The History of the Dallas Motion Picture Classification Board, America's Last Local Movie Censorship Board

The skyline of Dallas, Texas during the Miami Heat v Dallas Mavericks - Game Four
The skyline of Dallas, Texas during the Miami Heat v Dallas Mavericks - Game Four / Mike Ehrmann/GettyImages

Dallas, Texas has a lot of famous attributes to its name. For one thing, this city is the home of Owen and Luke Wilson. Dallas is also considered the "donut capital" of America. Dallas City Hall was even used as a key exterior filming location for RoboCop! However, a more unfortunate cinema-based Dallas legacy lies in an entity called the Dallas Motion Picture Classification Board. This organization is notable for its adverse effect on Dallas cinema exploits for decades. Oh, and it was also the very last local movie censorship board in America. There are lots of reasons one can be proud to be from Dallas. It’s doubtful anyone would include the Dallas Motion Picture Classification Board (DMPCB) as one of them.

Per Dallas City Hall records, the DMPCB was a “quasi-judicial body with legal jurisdiction over the commercial motion picture industry in the City of Dallas.” Those same records observe this entity was an evolution of practices that had been going on since 1911. That's when the Dallas City Council first put folks in charge of overseeing movies to make sure they weren't obscene. However, this review board evolved into the DMPCB in 1965. Not so coincidentally, this is when an upheaval rocked the world of film.

Since the 1930s, American films adhered to the Production Code. That entity severely restricted what topics and materials movies couldn’t depict. To defy the Code was to ensure commercial failure for your film. Meanwhile, paranoia over Hollywood as a "hotbed of Communism" further stifled major intent to dismantle this system. By the mid-1960s, though, the Production Code was weakening. Foreign language films (which weren't beholden to the Production Code) chock full of sex and blood made their way to domestic theaters. Audiences liked what they saw and wanted more. Provocative features like Some Like It Hot and The Pawnbroker (the former of which went out without Production Code approval) pushed the boundaries of the Production Code.

By 1965, change was afoot. A new age was dawning. The Production Code was replaced in 1966 with the MPAA rating system. However, in Dallas, precedence was given to the DMPCB. The system of this board, per Dallas City Hall records, involved a board of Dallas citizens giving ratings to new movies. The ratings were broken down into "suitable for young persons," "not suitable for young persons," as well as "suitable except" followed by a single letter demarking elements like nudity or language. Most ominously, there was also a "P" symbol for "perversion." Goodness knows what a board of mid-1960s Dallas citizens thought counted as "perversion!"

To play a movie in Dallas before 1977, theaters were required to get an approval rating from the DMPCB (this responsibility fell to studios after 1977). It didn’t matter if they already got an MPAA rating. The DMPCB would decide a film’s fate and target audience in Dallas. After being viewed, the DMPCB would offer a rating required to be displayed next to the feature's public Dallas screenings. Such ratings restricted which audience members theaters allowed into certain features. A sci-fi horror film deemed suitable for teenagers by the MPAA, for instance, might get labeled as inappropriate for anyone under the age of 18 by the DMPCB. A key target demo of such a movie could be banished from seeing it, at least in Dallas.

No matter the intent behind this organization, the DMPCB's existence clung to traditionalism in a time of social upheaval. The DMPCB came off as a defiant way of trying to keep the Production Code alive. It also exuded a desire to strictly mold what could and couldn’t be exhibited in Dallas. In this era and in this part of the country, that was a very chilling thought. Racial segregation in movie theaters was still alive and well as late as the mid-1960s. Many movie studios were petrified of making costly films with Black leads, fearing Southern movie theater exhibitors wouldn’t screen the features. These were realities of the cinematic landscape then. It wasn’t hard to imagine the DMPCB wielding its powers to, say, classify movies depicting mixed-race marriages as “perversions” even if the feature itself was a G-rated Disney family film.

Language used in the 1968 Supreme Court case Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 390 U.S. 676 only exacerbated concerns about this organization's toxic ambitions. Here, the DMPCB's biggest intent to "protect the children" became glaringly apparent. The case's syllabus noted the board was especially concerned with those under 16 witnessing things like…

""'brutality, criminal violence, or depravity in such a manner as likely to incite young persons to crime or delinquency’ or ‘sexual promiscuity or extra-marital or abnormal sexual relations’”"

Syllabus of this case

The vague term “sexual relations” could apply to anything, including consensual same-sex relationships between adults. The groundwork of the DMPCB seemed tailor-made to suppress diverse viewpoints bubbling to the surface in the tumultuous 1960s. Unsurprisingly, this board found itself in legal trouble with its attempts to instill its own MPAA board. By 1979, The New York Times reported that the studio United Artists had filed a suit against this organization. This stemmed from the restrictive DMPCB rating handed to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Interestingly, part of the complaint from United Artists was that "the board's standards were too broad to be valid."

Other problems festered in this 26-member board, one of which was highlighted in the 2008 Thomas R. Lindlof book Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars. This text explored the explosion of controversy surrounding the 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ. That bruhaha inevitably involved the DMPCB. Lindlof’s writing highlights how there was enormous gender inequality across the board. Men dominated the DMPCB as did hostility to “outside” perspectives. A 1988 D Magazine piece entitled "Movie Board: Rated C (Controversial)" quoted conservative member Stuart Tears as saying:

""My beef is with the movie industry…When the board was started in 1966, Dallas was an island in the wilderness, not a swinger city. I think the board was set up to keep it that way. I don’t agree that Hollywood should set community standards for Dallas.”"

Stuart Tears, D Magazine

Speaking personally for a moment, I grew up in the DFW area (specifically in the city of Allen, a suburb just outside of Dallas) my entire life. I’ve constantly experienced firsthand the hostility to “outside views” or “Hollyweird” that middle and upper-class white people perpetuate. Pop culture is often treated as a disease full of subliminal messages corrupting the world. It’s not just an attitude reserved for the film industry. I received a book when I graduated High School from an elder at the church my family attended. This text was all about warning me of the “dangers” of college. In this book, this educational institution was a place persecuting Christians and offering nothing but sin.

The comments from Tears reflect something I’ve witnessed all my life: a rampant desire to erase and ignore realities happening under our noses. You can’t “erase” queerness. The struggles of people of color are not some conspiracy invented because “people are too sensitive.” The marginalized voices and social issues privileged folks view as only existing in "faraway" locales are everywhere. They exist whether you believe it or not. This was especially true in the 1980s. This era saw the humanity of queer people constantly challenged by public officials .even as the AIDS crisis ravaged this community.

Cinema is one of the tools that, as Roger Ebert put it, can function as “a machine for empathy.” It can reinforce perspectives, communities, and identities so often suffocated by society. The passionate desire by Tears to use the DMPCB to maintain “Dallas [as] an island” undercut cinema's greatest possibilities. It also reaffirmed a creepy commitment to "isolating" Dallas from aspects of reality that were already in the city.

Thankfully, there was no way the DMPCB could last forever. After the Maryland State Board of Censors disbanded in 1981, the DMPCB was the last local film censorship board in America. This relic was the last of its kind, a comically anarchistic anomaly in the “modern” film landscape. Eventually, the DMPCB was disbanded in 1992. This helped open up a new era for Dallas cinema. It also made the area more hospitable to a wide range of moviegoing options. It’s difficult to imagine exciting showings of films like The People’s Joker being possible if the DMPCB endured. Similarly, Dallas becoming the third-biggest moviegoing city in America in 2023 would've been incomprehensible in the DMPCB age.

While the DMPCB is gone, troubles in film ratings haven’t vanished. The national MPAA board has continued many DMPCB problems in what movies it deems “acceptable” for certain age groups. Specifically, the institution has come under repeated fire for giving independent and major queer movies restrictive R and NC-17 ratings. There have also been accusations that the board polices depictions of positive female sexuality more aggressively, among other grievances. It's certainly strange that a film like Saw X can depict a woman sawing her own leg off on-screen (complete with screams of agony) can get an R-rating while a frank depiction of two men having sex in Passages gets slapped with an NC-17 rating. The DMPCB is dead and gone, good riddance. Unfortunately, the normalization of societal prejudices in film ratings endures on a more expansive level.

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