To the editors:
Jonathan Rosenbaum's appropriately indignant review of Mississippi Burning (12/16/88) suggests the urgent need for a new film rating category.
The present categories range from 4 stars (masterpiece) to no stars (worthless). But what of films which are worse than merely worthless?
"Worthless" sounds too much like "neutral." The implication is that seeing a no star movie will waste some of your time but it probably won't do you much harm.
Yet some movies really do cause harm. They do so by barraging their audiences (which usually include large percentages of highly impressionable and not very knowledgeable teenagers and young adults) with vivid but false or grotesquely distorted images of human life. They thereby function exactly like the rewritten history texts and the blatantly inaccurate propaganda films which have so long been standard fare in the Soviet Union.
The film industry, in my opinion, is therefore guilty of more than just producing worthless trash. It is also guilty of producing dangerously poisonous trash--trash which damages human minds and human social environments much like chemical pollutants damage human bodies and human physical environments.
My request of Jonathan Rosenbaum and other film critics is that you begin to incorporate at least one additional category into your rating schemes in order to describe such worse than worthless films as Mississippi Burning. It's time such films be given the kinds of labels they truly deserve.
Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:
Mr. Selfa, meet Mr. Suter.
To both writers, I'd like to stress that no rating system can ever be regarded as entirely satisfactory, because they all entail collapsing a number of judgments, moral as well as aesthetic, into the same rating. In some respects, Mississippi Burning struck me as being worse than worthless; in other respects it struck me as being better than worthless. So the "worthless" rating in this case was an attempt to strike a balance between the two.
To Mr. Selfa, I'd like to add that by "complexity," I don't mean the substitution of one kind of cliche for another--I mean that understanding racism better than we do provides us with one of the tools for fighting it. (I suspect that it was the absence of such understanding in Mississippi Burning, as well as the irresponsible treatment of the civil rights movement, that led Coretta King to denounce the film as racist.)