Movie Censorship [A Short History of Hollywood]

Movie Censorship
Movie Censorship

We independently test and review everything we recommend. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Movie censorship has existed since the start of the film industry. The aim is to make rules for filmmakers to protect the public from harmful content. However, by controlling what people watch, you can limit creativity and stop freedom of speech.

In addition to this, what people see as harmful can change per person, location, and year. As such, movie control has always been a complicated and hot topic for debate. Before today’s rating system, there were other ways of deciding what was acceptable.

Keep reading to learn everything about censorship in film, including the meaning, a full breakdown, and a list of banned films.

What is Censorship in Film?

In short, movie censorship is when you place rules on what type of content is acceptable within a film. Almost every country has some form of film censorship controlled by a group. Most often, the topics people wish to monitor are sex, violence, nudity, and drug abuse.

Since the beginning of cinema, people have tried to control what type of content filmmakers create. However, by doing this, you stop filmmakers from having creative control. Another problem with these rules is that the opinions of a few have power over many.

So, film censorship is a hot topic. Here is a breakdown of censorship in film to understand how it came about. This breakdown focuses on American cinema because it has the most influence on how people view films worldwide.

The History of Movie Censorship

The beginning of cinema sparked debates about censorship. There was concern about how much power a film holds over the general public.  As such, rules and guidelines quickly came into effect, to understand more let’s look at a timeline of censorship in film.

  • 1896 – Thomas Edison screens a short film called The Kiss. The Roman Catholic Church calls the film shocking and rude because it shows public kissing. 
  • 1907 – The city of Chicago created the first movie censorship board. Soon, all cities and states began to create their own boards, resulting in mixed standards.
  • 1915 – DW Griffifth’s film The Birth of a Nation caused street protests across America. It became the most banned film in cinema history due to its racial content. 
  • 1922 – The start of the Motion Picture Association of America (also known as the MPA) with the original goal of ensuring the success of the American film industry. 
  • 1927 – The MPA created the Hays Code, a list of rules and guidelines for filmmakers. The goal is to create an equal standard of rules across the country. 
  • 1930 – All major film studios and cities adopt the Hays code as standard. As a result, filmmakers begin to cut scenes out of their films or face a cinema ban. 
  • 1952 – Cinema attendance declines with the popularity of television. To try and compete, the MPA lifts areas of the code and becomes less strict. 
  • 1968 – The MPA creates a new system based on the viewer’s age. The original rating system is G (general), M (mature), R for 16 or above, and X over 16. 

Banned Movie Examples

To meet movie censorship guidelines, filmmakers may have to cut scenes in their films or get a full cinema ban. However, what audiences find rude changes in time, and so do the rules imposed on filmmakers. Let’s look at a list of banned films and why they were so offensive.

1. The Birth of Nation (1915)

The Birth of a Nation by Director DW Griffith is said to be the most banned film in America. The film shows scenes of the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light. It caused protests for its racial content but still attracted a large white audience. 

Most of all, it highlighted the racial troubles of the times. Due to protests, it saw a ban in many American cities, including Chicago, Las Vegas, and New York. Quentin Tarantino said he made his film Django Unchained (2012) in response to the falsehoods of The Birth of a Nation

2. L’Amore (1948)

Released in the United States as The Miracle by Roberto Rossellini, the film faced a full ban due to its anti-catholic themes. As a result, the filmmakers brought the ban to the Supreme Court, saying that it violated freedom of speech.

The court decided that banning the film went against the First Amendment. They agreed that the film had artistic merit and lifted the ban. As such, this case helped to mark the decline of movie censorship in the United States.

3. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Cannibal Holocaust by Ruggero Deodato is an Italian horror film. Due to its images of animal cruelty and violence, 50 countries banned the film, including the UK and the United States. The film was also part of the UK video nasty banned list in the 1980s.

The filmmakers used found footage to create a mock documentary look. As a result, this led people to believe the murders in the film were real. Deodato had to prove his innocence in court by interviewing the actors. Even today, it is one of the most shocking films of all time.

4. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Directed by Martin Scorsese, it is a religious epic about the life of Jesus Christ. The film had backlash over the film’s imagery of Jesus and violence. One Catholic group set fire to a cinema in Paris, the director also received death threats, and there were many protests.

There was no ban in the United States due to freedom of speech laws. However, some countries, including the UK, Greece, and Turkey, saw a full ban for several years. The film still has a full ban in Singapore, including on streaming platforms.

UK Movie Censorship

The British Board of Film Censors, BBFC began in 1912 as a way of creating censorship in film. In the UK, all films must have a rating certificate before they can be shown in cinemas. In 1916, the BBFC created the Council of Public Morals, consisting of forty-three codes.

The codes were similar to the Hays Code and aimed to create an equal standard of movie censorship nationwide. In 1951, they introduced an X rating for 16+, an H rating for horror, and a U rating for children. Later in the 1970s, an A rating for kids and an AA rating for those under 14.

The 1980s brought a new worry for BBFC VHS tapes. To begin with, there was no requirement for videos to have a rating. Following a campaign coined ‘Video Nasties’ by conservative activist Mary Whitehouse, a list of 82 films faced a ban from home release. As a result, this led to the Video Recordings Act 1984, which required a rating for all videos. 

Since 1982, the age rating system has been U, PG, 12, 15, and 18. Then, in 2002, the 12A rating required all children under 12 to attend with an adult. Currently, the BBFC continues to rate cinema and home releases, however, the rating system is now less strict.

Final Words on Movie Censorship

To sum up, censorship in film aims to help audiences know what to expect from movies. Since the start of cinema, there has been a worry over what type of content is decent for audiences. As such, countries worldwide created firms to oversee ratings.

Movie censorship will always need reviewing because what people find offensive changes with time. The public continues to pressure filmmakers to create content that fits the current trends. So, don’t expect the debates over movie control to end anytime soon.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
Read More

Leave a Reply

Table of contents

Unlimited music + SFX

Get full access to over 35,000 royalty-free tracks & 90,000 sound effects. Exclusive music from worldwide artists.

7-day free trial. Cancel anytime.