Filmmakers and the Moral Obligation

First I would like to thank the folks at Filmplicity and Dirty With Class for coming up with this blog-a-thon. The topic is definitely a tricky one and can lead down many paths, For my part I have decided to look at this question in several parts.

Let me just say that this is a very hard and open question to answer. What I have attempted to do in this post it cobble together stuff I have had conversations about as well as disparate thoughts I have had on the subject over my many years of watching movies.


First let’s start by defining morality.


Click on image to read the definition.

Part I: Defining Morality

As I do with any intellectual exercise, I start to dig to determine the rules of engagement. In this case, I know what moral/morality means in the broadest of sense of the word. But for our purposes in this piece, let us use a standard, dictionary definition as the basis of the discussion (see inset).


Part II: How this Definition Relates to the Movies

My immediate response to the questions posed is it depends on the type of film. Sure this is a cop-out but please hear me out. Think about it for a moment. I use the recent spate of documentaries as just one example. Over the past several years, documentaries have gained wide mass appeal and commercial success. Whatever you think of the political DNA of many of these pieces, they make for very provocative viewing. However, critics of these docs often cite that the storytelling is not wholly committed to presenting both sides of the story and that there is an agenda behind the presentation of the piece.

In my opinion, at their finest, documentaries should present as many sides of the argument as possible even while making their own case. This allows the audience and viewer to form their own informed opinion.

BUT imagine a scenario in which the filmmaker discovers something that counters his arguments and decides that they will leave that detail out of their story.  Is it the filmmaker’s moral responsibility or obligated to present this to his audience?


Part III: Narrative Films (The Hays Code)

Narrative films, on the other hand, are a slightly different kettle of fish.  While I do not feel films are authorities in teaching us right from wrong – can a piece of work be good or bad for society? Furthermore if the impact is bad, is the filmmaker morally responsible for the consequences?

The American film industry attempted to address this very topic in the 1930s by instituting the now-infamous Hays Code.

It is a very long read, but I have taken some of the work on for you and will now highlight some of the more interesting bits I came across in my reading:


(General Rules)

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

(In the area of sex)

  • Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.
  • White slavery shall not be treated.
  • Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.
  • Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.
  • Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.

(In the area of “national feelings”)

  • The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.
  • The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.

(Furthermore …)

  • Note: It has often been argued that art itself is unmoral, neither good nor bad. This is true of the THING which is music, painting, poetry, etc. But the THING is the PRODUCT of some person’s mind, and the intention of that mind was either good or bad morally when it produced the thing. Besides, the thing has its EFFECT upon those who come into contact with it. In both these ways, that is, as a product of a mind and as the cause of definite effects, it has a deep moral significance and unmistakable moral quality.
  • Hence: The motion pictures, which are the most popular of modern arts for the masses, have their moral quality from the intention of the minds which produce them and from their effects on the moral lives and reactions of their audiences. This gives them a most important morality.

… I could go on. The code goes further to even justify why what is okay on the written page is at once taboo on the silver screen.

Based on the Hays Code here are a few questions that come to mind:

  • Can the depiction of childbirth on screen lower the moral standard of  the audience?
  • If the Hays Code were in place early in cinematic history, would a film like Birth of a Nation still have been produced?

You may have some questions as well – I encourage you to look at this document in detail and think about it some.


Part IV: Postscript on the Production Code

Ultimately, the times, they did a-change, and what once at once considered taboo is part of the mainstream. In addition, some of the rules were too open-ended and impossible to enforce. The code eventually went away and was replaced with the MPAA rating system, which in spite of its many flaws, seems a little more morally ambivalent than the Hays Code. Granted it does have its share of controversies in its history as well.

In the end, the best that this policing and monitoring can do is to provide its audience with the guidance to make an informed decision based on their own personal preferences (and yes, own moral compass).


Part V: What Does all this Ultimately Mean for Filmmakers?

Filmmakers (most of them anyway) are only human after all and probably some of them battle with these questions of morality as they are creating their works of art. For those who choose to use the medium to make a moral statement it is well within their right. Few would argue that films that showed discrimination and bigotry as morally objectionable have no right to exist because they present us with a moral. But we also need to recognize that other filmmakers will present their works in what they feel is a less clear, thus allowing the audience to be the arbiters of what they feel is right or wrong.


Part VI: My Final Analysis

To answer the question with “it depends” is just too darn easy. But unfortunately it may be as simple as that. That is the wonderfully frustrating thing about morality, isn’t it? As concrete as we would like to think what we define as morality is, time has proven over and over again that the line is currently shifting and evolving.

Sometimes it appears to be clear-cut; at other times you wonder. Can art, if that is what you consider cinema, be morally responsible when in the end it is not only a representation of the artist’s vision and as often is the case, a reflection or commentary on the world around us. If that is the case, then maybe we should be looking at the culture and society which is being reflected instead.



  1. What a great insight on this hot-button topic, Luv. Wow, I didn’t know about that Hays Code but how ironic… their ‘morality’ code obviously think racism and non-white slavery is perfectly ok! I’m not gonna say that MPAA guidelines are perfect but it sure seems a heck of a lot better than what they had back then!

  2. @ruth. Thanks. Besides Hitchcock, film noir and a couple of other specialist film topics, I have always been fascinated by Pre-Code Hollywood and what the Hays Code did to the film industry. So when I saw this topic crop up I was chomping at the bit 🙂

    Check out the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification – It takes guidance to a whole new level. It really makes the case for “Let the Buyer Beware.”

  3. Your bit on the Hays code was really interesting, I have to admit I didn’t know about it!

  4. @Anna … thanks. As a B&W cinema buff, I was always curious as to why films before the mid 60’s were not rated. I figured there had to be some standards in place and sure enough there were. You also find that prior to the mid-1930’s when the code was in place, there are some films out there that were a bit more risque than we would think a film for that time would be.

  5. Really interesting information and detail here, I agree that any consideration of morality and film must start with the society which produces and consumes it and the generally accepted idea that morality is relative to everyone, whether they consider themselves to have morals or not. I disagree with that myself but you can’t separate the two.

    • right @Ronan. My head hurt quite a bit as I put together this post … there is no RIGHT answer per se. Just opinion based on our own individual experiences.

  6. I do think the artist has a responsibility to themselves, as an artist, but I don’t think their artistic integrity justifies including whatever they think their art requires, if this includes extremely gratuitous scenes of sex and/or violence, seemingly for it’s own sake. Saving Private Ryan’s opening sequence for example is extemely violent and bloody but I couldn’t call it gratuitous because it can be justified by the horror of War and I think Spielberg needed to show it in that much detail, as he did in Schindler’s list because I think we often take the cost of war for granted. What sticks in my from SPR though is not that bloody opening sequence but the image of a mother collapsing on her front porch when she realises that the men in suits have come to tell her that her son has died. When violence is done gratuitously, seemingly for the sake of showing violence, what stays with you is generally the shocking image and not much else because it doesn’t illustrate or affirm a principle or provide insight into a story or a period of time. It exists essentially for its own sake and is subsequently self-serving and therefore unjustifiable. I also think that it depends alot on our definition of ‘art’. For me art is defined by its aspiration to truth and beauty and I know we are all different but I’m sorry, I don’t see any truth or beauty in a film like ‘Anti-Christ’ or ‘Irreversible’, they are extreme examples but they illustrate the spirit of the filmmaker and his guiding principles.

    • @Ronan you have raised some very good points and your examples perfectly illustrate that hard to define balance.

      And this is the area that I have trouble with – the whole defining. Granted sometimes it is easier to define than others .. Human Centipede would be a “sight-unseen” example.

      I was listening to an interview with the cast of Antichrist and they were trying to say that the images were “artistic” or representative of a particular mood, emotion, whatever. Post interview the interviewer called them out in his review and said (like you) that they missed the mark if they were going for truth and beauty.

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