Filmmaker Chronicles History of State-Sanctioned Censorship in New Documentary

By Tom McLaughlin

Simply put, says Robert Emmons, stories are powerful.

“They are how we make sense of our lives,” says the assistant teaching professor of filmmaking and associate director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers University–Camden. “Stories help us organize our thoughts, and to document and hand down our history. They have the ability to move masses, to make real change.”

Chairman of the Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors Egbert L. Quinn. A. Aubrey Bodine, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection

But with this ability, he warns, those in power have long recognized the potential impact and reach of stories, and moved to stifle or prevent those narratives that they deem threatening to the establishment.

“The irony is that censorship is often done in the name of protection and even justice,” he says. “When in reality, that is rarely the case.”

Emmons and his co-creator – Baltimore-based filmmaker Joe Tropea – chronicle the intriguing and often absurd history of state-sanctioned movie censorship in America in their new documentary, Sickies Making Films.

The film, which has been nominated for Best Feature Film at the upcoming Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, focuses primarily on First Amendment battles, while also addressing greater societal issues, such as racial, gender, identity, and sexuality discrimination, as well as the U.S. legal system, corruption, and power structures.

“It’s truly an American story,” says Emmons, who co-wrote the film with Tropea, in addition to editing the work.

The documentary, explains Tropea, breaks down the variety of reasons that films were censored into five main categories: race, sexuality, religion, politics, and violence.

“What we end up with is a history of American movies told through the parts that were cut out,” says Tropea, who directed the film.

According to Emmons, the film is plotted through three major U.S. Supreme Court cases of film censorship, which had significant impacts on the medium. The first declared that film is not protected by the First Amendment, the second reversed this decision, and the third essentially put a nail in the “censoring coffin” by ending state-run censor boards and declaring that a rating board could only approve a film and had no power to ban a film. A number of other cases at the federal, state, and local levels are also highlighted.

The film has been created with an intentionally campy feel to it, says Emmons, in order to highlight the hilarious nature of censorship and the lengths at which individuals would go to censor a film.

Emmons says that the film “is truly an American story.”

“At times it dips into the surreal, the comical, and even the absurd,” says the Collingswood resident.

Tropea echoed the sentiment, recalling that they had watched and re-watched many movies during their research and editing phases – some masterpieces and others not so much.

“It’s fun to look back and examine some silly scenes that really got under the censors’ skin,” he says. “Even more ridiculous than some of the silliest scenes is the fact that they were taken so seriously in the first place.”

On a more serious note, he adds, they also found some disturbing facts, such as the censorship of early boxing films. They had been banned in many states, he explains, because white people were afraid that the sight of a black boxer like Jack Johnson defeating a white boxer might incite a white riot. Conversely, screenings of Birth of a Nation did incite whites to inflict violence on African Americans.

“This makes the calls for censoring or banning this film in the early 20th century seem like a perfectly reasonable response,” he says.

Aside from the narrative tone, says Emmons, visually, he wanted to edit the film to give audiences the feeling that they were seeing the film being made.

“This is, after all, a film about film, and I wanted to pull back the curtain on that,” he says. “That was important to me because censorship is about the content a film contains, and I wanted the audience to feel like filmmakers.”

Viewers thus see films being played in theaters and on television sets; and scan the scrapbooks that have collected newspaper articles, photographs, and other archival material.

“It’s as if the audience is the camera’s lens documenting this particular history of film,” says Emmons. “I hope they get a sense of filmmaking, because this is a story of how films are made.”

Sickies Making Films will make its world premiere at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on Feb. 22 and its New Jersey premiere at the Garden State Film Festival on March 25.

 

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