If you get a chance to see A Northern Soul at the cinema, do it. It is, and I know I can sometimes be guilty of hyperbole, one of the most authentic stories that has ever been portrayed on the screen. It follows Steve Arnott, a factory worker at Arco, during Hull’s year as City of Culture. Steve goes around the city with the Beats Bus – he has a desire to bring culture to parts of the city that would otherwise struggle to reach them and, with his bus and some friends, goes to schools and areas around the city that have been otherwise neglected, introducing them to the world of hip-hop. The director, Sean McAllister, has an eye for detail and his camera finds the beauty, and more importantly, the dignity of people and places that are usually invisible on the screen. McAllister’s gift is to give access to a world that is at once local and foreign. Yes, if you get a chance to see A Northern Soul, you should.
Unless, of course you are 15 and under. In that case the BBFC has ruled that you are not allowed to. In their…wisdom…they have said the “strong language” makes it unsuitable for the 12a certification. Here’s a clip from a 12a film.
That’s roughly 5 uses of bloody, 5 buggars, 1 bastard, 15 shits and 13 fucks. The BBFC website says that it “takes into account the strength, context and tone of the words used”, and that for 12a certification, “the use of strong language (for example, ‘fuck’) must be infrequent”. Look at the above scene again. There are at least 39 expletives used in just over a minute of a 12a film.
There is a conversation that needs to be had about strong and offensive language, and if I thought that it was the language that had seen this film slapped with a 15 certificate, I would discuss it here. However, I am convinced that it is the poverty, not the language, that the censors found offensive.
Make no mistake, the poverty in A Northern Soul is deeply offensive. Whether it is the sight of a man working a full time job, who has to live with his mum and still goes bankrupt because his job pays so little, the areas where people used to meet and spend money which are now desolate because disposable income is in increasingly short supply, or the estates that the Beats Bus goes to where crime is high and life opportunities are few, the simple act of putting them on the screen highlights the offenses that happen in this country on a daily basis to the poor.
Another reason A Northern Soul is offensive is because it delivers a stinging rebuke to the “strivers vs skivers” narrative that usually frames discussion of poverty in this country. Steve isn’t looking for a handout – he spends the best part of a year working 2 full time jobs and at one point in the film makes the point that he has worked 17 days in a row. We see him going from working with heavy loads, to working with primary school children, two jobs that are extremely tiring. He relies on the kindness of his friends to drive him to see his daughter who lives 90 minutes away (he couldn’t afford to keep up with driving lessons) and finds time to visit the young people that he’s working with at their houses for motivational talks. I dare you to call that “skiving”.
By giving the film a 15 certification, the BBFC fails by their own criteria. Steve swears, but it is often used as an adjective to describe the situation he’s in. At no point does he swear aggressively at someone else. In his context – working hard for little money, his use of strong language is appropriate and never gratuitous. This has been an incredible 18 months for representation in film: Black Panther did wonders for black people worldwide and Coco made many in the Latino community proud. Both were critical and financial successes and the reason is simple: people like to see their stories represented on the big screen. By giving A Northern Soul a 15 certification, the BBFC are being frustratingly anachronistic. The impression given is that some stories are too offensive to be told. That thinking is pretty offensive.