, the National Association of Theater Owners).
But the Weinstein Company announced it'll release the film, unrated and unedited, which means anyone can see it — but getting a rating-less film into the multiplex is difficult. Its limited release may prevent even more audiences who the filmmakers made the film for.
Michigan teenager Katy Butler collected nearly half a million signatures for a petition to lower the film's rating — New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees signed on, as did Ellen DeGeneres.
"I can’t believe the MPAA is blocking millions of teenagers from seeing a movie that could change — and, in some cases, save — their lives," Butler wrote. "According to the film’s website, over 13 million kids will be bullied this year alone. Think of how many of these kids could benefit from seeing this film, especially if it is shown in schools?"
The documentary was filmed over the 2009-2010 school year as it follows students who've been bullied — there's Alex, 12, from Sioux City, Iowa; 16-year-old Kelby, who came out as gay in her small Oklahoma town; and Ja'meya, a 14-year-old Mississippi girl who used a loaded handgun to ward off her constant tormentors.
The film also follows families who've lost their children to suicide after enduring years of bullying, and who are now active in demanding accountability from schools and administrators.
Director Lee Hirsch wrote in a statement, "The small amount of language in the film that’s responsible for the R rating is there because it’s real. It’s what the children who are victims of bullying face on most days. All of our supporters see that, and we’re grateful for the support we’ve received across the board. I know the kids will come, so it’s up to the theaters to let them in.”
The film opens in New Orleans on April 20.