Jim Kenney's children aren't children anymore. The longtime City Councilman has no memory of being a bully, or being bullied, as a kid growing up in South Philadelphia. So he can't really explain why he's so drawn to the forthcoming documentary Bully, why this movie -- with no clear connection to Philadelphia besides the school district's alarming culture of violence -- has become such a personal crusade.
All Kenney knows, after spending much of the last year thinking about bullying and talking to the filmmakers is this: "If every kid could watch this movie, what an impact it might have."
The subject is on my mind, too, having recently written about a Swarthmore boy confronting his own experience being bullied and being the parent of a second grader navigating socially treacherous waters.
After a screening Kenney organized last week at the Arts Bank in South Philadelphia, I'm in complete agreement about Bully's power to heal. Moving without being preachy, Bully takes the viewer on the school bus and into the hallways where children -- targeted by their peers over size, looks, personality quirks or even perceived sexual persuasion -- fend for their lives every day across America.
"People think I'm different, I'm not normal," explains Alex, a premature baby-turned-tormented middle-schooler from Iowa who has trouble expressing himself to his parents and rarely looks directly into the camera. "Most kids don't want to be around me. I feel like I belong somewhere else."
(Alex's stigma is so legendary in his town, even his little sister feels the sting: "I already get picked on because you're my brother," she tells him in a pivotal scene. "Kids don't like you at my school. They think you're creepy.")
As I type, the movie's producers and distributors are fighting the unfairly harsh "R" rating slapped on Bully based on a half-dozen utterances of the f-word -- mostly by bullies using language as a weapon. Educators, parents and politicians like Kenney correctly note that an "R" will make the movie off-limits to its target audience: tweens and young teens.
Nearly a half-million people have signed a petition urging the MPAA to lighten up and issue a PG-13 rating. Celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Justin Bieber and Drew Brees have added star wattage to the fight.
“I can watch Arnold Schwarzenegger kill 100 people, and it’s PG-13," Kenney gripes. "I don’t think language should be the determining factor on [Bully's] rating.”
Kenney, so passionate about the movie's potential to reach young people, tried unsuccessfully to get a busful of Philadelphia School District students leaders to attend Bully's debut at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. (He blames the dysfunctional reign of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman on that plan fizzling.)
With the official release just weeks away, the Councilman is raising money with the goal of paying for 10,000 students - from public and parochial schools - to see a movie that could stop an epidemic. The Philadelphia Beverage Association -- the folks behind those sugary drinks Mayor Nutter wants to tax -- ponied up the first $10,000 in seed money placed in an account with the Philadelphia Foundation.
"Children need to see this together, as a group, with other kids," Kenney explains. Sixth to 9th graders are the target audience, though Kenney and I agree that elementary students would benefit from watching the movie's trailer (see below) and engaging in related lessons.
Kenney and the office of the Safe Schools Advocate are working together to organize the movie outings once the film opens in Philadelphia next month. He's hoping enough kids at each school see Bully so they can form "safe havens" for all.
"Why are all the outcast kids so cool?" Kenney asks, marveling at the resolve of youngsters treated so savagely by their peers. "The only way you know it is by getting to know them."
Long-term goals include having a day set aside in the fall in which all students in the city see the film. And he'd love to do an event -- perhaps with Eagle DeShawn Jackson, a prominent anti-bullying advocate -- at the Constitution Center since to Kenney, "You have a Constitutional right not to be bullied."
- Monica Yant Kinney