This term we visited New Plymouth, Palmerston North and Napier. Around 350 senior Media Studies students, and their teachers, from 14 schools attended the event.
The day started with a presentation on New Zealand’s classification system. This included an overview of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, and of the process followed by our office to classify films, games and other publications.
Students then watched the film BlacKkKlansman, a biographical crime drama from the United States. It follows Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Stallworth and his Jewish colleague, Flip, go undercover to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
We found BlacKkKlansman far from straightforward to classify, so we expected that it would generate a rich conversation about how classification criteria should be applied to the film, and the potential harms presented by some of the content. As expected, the views of participating students were constructive and thought-provoking.
Violence is depicted both visually and verbally in the film. Several students said they were disgusted while watching a scene where KKK members view Birth of a Nation (featuring cruelty toward African Americans), which intercuts with an elderly African-American man describing his friend’s graphic lynching. They felt that this juxtaposition made the film feel a lot more emotional and meaningful.
Although most of the film is set in the 1970’s, archival footage from the Charlottesville rally in 2017 is shown before the closing credits. This includes footage of a white nationalist driving into a group of counter-protestors, killing a young woman. Students identified this footage as the most shocking and impactful scenes in the film:
It hits home with some recent footage, telling us more needs to be done
The content at the end is quite harrowing. It’s very graphic
The film’s extensive use of racial slurs and derogatory language had a profound effect on students from an array of backgrounds:
I ended up really upset at the end
I was a bit overwhelmed at the immense power of hatred
It made me quite upset as most of my friends are dark skinned
It’s not just derogatory, it’s hateful
Many felt the language warranted age-restriction, with sentiments such as “I wouldn’t want kids seeing that”.
Students agreed that some of the racism portrayed in the film was quite alarming, and left some audience members feeling angry. They noted that a lot of the violence and racism was perpetrated by police officers, which is problematic, and was somewhat reflective of attitudes that still exist today. However, they also talked about how the film uses racist and discriminatory attitudes to illuminate and educate audiences on the dangers of such extremist views. This is a good thing.
After lunch, the students were taken through a classification exercise to evaluate the film using criteria from the FVPC Act. They individually completed a classification worksheet and decided on an appropriate classification and descriptive note for the film. We then had a group discussion about the criteria and asked the students to explain the reasons behind their classification choices.
Most students felt that audiences needed a certain level of maturity to appreciate the film’s themes, particularly around race relations. However, they also agreed that having restrictions may reduce the critical conversation. Unlike previous years (which have often been unanimous) we had a very mixed response to the chosen classification. The most popular responses were M, R13, RP13, and RP16.
Teachers likened the film to other education texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird and thought the film would be equally beneficial to use in the classroom. Students also stressed the importance in exposing younger generations to these texts.
This film is hopefully going to eradicate ignorance
There was a strong message that needed to be shared
We classified the film RP13 with a note for violence, offensive language, sexual references and content that may disturb. Here is an excerpt from the written decision:
BlacKkKlansman is an undercover detective film about racism in the United States, punctuated by moments of dark comedy. It has strong sociopolitical merit, highlighting issues in the contemporary US political landscape, particularly around the tensions between the state and racial minorities more generally, which naturally spill into countries such as New Zealand due to the United States’ cultural capital and intense, technologically-driven globalisation. Despite this, the dual nature of the highly offensive language, mostly around racial, ethnic, and gendered slurs, requires maturity and cultural understanding to critically analyse. Without this cultural context, the use of this kind of language is likely to negatively impact children’s socialisation in terms of how they conceive of this kind of language, and their understanding of when it is and isn’t appropriately used.Classification Office written decision, July 2018
We would like to thank 20th Century Fox for their generosity in lending us the film. Without this, the event would not have been possible.
We would also like to thank the cinema managers, projectionists and caterers at Events Cinemas New Plymouth and Palmerston North, and Reading Cinemas Napier, who provided us with excellent service and ensured the events ran smoothly.
Lastly we would like to thank the students and teachers who made the event another success, and who gave us valuable feedback in the process. We hope to see some of you again next time!
BlacKkKlansman may be the most accessible, and perhaps most entertaining, work of Lee’s latter day career but it is also his most important. An epilogue, in the form of news footage from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville where counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed (an event which BlacKkKlansman’s release coincides with and commemorates), is a perfect, sobering conclusion to a truly scathing critique of a culture and a history that created the world we see today.Katie Parker, Flicks.co.nz