In a dusty basement in Soho Square, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has been poring over a new report. The regulatory body that decides the UK age ratings for film and TV is making adjustments, based on the findings of a study it commissioned about on-screen depictions of racist language and behaviour. Certain tropes will in future warrant higher age ratings. Specifically, films containing the N-word will automatically receive a 12 rating unless there are significant mitigating circumstances; where, for example, “historical racist language” is deemed to be appropriately contextualised. Older films that contain racism won’t be cancelled, or worse, edited to remove it – but there are still concerning glimmers of the BBFC’s history as the official, paternalistic censor that shine through in its new rules.
The BBFC is attempting to reckon with the identity politics of the current moment, and with good reason. The explosion into the mainstream of the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for Black liberation has meant that many organisations are under pressure to present tangible action plans for tackling racism. Yet in this case, change is largely cosmetic. The BBFC study was conducted by a marketing agency called We Are Family, which asked a sample of the public to consider their own age ratings for films containing depictions of racism. It’s worth noting that the number of people surveyed was just 70.
There is one particular part of BBFC vice-president Kamlesh Patel’s statement accompanying the report that troubles me: “We recognise that our role isn’t just about protecting children from harmful content,” Patel said: “it’s about helping parents who might want to use depictions of discrimination and racism as a potential teaching moment.” But classifying films is not the same thing as setting a curriculum. Films have value beyond their educational content. Art should not have to be justified on the basis of the lessons it successfully imparts, particularly not those deemed important by an out-of-touch organisation.
The study’s 70 participants watched a curated series of clips, presumably out of context, from more than 37 different films, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Won’t You Be My Neighbour, Race, and Crocodile Dundee. Yet they were asked to watch only four films in their entirety: Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma, Stem propaganda Hidden Figures, the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By the Light, a cloying coming-of-age comedy in which Bruce Springsteen’s pop songs provide an escape from Thatcherite Britain. What these films apparently have in common is racism.
Of course, no programme of four films can fully represent the lived experience of structural racism, in all its nuance and complexity. I’d be interested to see how more challenging and less celebratory examples might have fared. Would Barry Jenkins’s masterful miniseries The Underground Railroad receive an 18 for its graphic content? One of its many haunting images is of a Black enslaved man hung and burned alive by his white master. Or would its period setting and educational value as a literary adaptation perhaps soften the certificate? What about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit? The ultraviolent – and to my eyes, coldly dispassionate – depiction of racist police brutality is rated 15 due to “strong threat, violence and language”. The Oscar-winning Green Book was robustly criticised upon its release for its tone-deaf take on race relations (recall the scene where Viggo Mortensen teaches Mahershala Ali how to eat fried chicken), but remains rated a cuddly 12 for “infrequent strong language, moderate violence, discriminatory behaviour”.
Perhaps what would be more useful than these gestural changes to 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 signpost that the material ahead might be offensive to, or distressing for certain viewers, rather than arbitrarily deciding who those viewers might be.
The BBFC purports to offer a useful public service, but it is a profit-driven business; to have your digital cinema package certified by the regulator costs a base rate of £110.64 plus £7.71 per each minute of the film’s running time. Founded in 1912, it once boasted the strapline “age ratings you trust”. In 1916, the BBFC published a list of 43 grounds for deletion with recommendations ranging from “gruesome murders and strangulation” to “scenes laid in disorderly houses” and the pesky depiction of “relations of labour and capital”.
The organisation has undergone something of a makeover in the years since, changing the C-word in its name, in 1985, from “censors” to “classification”. In 2019, its strapline shifted to “view what’s right for you”. It’s a head-scratcher of a mission statement that gestures towards individual empowerment, while conveniently erasing its own nanny state paternalism. A bracketed clause should follow: “View what’s right for you (based on what we say is right for you)”.
Simran Hans is a film critic for the Observer