IIn a dusty basement in Soho Square, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) looked into a new report. The regulator that decides age groups in the UK for film and television is making adjustments, based on the findings of a study it commissioned into on-screen representations of language and racist behavior. Some tropes will justify higher age classes in the future. Specifically, movies containing the N word will automatically receive a rating of 12 unless there are significant extenuating circumstances; where, for example, “historical racist language” is deemed to be appropriately contextualized. Older films that contain racism will not be canceled, or worse, edited to remove it – but there are still worrying glimmers of the history of the BBFC as an official and paternalistic censor that shines through its new rules.
The BBFC tries to take into account the identity politics of the current moment, and with good reason. The explosion in the mainstream of the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for the liberation of black people have put many organizations under pressure to present tangible plans of action to combat racism. Yet in this case, the change is largely cosmetic. The BBFC study was conducted by a marketing agency called We Are Family, which asked a sample of audiences to consider their own age ratings for films containing depictions of racism. It should be noted that the number of respondents was only 70.
There is one particular part of the statement from BBFC Vice President Kamlesh Patel accompanying the report that troubles me: “We recognize that our role is not just to protect children from harmful content,” Patel said: “It is This is to help parents who might want to use representations of discrimination and racism as a potential teaching moment. But ranking films is not the same as setting a schedule. Films have value beyond their educational content. Art should not have to be justified on the basis of the lessons it successfully teaches, especially those deemed important by a disconnected organization.
The 70 study participants watched a series of clips, presumably out of context, from more than 37 different films, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Race and Crocodile Dundee. Yet, they were only asked to watch four films in their entirety: Selma, Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King biopic, Stem Hidden Figures propaganda, James Baldwin’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro and Blinded By. the Light by Gurinder Chadha, a sickening coming-of. period comedy in which Bruce Springsteen’s pop songs offer an escape from Thatcherite Britain. What these films apparently have in common is racism.
Of course, no four-film program can fully represent the lived experience of structural racism, in all its nuance and complexity. I would be interested to see how more difficult and less festive examples could have turned out. Would Barry Jenkins’ masterful miniseries The Underground Railroad receive an 18 for its graphic content? One of his many haunting images is of a black slave hanged and burned alive by his white master. Or would its period setting and educational value as a literary adaptation perhaps sweeten the certificate? What about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit? The ultraviolent – and in my eyes, coldly unbiased – portrayal of racist police brutality is ranked 15 because of “strong threat, violence and language.” The Oscar-winning green book was vigorously criticized upon release for its muffled take on race relations (remember the scene where Viggo Mortensen teaches Mahershala Ali how to eat fried chicken), but remains rated 12 hugs for “language. very infrequent, moderate violence, discriminatory behavior ”.
What might be more useful than these gestural changes in age ratings is a more widespread use of content warnings. Appearing at the start of podcasts, TV shows, and (ugh) social media posts, these warnings briefly indicate that upcoming content may be offensive or distressing to some viewers, rather than arbitrarily deciding who those viewers might be.
The BBFC claims to provide a useful public service, but it is a for-profit enterprise; Having your digital cinema package certified by the regulator costs a base rate of £ 110.64 plus £ 7.71 per minute of film time. Founded in 1912, it once carried the slogan “age ratings you trust.” In 1916, the BBFC published a list of 43 grounds for removal with recommendations ranging from “gruesome murders and strangulations” to “scenes set in messy houses” and the pesky portrayal of “labor and capital relations” .
The organization underwent something of a facelift in the years that followed, changing the C word in its name in 1985 from “censors” to “classification”. In 2019, its slogan changed to “see what works for you”. It’s a puzzle of a mission statement that makes a move toward individual empowerment, while conveniently erasing its own nanny state paternalism. A clause in brackets should follow: “Check out what’s right for you (depending on what we say is right for you)”.