Socio-political documentaries are inherently propaganda. They are made as calls to action, designed to get their audience riled up about a particular cause. Even when the filmmakers try to be neutral, there’s always an agenda on display. Naturally, this can lead to some very controversial documentaries. But when a movie tries to argue that kids shouldn’t engage in acts of bigotry or violence against one another (or against themselves), what kind of asshole would try to stir up controversy over it?
The assholes at the MPAA, that’s who.
The makers of Bully set out to make an up close and personal look at bullying that could be shown in high schools. It was meant to be seen by kids, parents, and teachers alike. But the MPAA slapped the film with an R-rating, effectively banning teachers or school administrators from showing it to anyone under 18.
Yet here’s the thing: The film’s coarse language and acts of violence all come entirely from kids. And remember, this is a work of non-fiction. This is photographic evidence that kids are actually cursing and hitting each other in their playgrounds, their schools, and their buses. Wasn’t the MPAA put in place so that kids would be shielded from bad language and violence? You’d think that the ratings system is an obsolete practice that actually accomplishes precisely nothing, but we all know that can’t be true. More importantly (much like “Catcher in the Rye,” “Tom Sawyer,” and so many others before it), this was deemed unsafe for children precisely because of the reasons why children need to see it.
Anyway, the film was finally given a PG-13 rating after a few cuts. And if this is what the movie is like at PG-13, I can scarcely begin to imagine it must be like to sit through the R-rated cut.
The film opens with a five-minute biography of Tyler Long. We see him at various stages of development in different home movies, with his father speaking to us in voice-over. In this way, we learn of Tyler’s energetic youth, his troubled teenage years, and his suicide at age 17. Even before the title rolls, it’s made clear that the filmmakers are not fucking around. They go right for the aorta, and they waste no time doing it.
Tyler’s death and his parents’ ongoing struggle to speak on his behalf are both recurring storylines throughout the film, though the movie does show other perspectives as well. Easily the most prominent is that of Alex, a 14-year-old who had the misfortune of being prematurely born by about 20 weeks. He’s a bit goofy-looking, sure, but Alex is quickly shown to be a very sweet boy who’s unusually articulate and intelligent for his age. Alas, for how smart he is, he just can’t figure out what to do about all the kids bullying him. More than that, he’s become totally numb to it.
The movie takes great pains at showing how much abuse Alex goes through. We see him getting punched, getting strangled, getting stabbed with pencils, getting threatened, and getting his belongings destroyed. So much is captured that I have no idea how they got this much footage. Anyway, Alex takes it all in stride and does absolutely nothing about it because what’s the point? Things eventually get so bad that even the filmmakers are like “This kid is in serious trouble, we need to show the footage to his parents and to his school officials.”
Another subject of the film is Ja’Maya, who was so sick of bullying that she took a gun onto a school bus just to scare everyone off. No shots were fired and nobody got hurt, but Ja’Maya still got slapped with 22 counts apiece of kidnapping and attempted murder. Was the police action necessary? Hell if I know. But what I do know is that when kids are fresh out of options and no one in authority does anything, something tragic is bound to happen.
The film devotes a ton of screen time toward showing all the ways that adults fail children in this matter. The police will just say that no crime has been committed. Parents can’t solve anything because they can’t control what goes on at school or what others’ kids do. Some parents can’t even control their own kids. As for teachers and school administrators, they can claim that kids will be kids and there’s nothing to be done about it. Some school administrators are so desperate to avoid culpability that they’ll blame the parents or deny that there’s any problem at all. Hell, some teachers will actively take part in the bullying.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Kelby. She’s a teenaged lesbian growing up in the bible belt of Oklahoma. The reddest part of the reddest state in the union. So when she came out, her family and friends became pariahs right along with her. Aside from a handful of friends, she was shunned by every student in her school, and teachers openly mocked her in class. Her parents naturally complained, but of course the principal didn’t provide anything except rhetoric. To be perfectly honest, I’m amazed and relieved that there were doctors in Oklahoma who were willing to treat Kelby when she attempted suicide three times.
But don’t get me wrong, it isn’t all doom and gloom in this film. Kelby is quite visibly stronger and smarter for all the wear, and her wisdom provides some of the movie’s brightest points. Additionally, the movie also introduces us to a reformed bully, who realized at roughly the fourth grade that what he was doing was totally wrong. And then his best friend turned out to be a bully magnet who offed himself.
I understand that there will be moviegoers who won’t want to see Bully. Not everyone wants to see such a depressing piece of cinema, and not everyone will want to be preached to. Some people only look to movies for pure entertainment value. I get that. But if you’re going to deprive yourself of seeing such a powerful, engaging, and wonderfully made film, then at least have the backbone and the decency to spread its message.
We can argue about fixing our nation’s education system by way of teachers’ unions, tax reforms, curriculum changes, and any number of other factors, but it’s all for nothing if we can’t provide kids with a safe place to learn and to grow. Intolerance and bullying are very serious issues with very serious consequences, and greater awareness of them can only be something positive. The message needs to be spread — not only to kids, but to parents, teachers, and cops as well — that if you see something, then say something. All it takes to make a difference is one kid who’s willing to speak up and one adult who’s willing to listen.
Equality today, equality tomorrow, equality for all and forever.