The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) takes a stricter stance on the use of racist language in programming, saying “attitudes have changed” towards the use of outdated and offensive behavior or language.
The UK regulator said programs with the N word should not be rated below 12A / 12 except in exceptional circumstances, such as a documentary or biopic with clear educational value and appealing to a younger audience.
The move follows new research commissioned by the BBFC into racism and discrimination in movies and TV shows, which asked people – including those who have been directly affected – for their views on the classification of these scenes.
Seventy participants were asked to answer questions about clips from different films and series, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Won’t You Be My Neighbor ?, Race, Young Sheldon, Call the Midwife, Crocodile Dundee and Looney Tunes. They then had to watch a feature film from a selection including Hidden Figures (2016), Selma (2014), Blinded By the Light (2019) and I Am Not Your Negro (2016).
“Of all the languages considered, the N word was the most controversial, evoking the strongest response from the community,” the BBFC said in its report, adding that it was one of the rare cases where attitudes of “zero tolerance” have emerged.
The BBFC has said that Jesse Owens’ biopic Race, which was rated PG in 2016, would likely be rated 12A / 12 if resubmitted today. In the film, a white man uses the N word in a derogatory way compared to Owens and other black athletes.
Despite the film’s positive messages about overcoming adversity, interviewees said that because the use of racist language was not explicitly and clearly condemned, they did not think it was acceptable at PG .
While the majority of respondents agreed with the BBFC’s rating decision for each feature film, there were discrepancies in response to the clips. The community gave lower marks than the BBFC for documentaries and comedic intent, and higher marks when there was a lack of condemnation and a darker tone.
“We always have to assess the context in which the content appears,” said David Austin, CEO of the BBFC. “Violent and threatening behavior, or the use of particularly offensive language, will always aggravate a case of discriminatory or racist behavior.
“However, a clear condemnation, sympathy for the victims, or a documentary or historical setting can all help frame the footage and potentially give the content educational value to young viewers.”
Respondents didn’t think older movies and TV shows necessarily needed a higher age rating if they contained outdated behavior or language, but they did want to be alerted to potentially offensive words or representations. .
The BBFC said that while people understood that “some older movies and TV shows are a ‘product of their time’, it is clear that attitudes have changed over the years.”
In particular, parents wanted content warnings so that they could make informed decisions about whether to allow their children to watch a particular program.
Lord Kamlesh Patel, Vice-President of BBFC, said: “Movements dedicated to raising awareness and combating discrimination and racism have gained ground over the past two years.
“In response, we wanted to see how this has impacted the opinions of people in the UK, and in particular to hear and listen to those who have been directly affected by discrimination and racism as their voices are important.”