Hustler White is a fictionalised study of male hustlers operating in Los Angeles. After a screening at the National Film Theatre, without a certificate, the film was submitted to the BBFC for cinema classification on 26 March 1996. Interestingly, it was one of the last films to be submitted to the BBFC for classification on 16mm film, as opposed to the more normal and commercial 35mm format.
The distributor was obviously aware that the film might pose difficulties for the BBFC, accompanying their submission with copies of reviews and interviews, as well as a letter informing the BBFC they would be distributing the film as a 16mm print at the ICA and selected regional film theatres only. They stressed that the film was not intended for "general release". They commented that "I realise that some may find the material contained in the film 'difficult' but all the hustler episodes are based on events that happened to hustlers as interviewed by one of the film's directors Rick Castro. Some people have mentioned that they believe there may be a problem with the scene with Tony Ward and his son in the bath. I think that if you watch the scene properly it's very clear that it's father and son simply because of the relationship between the two during the scene".
As is normal, the film was viewed by two examiners on 9 April 1996, with examiners divided over what to do with the film and recommending further viewings. The film was seen by additional examiners on 29 April before being seen by the Board's Director and Presidents on 9 May. In the event, the scene highlighted by the distributor, showing Tony Ward bathing with his baby son, was not considered to be a problem in terms of the Protection of Children Act 1978. In spite of the sexual elements present elsewhere in the film, the scene in question was not at all sexual or sexualised, featuring only natural nudity. It was also clearly a homage to the similar scene featuring Joe Dallesandro and a naked baby in the 1968 film, Flesh, which has been passed at 18 uncut by the BBFC. More unusual, however, were some brief scenes of unsimulated masturbation and real sex, as well as some scenes of fetishistic sexual activities, including portrayals of bondage, sadomasochism, and sexual activity involving an amputee. Most controversial of all was a scene in which a client pays a hustler to burn him with cigarettes and then cut his back with a razor, attached to a small piece of wood.
The BBFC's Director, James Ferman, commented that "Although many of the scenes in this film would be problematic in a porn film, it was agreed that this film is an exploration of a milieu which lends itself to a legitimate pushing of boundaries. The amputee fetishist theme, while potentially offensive in the extreme, is implied in the realisation without any clear penetration shots, which leaves the S&M scene in which real injury through burns and blood-letting is inflicted. This must be cut to remove all evidence of actual blood letting with razor". It was agreed, however, that the brief moments of unsimulated masturbation and sex, as well as the amputee sex scene and the other scenes of sexual fetishism, could be permitted at 18. On 21 June, the BBFC saw a cut version of the 'razor' scene, which was largely considered acceptable. However, for continuity reasons, one shot of a razor cutting into a man's buttocks has been retained. This was considered unacceptable and the distributor was required to remove that shot from the film. A recut version of that scene was seen and approved on 27 June, with James Ferman commenting "The scene now cuts from board moving over bare back with no bloodline showing to man in blood stained white shirt paying for S&M services. Still very effective and acceptable". In the end, the cinema version of Hustler White was classified 18 on 5 July 1996, after the deletion of 44 seconds from the 'razor' scene.
After the film went on limited cinema release, it received mixed reviews, including a highly critical review from the Daily Mail, expressing concern that the BBFC had classified the film at all. Additionally, the film was refused classification altogether in Australia, mainly because of the 'razor' scene with which the BBFC had intervened, but also for its brief moments of explicit sex.
Subsequent to this, in November 1996, the film was submitted to the BBFC for video classification. A number of viewings took place, with the majority of examiners viewing the film. A range of views were expressed. Some examiners were in favour of passing the video with the same cuts that had been required for cinema release. Other examiners argued that further cuts should be required for viewing in the home, not least because videos could not be controlled in the same manner as a limited cinema release. Following on from this, all contentious scenes were viewed over the course of two weekly examiners' meetings (at which the Director and all examiners were present) on 16 and 23 April 1997. It was agreed that "All sex scenes were acceptable given that the genre was not porn but a satiric quasi-documentary look at a specific subculture. No consensus on the sadomasochistic cigarette-and-razor scene, which most examiners saw as problematic, or the sex scene with amputee's stump, which a number of examiners saw as even more contentious and possibly unacceptable on video".
Subsequently, the video was viewed by the Board's Vice Presidents, with a conclusion that "All sex scenes found acceptable in this particular context. The S&M cigarette/razor scene was found particularly unacceptable because its treatment was far longer and more detailed than any other scene, with a disproportionate emphasis on process which led the viewer into the experience in a porno[graphic] way. Scene to be cut so as to be on a par with all the other scenes. Stump scene to be reduced to brief establishment only, since it is hard to justify it on any but narrative grounds. The spectacle of someone being sexually penetrated by an amputee's stump is too brutish to be tolerable in a home-viewing medium". Accordingly, the video version of Hustler White was classified at 18 after one minute 14 seconds of cuts, 50 seconds being deleted from the razor scene (which had also been cut on film) and 24 seconds being cut from the 'amputee' scene (which had been permitted uncut in the cinema release). However, the brief moments of explicit sex, as well as the other scenes of sadomasochistic sexual activities, were allowed to remain intact. The Board noted that the cuts had been made less carefully than on film but the distributor was satisfied with the result.
In spite of the cuts, Hustler White joined a small group of videos featuring unsimulated sex that had been classified by the BBFC at the 18 category, including Annabelle Partagee and Pink Narcissus. Such scenes would remain extremely unusual in 18 videos and DVDs until after the higher profile classification of The Idiots and Romance in 1999 and the video version of L'Empire Des Sens (In the Realm of the Senses) in 2000. The BBFC has not been asked to reconsider Hustler White since 1997 and it has never been examined in relation to the published BBFC Guidelines under which the Board now operates.