WASHINGTON — The Motion Picture Association of America is crystal clear when it describes why its "PG" rating exists—it's a warning flag.
"The theme of a PG-rated film may itself call for parental guidance," the online explanation of the rating system states. "There may be some profanity in these films. There may be some violence or brief nudity.... The PG rating, suggesting parental guidance, is thus an alert for examination of a film by parents before deciding on its viewing by their children. Obviously such a line is difficult to draw."
Disagreements are a given. The Christian moviemakers behind a low-budget film called "Facing the Giants" were stunned when the MPAA pinned a PG rating on their gentle movie about a burned-out, depressed football coach whose life—on and off the field—takes a miraculous turn for the better.
"What the MPAA said is that the movie contained strong 'thematic elements' that might disturb some parents," said Kris Fuhr, vice president for marketing at Provident Films, which is owned by Sony Pictures. Provident plans to open the film next fall in 380 theaters nationwide with the help of Samuel Goldwyn Films, which has worked with indie movies like "The Squid and the Whale."
Which "thematic elements" earned this squeaky-clean movie its PG?
"Facing the Giants" is too evangelistic.
The MPAA, Fuhr noted, tends to offer cryptic explanations for its ratings. In this case, she was told that it "decided that the movie was heavily laden with messages from one religion and that this might offend people from other religions. It's important that they used the word 'proselytizing' when they talked about giving this movie a PG....
"It is kind of interesting that faith has joined that list of deadly sins that the MPAA board wants to warn parents to worry about."
Overt Christian messages are woven throughout "Facing the Giants," which isn't surprising since the film was co-written and co-produced by brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who are the "associate pastors of media" at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. In addition to working with the mega-church's cable television channel, they created its Sherwood Pictures ministry—collecting private donations to fund a $25,000 movie called "Flywheel" about a wayward Christian used-car salesman.
"Facing the Giants" cost $100,000 and resembles a fusion of the Book of Job and a homemade "Hoosiers," or perhaps a small-school "Friday Night Lights" blended with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association movies that used to appear in some mainstream theaters. Sherwood Pictures used local volunteers as actors and extras, backed by a small crew of tech professionals.
The movie includes waves of answered prayers, a medical miracle, a mysterious silver-haired mystic who delivers a message from God and a bench-warmer who kicks a 51-yard field goal to win the big game when his handicapped father pulls himself out of a wheelchair and stands under the goalpost to inspire his son's faith. There's a prayer-driven gust of wind in there, too.
But the scene that caught the MPAA's attention may have been the chat between football coach Grant Taylor—played by Alex Kendrick—and a rich brat named Matt Prader. The coach says that he needs to stop bad-mouthing his bossy father and get right with God.
The boy replies: "You really believe in all that honoring God and following Jesus stuff? ... Well, I ain't trying to be disrespectful, but not everybody believes in that."
The coach replies: "Matt, nobody's forcing anything on you. Following Jesus Christ is the decision that you're going to have to make for yourself. You may not want to accept it, because it'll change your life. You'll never be the same."
That kind of talk may be too blunt for some moviegoers, Kendrick said, but that's the way real people actually talk in Christian high schools in Georgia. Sherwood Baptist isn't going to apologize for making the kinds of movies that it wants to make.
"Look, I have those kinds of conversations about faith all the time and I've seen young people make decisions that change their lives," he said. "The reason we're making movies in the first place is that we hope they inspire people to think twice about their relationships with God.
"So we're going to tell the stories that we believe God wants us to tell. We have nothing to hide."
Published, July 2006
Terry Mattingly, at www.tmatt.net, directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities in Washington and writes a weekly religion column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Used by permission.