Film Freedom

In recent years, much has been written about the historical relationship between religion (as an institution, and not just a theme) in the development of cinema. While it might not be as ground-breaking as advertised, William D. Romanowski’s newest book, Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies, reveals that there is fertile ground yet to be farmed in this field.

Romanowski’s research will most likely (and only?) appeal to students of American religious history or aspects of film history related to the studio era and censorship. This book is devoid of extensive analysis of individual films and is more of a detailed behind-the-scenes investigation of the tumultuous relationship between “Hollywood,” particularly the likes of the MPAA/MPPDA, and concerned Protestants, most notably in the form of the National Council of Churches’ Broadcasting and Film Commission. Religion and film historians have given much attention to the Catholic Church’s role in regulating film content. However, in recent years, historians like Terry Lindvall have begun to reverse…or address…that imbalance. As such, Romanowski’s book is more of a valuable contribution to that development rather than the first shot fired across the bow. On the other hand, his detailed, sustained account of the NCC’s BFC, for example, does mark his work as unique. If readers can keep up with the extensive cast of ministers, laity, and ever-evolving organizations (and Romanowski does provide a reference list at the end that helps, they will be rewarded with fascinating insights into both American Protestantism and the film industry.

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While Protestant responses to the cinema are as diverse as Protestant theology itself, Romanowski argues that much of it centered on the tension between individual freedom (and by extension its expression in the art of film) and the well-being of society at large, here adequately campaigning for films that honestly portrayed the human condition while not overindulging in gratuitous sex and violence. Of course, protecting children and other impressionable viewers from excessive exposure to these themes was also a concern. Romanowski mines an extensive network of studio memos, minutes from religious meetings, press clippings, and trade publication coverage to uncover the ways in which Protestants voiced their concerns about the state of the industry while also navigating that precarious position of preserving filmmakers’ rights to freedom of expression. It was certainly never easy and rarely pretty, but Romanowski argues that Protestants played a key role in establishing the ratings system (itself woefully imperfect) that audiences rely on today.

Though certainly not with the detail of Reforming Hollywood, I was familiar with much of this history; however, Romanowski’s work left me reflecting on a couple of key points about the changed (and changing) relationship between religious organizations and the film industry. The first has to do with the once lively engagement between film studios and religious organizations that has virtually disappeared today, save for a few “special screenings” to drum up publicity for a particular film among a marketable, religious niche. Second, I am continually impressed by the awareness that so many ministers once had of the inner workings of the film industry and how they might be more involved in it to help speak to the culture through it rather than simply bashing its “unwholesome” elements over and over again. I imagine so many of them are rolling over in their graves as many contemporary Protestant (particularly evangelical) ministers content themselves with firing blanks in an on-going culture war that does nothing to elevate theology or film but consistently dumbs down both. Romanowski seems to hint at as much: “The history of Protestants and the movies reveals that a dramatic shift in American cultural values occurred over the course of the twentieth century. Indeed, while writing this book, I was struck by the extent of the subjugation of traditional Protestant values–like service and love of neighbor, sustaining community, and concern for the public welfare–to the primacy of self-interest and the acquisition of wealth and power in American society” (210). That so much of American Protestantism has fallen victim to this consumerist ethos is evident not only in prosperity gospel ministries, but also, ironically, in the films that evangelical churches have begun to produce, which are supposedly counter-cultural messages of evangelism and transformation.