Film censorship in America has always been inevitably linked to its various sociopolitical climates, dating back to the late 19th century. Since the conception of the medium, transgressive cinema has faced resistance from the dominant normative forces that fuel the machinations of societal power structures.
At first, there were no codified laws since policymakers didn’t get the chance to think about the nascent art form properly. That’s why the first instances of film censorship in the US were acts of local self-censorship. One of the first examples of this is the 1894 short Carmencita which was filmed in the iconic Black Maria – America’s first film studio.
Historians now remember the film because it was the first time a woman appeared in an American motion picture, but at the time, audiences objected to the presence of a woman on the screen. It wasn’t until 1907 that Chicago enacted the first censorship ordinance in the country, which was followed by similar censorship laws in other cities and states.
Local censorship boards had varying standards when it came to the judgement of moral propriety in cinema. This widespread ambiguity was put to rest after the Supreme Court ruled that films were commerce and not art in the landmark decision Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio.
This ruling meant that cinema wasn’t a form of artistic or individual expression, which is why it wasn’t covered under the First Amendment. Prior to this, controversial films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Rae Berger’s Purity faced localised bans due to their content.
However, the first film that was censored under the 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio was Margaret Sanger’s 1917 documentary Birth Control. Sanger was an inspirational activist who made the film to educate primarily female audiences about her family planning work.
While it might seem like an important work of cinema history to modern audiences, the New York Court of Appeals maintained that the censorship of Birth Control was done “in the interest of morality, decency, and public safety and welfare.” The film was initially shown to an audience of 200 people, but New York license commissioner George Bell ensured that it was never seen again. Unfortunately, the film is considered to be a lost piece of the silent era now.
Source: Far Out