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British film censor puts a warning on 1980s movie Flash Gordon

Viewers have been warned about an ‘outright offensive’ character in the iconic movie Flash Gordon. 

The British Board of Film Classification has added a warning about Ming the Merciless, advising the audience that the character played by the late Swedish actor Max von Sydow is a ‘discriminatory stereotype’. 

The 1980 movie was reclassified as a 12A earlier this year, and the BBFC said Ming is ‘coded as an east Asian character’ and would now be considered, ‘dubious if not outright offensive’. 

Earlier this year, Gone With The Wind was temporarily removed from HBO Max over concerns about its depiction of slavery. 

The late Swedish actor Max von Sydow

Ming the Merciless, left, played by the late Swedish actor Max von Sydow, right, has been labelled a ‘discriminatory stereotype’

The British Board of Film Classification has added a warning about Ming the Merciless

The British Board of Film Classification has added a warning about Ming the Merciless

On its website, the BBFC warns: ‘An alien character is coded as ‘Asian’ due to his hair and make-up, although he is portrayed by a Caucasian actor. 

‘The character derives from the film’s dated source material, but some viewers may find the depiction offensive.’ 

In a podcast released a few days ago, BBFC senior policy officer Matt Tindall said the film was originally classified A, or advisory – the equivalent of a PG. 

He added: ‘Things we have moved on since 1980 and we had to look at Flash Gordon with fresh eyes. In doing so, we came to the conclusion that for modern audiences its much more appropriately rated 12A than PG. 

‘Flash’s arch-nemesis, Ming the Merciless, is coded as an east Asian character due to his hair and make-up, but he’s played by the Swedish actor Max von Sydow, which I don’t think is something that would happen if this were a modern production and is something we’re also aware that viewers may find dubious, if not outright offensive.

‘The character of Ming himself of course comes from the Flash Gordon comic strips of the 1930s and let’s just say that attitudes towards the acceptability of discriminatory racial stereotypes have moved on considerably since then, and rightly so, of course.

‘While the presentation of Ming in Flash Gordon, the 1980 film, isn’t what we would consider a category-defining issue, we’re sensitive to the potential it has to cause offence. So we’ve highlighted it…audiences are aware it’s there, and can make an informed decision about whether to watch the film themselves or to show it to their children.

‘This is something we have to bear in mind when we see older films coming in for reclassification; films that might contain discriminatory depictions or stereotypes that are not acceptable to modern audiences – including films where discrimination wasn’t the work’s intent – just a reflection of the period in which it was made.’

Mr Tindall added the BBFC was planning more research next year into older films, ‘that might contain discriminatory depictions or stereotypes that are not acceptable to modern audiences’.

An added video disclaimer was added to Gone With The Wind, stating the film 'denies the horrors of slavery'

An added video disclaimer was added to Gone With The Wind, stating the film ‘denies the horrors of slavery’

He said the film censor will be, ‘speaking to the public to check that they’re happy with the ways that we’re classifying such films and the way that we classify each use of discrimination more generally.’ 

This comes after an added video disclaimer was added to Gone With The Wind on HBO, stating the film ‘denies the horrors of slavery’.

It now opens with a four-minute introduction discussing the movie’s depiction of race in the Civil War era and ‘why this 1939 epic drama should be viewed in its original form, contextualized, and discussed’.

The film ‘presents the antebellum South as a world of grace and beauty without acknowledging the brutality of chattel slavery upon which this world was based’, TCM host and film scholar Jacqueline Stewart says in the introduction.

The film won eight Academy Awards, including best picture, and set a milestone when supporting actress Hattie McDaniel, who played a maid, became the first African-American actor to win an Oscar.

Earlier this year, Flash Gordon star Brian Blessed – who starred as the winged extraterrestrial Prince Vultan – claimed the movie was the Queen’s favourite film. 

Talking to Edith Bowman on Yahoo Movies, Blessed said: ‘The Queen, it’s her favourite film, she watches it with her grandchildren every Christmas.’

The 83-year-old then impersonated Her Majesty’s voice in the interview, saying: ‘You know, we watch Flash Gordon all the time, me and the grandchildren. And if you don’t mind, I’ve got the grandchildren here, would you mind saying ‘Gordon’s alive’?’ 

Comedies that could face the axe: How some of Britain’s favourite shows have been placed under scrutiny 

League of Gentlemen

Papa Lazarou features in League of Gentlemen, which is still available to watch on Neflix and iPlayer

Papa Lazarou features in League of Gentlemen, which is still available to watch on Neflix and iPlayer

Steve Pemberton and Mark Gattis’ BBC comedy features a character called Papa Lazarou – a ringmaster in blackface who calls everybody Dave. He collects spouses by forcing his way into women’s homes posing as a humble peg-seller, then talks gibberish at them until they hand over their wedding rings, at which point he says: ‘You’re my wife now!’ League of Gentlemen is still available to watch on both Netflix and BBC iPlayer. 

Bo’ Selecta

Leigh Francis said he was 'deeply sorry' for the way he impersonated stars such as Trisha Goddard

Leigh Francis said he was ‘deeply sorry’ for the way he impersonated stars such as Trisha Goddard

Comedian Leigh Francis tearfully apologised for impersonating black stars such as Craig David, Trisha Goddard and Michael Jackson on his programme. Talk show host Trisha said it ’emboldoned a lot of casual racism’ while popstar David insists it ruined his life. Bo’ Selecta is no longer on All 4 but remains on Prime Video.

The Simpsons 

Apu has come under fire for perpetuating racial stereotypes

Apu has come under fire for perpetuating racial stereotypes 

Hank Azaria announced earlier this year he will no longer voice Indian immigrant and Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu on The Simpsons after 30 years. The South Asian character has come under fire for perpetuating racial stereotypes. The Simpsons is broadcast regularly on Channel 4 and can be streamed on Disney+.

Ruddy Hell! It’s Harry and Paul 

Nelson Mandela was parodied in Harry and Paul's sketch show

Nelson Mandela was parodied in Harry and Paul’s sketch show

Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse faced criticism in their sketch series for their depiction of Nelson Mandela appearing on adverts selling various narcotics and promoting shoplifting.

Rising Damp 

The character of Rupert Rigsby has also been criticised, but creator Eric Chappell defended him by saying he ‘was not a racist or a bigot, but he was prejudiced and suspicious of strangers’. There were also jokes about Leonard Rossiter’s character having a black medical student as a tenant. Rising Damp is still available to watch via Prime and ITV Hub. 

Facejacker

The prank call show often featured accents

The prank call show often featured accents

Channel 4’s show about prank calling often featured accents from ethnic minorities. Star Kayvan Novak previously said: ‘There’s a weird thing going on at the moment where the more extreme politics and people’s opinions get, the more it seems that comedy on TV is all about playing safe and not offending anyone, when it needs to hold up a mirror and go ‘this is what’s going on now’.’

Only Fools and Horses

Britain’s beloved sitcom has had to edit old episodes to remove politically incorrect dialogue, such as an episode where Del told a child to ‘pop down to the P**i shop’ – a line no longer broadcast in repeats.

The Two Ronnies

Another one of the nation’s all-time favourites. Many have felt uncomfortable about a sketch titled ‘The Sheikh in the Grocery Store’, which features Ronnie Corbett wearing dark makeup and an Arabic keffiyeh, mispronouncing the names of items on his shopping list. The Archway School in Gloucestershire had to apologise for showing the clip to parents after complaints were made. 

Fantasy Football League

David Baddiel as Jason Lee

David Baddiel as Jason Lee

Ex-Nottingham Forest star Jason Lee, who was often a target of ridicule on the 90s show, said David Baddiel’s depiction of him was ‘a form of bullying’.

The Mighty Boosh

Noel Fielding as 'The Spirit of Jazz'

Noel Fielding as ‘The Spirit of Jazz’

Noel Fielding portrays ‘The Spirit of Jazz’ – a black, dreadlocked character in the BBC series, sparking much discussion over racism. Fielding has also been in hot water after a picture emerged of him painted black while dressed as tennis star Bjorn Borg.


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