America is fucked, and other thoughts on Shame’s NC-17 rating

Wednesday October 26th 2011

Either by coincidence or design, Shame was classified by censors on both sides of the Atlantic this afternoon. As predicted, it received an 18 rating (for ‘strong sex and sex references’) here and an NC-17 rating in the States. But whereas the BBFC’s decision prompted nothing more than a collective ‘what did you expect?’ shrug, the US verdict has — at the time of writing — already prompted over 70 stories on Google News.

Most of them express surprise at the fact that Fox Searchlight, the film’s US distributor, are still planning to release the film uncut. Though many films receive the ‘kiss of death’ NC-17 rating, the vast majority are later re-edited to slip into the R category. Certain US cinema chains refuse to show films with the higher rating, and newspapers often deny them advertising space, meaning a film with any kind of mainstream ambition quite simply can’t afford to take the risk. It’s censorship of the most cynical kind (‘we won’t stop you releasing the film, but we’ll do everything within our power to make sure nobody sees it’) and it’s perpetrated exclusively by people who look like this:

[The woman pictured is Joan Graves, the only member of the MPAA ratings board whose identity is public knowledge. Go accountability!]

In theory, Shame‘s US rating should place precisely the same restrictions on the film as the British 18 certificate, denying admission to anyone 17 or under. But in practice, the MPAA’s decision will ensure that every imaginable barricade is put between the film and a successful run in cinemas. And not because it depicts graphic torture or the thoughtless slaughter of defenceless orphans, but because it has the temerity to show consensual sexual intercourse without strategically covering over any genitalia that might be on display.

Of course the irony is, these obviously aren’t the elements of the film that the youth of America will be missing out on. If they really want to see a thirty-something man rimming a prostitute they have all the necessary tools at their fingertips. What they won’t find on, however, are the aspects of Shame that make it worth protecting from thugs like Graves: the remarkable performances from Fassbender and Mulligan, the pitch-perfect cinematography from Hunger alumnus Sean Bobbitt and the arrival of Steve McQueen as a major directing force on the international arthouse scene.