Starting with the very first film ever made by the Lumiere brothers in 1895, motion pictures have been one of the most popular means of communication in America. Early films were very short, sometimes only a few minutes long and showed images of local scenery, depictions of foreign lands and current events .
As the audience’s interest in film grew, it’s subject matter began to be influenced more and more by each generation’s beliefs. At the start of the twentieth century, virtually all Americans practiced their faith within a Christian or Jewish framework . As a result, early movies in America were heavily influenced by religion and popular themes represented were the lives of religious figures and saints, common educational topics and visualizations of well-known stories like those of Jules Verne’s science fiction.
It wasn’t long, however, before filmmakers realized the monetary value in a shift in genre. Topics in film changed to edgier themes like train robberies and burglaries, showing sexually suggestive dances and violence. Young people began to take interest in going to theatres instead of churches or lecture halls and this shift in culture alarmed the older, more refined and religious generations.
In 1908 the moral hysteria of the public, in response to the film industry’s shift to more taboo films, pressured mayors across the country to revoke the licenses of 540 motion picture halls. The Catholic Legion of Decency was established; responsible for putting some film stars and production agencies out of business.
Fall and Rise of Rating Systems
They created a three-tiered rating system, which was the inspiration behind the ratings system in place today. Under their system an “A” film was deemed “morally unobjectionable”; a “B” film was deemed “morally objectionable in part”; a “C” film was “condemned.” Their system, however, fell short of finding a successful way to control the subject matter of films.
The movies that received a “condemned”  rating were destroyed based on moral and religious ideals. Film stars known for their sexuality like Mae West were put out of business; villains were prohibited from winning in the storylines, ridicule of religion was not allowed and “offensive” words and phrases were banned. Casablanca, now considered a classic, was forced to alter it’s famous ending scene because of sexual tension between the main characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman .
The foundation of the past ratings system can be seen in movies today. Created by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), our most current ratings system uses ratings from G (General Audiences), PG (Parental Guidance), PG-13 (parental guidance-13), R (restricted), NC-17 (no one under 17). Having transitioned away from the censorship, banning and condemning of movies, what is now in place is a system that is more democratic. Filmmakers and producers have the ability to exercise freedom of speech; and the public has the choice to decide whether or not to see a movie based on their own personal beliefs.
Film Reaffirming Audience Beliefs
Today, America is significantly more diverse, and the role of religion in film is drastically different then it was in the early 20th century. While there is still a contingency of Christian, faith-based films like God’s Not Dead, Ben-Hur and Run the Race they are only moderately successful and are sometimes, as in the case of Ben-Hur, box-office failures. These films serve more to reaffirm an audience already secured in their faith than to explore, question or challenge their beliefs.
This lack of depth in the character’s development may be why films like Martin Scorsese’s Silence garner more attention and praise. Based on Shūsaku Endō’s novel by the same name, the story takes place in 17th century Japan and follows Portuguese Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who go looking for their mentor (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have repudiated his faith.
On their journey they are forced to choose between violence and death at the hands of feudal lords and ruling samurai or renouncing their beliefs. While the film is centered around religion, it in fact delves deeper and instead emphasizes and explores the very human characteristics of the missionaries.
Creating Discussion on Religion in Society
Another example of a critically acclaimed film centered around religion is Spotlight. Directed by Tom McCarthy, Spotlight is a drama based on the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation into allegations of abuse within the Catholic church. The story focuses on the newspaper’s team of reporters and their discovery of a decades-long cover up within the church, legal system and government. In unearthing such disturbing and heinous information, each reporter is forced to question their own faith and their association with the church.
In many ways, Spotlight is like Silence in that the protagonists have been moved by outside aggressors to question their religious beliefs and reevaluate their relationship with the church. The audience is not provided with a convenient answer about religion tied up neatly in a bow, as is commonly done in faith-based films. Instead, we are prompted to continue the journey of the characters and discuss and question what role, if any, religion should have in our society and our personal lives.
A character’s development in response to exploring and questioning religious ideals echoes the attitude many have towards religion today. As does the concept of good vs. evil which is now often explored in cinema with less of a pious sentiment then shown at the beginning of the 20th century. As Alissa Wilkinson observes in an article detailing how movies reflect American’s changing relationship with religion, “Art has always been the way a culture works out its anxieties, testing and trying ideas through stories and characters — often only half-consciously. Perhaps the profusion of religious exploration in entertainment is attributable to this massive shift in the religious landscape over the past decade, along with growing globalism and pluralism.”