We knew this was likely to happen, and now the MPAA has spoken: Steve McQueen‘s Shame, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, has earned the film industry’s most dubious badge of honor, the NC-17. The rating was delivered for “some explicit sexual content,” designating that no one under 17 is to be admitted under any circumstances. In years past this might have doomed the film as a commercial failure or led to recuts, but things are a bit different with Shame.
By my count, only 19 movies have been given (and accepted) the NC-17 rating since 2000. Of those, far fewer have gone into theaters. You might have been able to see A Serbian Film in a few theaters this year, or Lust, Caution in 2007, or Inside Deep Throat in 2005. But it is pretty rare that a film with this rating goes into theaters, because papers and TV outlets will usually not run materials advertising NC-17 films.
Distributor Fox Searchlight wants to use Shame to turn the tide against the disapproval of the NC-17. The film will go out carrying the rating, and without cuts. Fox Searchlight president Steve Gilula has said,
I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner. The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It’s a game changer.
I haven’t had a chance to see Shame, so I can’t recommend that you see it just to support Fox Searchlight’s decision. But if you’re interested in the film at all, seeing it in theaters will only help make the distributor’s point, and could push forward a slow reclamation of the NC-17, which has never really been given a chance.