What makes a movie controversial?
By definition, controversial means to cause contention, strife, debate, or argument. Such movies typically touch on topics that the general public finds socially unacceptable. In particular, they often deal with sex, religion, violence, and politics.
Like most forms of media that allow people to send a message to the public, controversy has been present in movies since the first days of film.
Before we share our list of some of the most controversial movies of all time, let’s explore the history of controversy in film and how their topics have – and haven’t changed – over the years.
Read Also: Our List of Ten of the Most Controversial Books
The History of Controversy in Film
Even one of the earliest commercial movies, The Kiss, caused controversy in 1896. The 47-second silent short film showed the first on-screen couple’s kiss. However, intimate public displays of affection were still socially unacceptable. One critic wrote, “The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage, but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.”
The 1932 Scarface caused an uproar because audiences thought it glorified gangsters. Consequently, censors forced a version that condemned gangsterism. Nonetheless, several states banned even the censored version, and foreign showings were limited.
Moving to another movie classic, the original Psycho (1960) was full of controversial themes, including transvestism, implied incest, and necrophilia. Critics also condemned specific scenes, such as a toilet bowl flushing.
An example of politically controversial movies is the 1991 JFK. The movie deals with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Despite its claim to truth, it often contradicts the known facts. Its second half especially caused political controversy, as it insisted that Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) is a controversial semi-documentary movie about George W. Bush’s war on terror. Conservatives attempted to block theater screenings, and the creators protested its R rating.
These are just a few controversial movies from the history of film. There are many more, but few others hit the mainstream public – and censorious minds – as hard at their time as these
More Controversial Movies (as Submitted by Our Readers)
When this post was originally published, some of our readers weren’t entirely happy with the list. In the comments, they suggested many more of the most controversial movies of all time.
Here are some of their picks.
- Last Temptation of Christ
- Kill Bill 1 and 2
- Basic Instinct
Now let’s get to our original list of controversial films. Note that this list is by no means complete — there are many, and so we did have to narrow it down.
Here, then, are a few of the most controversial movies of all time.
The Interview (2014) – Seth Rogen and James Franco
Starring: Randall Park, James Franco, Seth Rogen
The Interview is a movie filled with gross humor and male bonding. There is nothing particularly controversial about it as such for audiences from most of the world.
Except for one. The Interview is a fictional meeting of a trashy TV journalist with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. It lampoons the despot as a misunderstood pop-lover – and apparently took the mockery a step too far for the real Kim Jong-un.
While older films had previously poked fun at his predecessors without response, the current dictator went on the offensive. In late 2014, the hacker group “Guardians of Peace” successfully attacked Sony Entertainment. They also threatened to carry out terror attacks on theaters screening it.
This turned a provocative but otherwise harmless movie into a real risk for audiences. A major debate ensued about freedom of speech and resistance to foreign threats. Major theaters did, in fact, cancel their showings – hence the “in select theaters” on the trailer below. Yet the threats and hacks were not entirely successful: Sony released the movie digitally.
The Da Vinci Code (2006) – Ron Howard
Starring: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen
This religious conspiracy thriller is an adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel about the members of the Priory of Sion and an underground Catholic society trying to prevent a French police cryptologist and a symbologist from telling the world about a powerful secret that’s been hidden for thousands of years.
The movie was met by harsh criticism by the Roman Catholic Church. Several bishops asked their congregation members to boycott it. There were protests outside movie theaters.
The perceived blasphemy was not the only issue: Its albino villain heavily offended people with the condition. In spite of the controversy, the movie was the second highest grossing movie of 2006 worldwide, behind Pirates of the Carribean.
United 93 (2006) – Paul Greengrass
Starring: JJ Johnson, Gary Commock, Polly Adams
This is a story of the unfortunate but heroic crew members and passengers of United Flight 93, which was the fourth hijacked plane flying from Newark, NJ to San Francisco on 9/11. What made it all the more realistic was that the cast included FAA ground crew and military officers who were involved in the actual event.
In spite of the film being made very sensitively and with immense respect to those heroes without any conspiracy theories, personal drama or additions, it drew enormous criticism for its trailer.
Many said that the trailer looked as if it were a conventional thriller. There were some who thought it was too soon after the event (after five years). Universal received criticism over the perception that a national tragedy was being exploited.
The Passion Of The Christ (2004) – Mel Gibson
Starring: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Christo Jivkov
Fear, excitement, expectation, passion, tears and wonder filled movie theaters. Many viewers reported life-changing experiences. This movie brutally depicts Jesus Christ’s suffering during his last 12 hours on Earth. According to Christian belief, his unconditional love for us brought him to this bloody end.
It raked up considerable controversy especially because of the viciously gory torture and crucifixion scenes.
Religious leaders were upset about the Catholic-centric interpretation of the Bible. Jewish organisations called the movie anti-Semitic, saying that it blamed the death of Jesus on their people.
Gibson revealed that he made it extremely shocking in order for people to understand the enormous sacrifice. When it was finally released, it broke all records and became the highest grossing independent film of all time.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) – Michael Moore
Starring: Ben Affleck, Stevie Wonder
We’ve talked about this one a bit already in the intro, but let’s dig a little deeper. At its heart, Michael Moore’s controversial movie ridicules President Bush. Critics were of the opinion that the movie demoralized the country and was anti-american propaganda, more so because it was an election year. Many conservative groups asked theaters not to screen it.
Disney also felt that this film could alienate customers and decided not to distribute it.
Fahrenheit 9/11 has the distinction of winning a top prize of the movie industry: the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. It also broke the record for the highest earning in the opening-weekend in the US for a documentary.
Dogma (1999) – Kevin Smith
Starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino
Controversy embroiled this writer/director’s comic fantasy because the Catholic Church considered it an insult. The movie shows two fallen angels, Loki and Bartleby, discover a way to get back to heaven through a loophole in the Catholic dogma.
Its depiction of a fallible God was not acceptable to religious leaders, who perceived an anti-Christian message.
For many, the transformation God went through in this movie was particularly hard to digest – a change from the patriarchal God to a more playful and feminine God. The filmmakers received more than 300,000 instances of hate mail and death threats.
Stigmata (1999) – Rupert Wainwright
Starring: Patricia Arquette and Gabriel Byrne
The film centers on an atheist hairdresser from Pittsburgh who exhibits true stigmata and an ordained Jesuit priest who was a former scientist. A powerful Vatican cleric attempts to kill the hairdresser, and she and the priest go on the run.
Its release was very controversial because it showed a Vatican senior clergy ruthlessly trying to kill the hairdresser. Then there was the romance between her and the priest, as well as the manifestation of the Holy Stigmata which was said to border on demonic possession. Still, it earned $18.3 million in its first weekend.
Kids (1995) – Larry Clark
Starring: Leo Fitzpatrick, Sarah Henderson, Justin Pierce
This 1995 drama shows one day in the life of a few teenagers in New York City. One HIV-positive amoral teenager sets out to have sex with as many virgins as possible and a local girl, who contracted HIV from him, is out to save his next target.
Some people considered it a window to our worst fears about what our children are doing when out there on the streets. Besides, it showed parenting at its worst.
However, the controversy over the movie mostly focused on the depiction of teenagers’ unrestrained sexual behavior and their use of profanity, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and ecstasy.
Natural Born Killers (1994) – Oliver Stone
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Michael Ansara
Many critics consider this movie to be one of the best of the 1990s. It decried the immorality and corruption of a society that turns serial killers into media celebrities and cultural icons.
The film’s protagonists are thoroughly rotten. They kill not only for love and passion, but also for fun. They go on a three-week murder spree. But, once arrested, they become celebrities.
Natural Born Killers holds a mirror to our media’s obsession with sensationalism, even with the vilest criminals in our society. The most controversial scenes in the movie are highly graphic, violent and disturbing. Vocal viewers panned it as loathsome and evil.
The UK authorities long delayed public screenings. They considered the movie to have inspired shooting sprees in the US, including the Columbine High School Massacre.
JFK (1991)- Oliver Stone
Starring: Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman
This movie is about DA Jim Garrison’s investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was meant to demonstrate that Kennedy’s assassination was not the act of a disturbed Marxist loner but the result of a right-wing conspiracy.
It includes a lot of speculation about the misconduct of the government and the testimonies of many unreliable individuals.
The movie became embroiled in controversy even while it was being filmed. The media lambasted Stone for ladling out unverifiable hypotheses. American newspapers ran several editorials that criticized the liberties taken with historical facts, including the implication that President Lyndon B. Johnson was also involved in the conspiracy.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – Ruggero Deodato
Starring: Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen
Cannibal Holocaust is ostensibly the story of a film crew that disappeared during the making of a documentary on the last surviving tribes of cannibals.
This movie caused a huge storm of controversy on its first release. It was not only extremely graphic, violent, gross, but also so realistic that people thought it really happened.
As a result, many countries banned it. Some of these scenes include castration, eating guts, forced abortion, several animal slaughters, gang rape, the impalement of a woman on a pole, and beatings with large hammers.
The director faced life imprisonment in Italy on charges of murder. He had to actually prove that no one was actually killed. However, real animals were killed on-screen as a part of the film. All this delayed the main release for five years. Moreover, the UK and many other countries banned it for 20 years.
The Message (1976) – Moustapha Akkad
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, Michael Ansara
The original name of this 1977 movie was “Mohammad, Messenger of God.” Set in 7th century Mecca, it chronicles the beginnings of Islam and the life and times of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad.
Problems arose with rumors that Peter O’Toole and Charlton Heston would be in the lead roles, and that Anthony Quinn would actually depict the prophet on screen.
Bloody riots went on for two days. Even Saudi Monarch King Faisal withdrew his offer of $60 million in funding, and banned filming on location in Mecca and Medina. This forced Akkad to move filming to Morocco and find financial backing from Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader.
“The Message” replaced the original title because religious groups called the film an insult to Islam. Most Arab countries banned screenings.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) – Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Quintavalle
This movie is an example of the controversy generated by combining sex, torture, and politics. Its director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was murdered in the release year, possibly over stolen reels of the original shots.
Salò is a loose adaptation of a novel by the Marquis de Sade. Unlike that original, the movie uses the last days of Mussolini’s fascist Italy as its setting. The plot is basic, but with an extremely graphic execution: Italian aristocrats abduct, torture, and sexually abuse teenage boys.
It’s this torture of underage-seeming boys that had numerous countries ban the movie for decades after its initial release. Salò has earned the questionable badge of “sickest film of all time.”
The Exorcist (1973) – William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb
This landmark movie is an adaptation of the blockbuster book by William Peter Blatty. It claims to tell the true story of a 13-year-old boy from Maryland.
At its release, it was considered one of the most frightening, disturbing and shocking films ever made and faced some of the strongest opposition. During pre-release, nine deaths occurred. There was even a request for exorcising the set.
The movie revolves around a mother’s efforts to free her little girl from demonic possession. She organizes an exorcism with the help of two priests. Scenes include copious green puke, self-mutilation, masturbation with a crucifix, and innumerable obscenities and blasphemies. As a result, critics accused it of pornography. There were also allegation that the film used subliminal imagery. The film could not be sold on video in the UK for 15 years.
Despite all this, the movie won the Academy Awards for best screenplay and best sound.
Deep Throat (1972) – Gerard Damiano
Starring: Harry Reems, Linda Lovelace, Dolly Sharp, Carol Connors
This controversial movie’s plot is minimal. A sexually frustrated woman wants to hear bells during sex, and so she follows her doctor’s advice. And no more was required: Deep Throat is a hardcore porn film — and the first of its kind to become a hit.
After the release, the film and the people associated with it became the epicenter of a cultural war. Its content got it banned in many places. The federal government even prosecuted actor Harry Reems on obscenity charges.
The UK banned it upon release, and reasserted the ban after ten years. After 2000, the DVD was finally allowed to be sold — but only in licensed sex shops.
A documentary, Inside Deep Throat, gives a glimpse into the film’s production history and its impact on American culture.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates
This science fiction film is a satirical juvenile delinquency film adapted from Anthony Burgess’s novel. This is the story of Alex, the teenage protagonist who gets his kicks from ultra-violence and rape. Faced with prison, he volunteers for a behaviorist experiment that is supposed to take away his capacity to do evil. He returns to the world defenseless — a victim to his former victims.
The movie’s controversial glamorization of violence and sexual content drove vigorous opposition by religious groups. A number of scenes stirred feminist outrage: the extended, detailed rape scene, furniture in obscene female poses, a giant penis sculpture, and a snake gliding toward a woman’s private parts.
Media criticism and court decisions removed the film from circulation in Britain after just a year. It only became available again after the director’s death in 2000.
The Devils (1971) – Ken Russell
Starring: Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave
This film was set in the city of Loudon in 1634, and was a loose adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils Of Loudon.
The film is about a 17th century womanizing French priest, Urbain Grandier, whose sex life, religious and political opinions earned him many enemies.
To bolster the corruption and witchcraft claims against him, nuns perform orgiastic rituals in the Church. This leads to his conviction and the burning of him alive at the stake.
The film was met with controversy and was greatly opposed due to the depiction of blasphemy and the general content. It faced censorship in all release countries and provoked outrage from Christian groups and audiences. Often, only heavily edited versions made it to screenings.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – Arthur Penn
Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard
The movie loosely tracks the true exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker during the 1930s. Craving adventure, Bonnie and Clyde embark on their legendary crime spree. The youth of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s identified with these rebellious and sympathetic characters.
However, the movie raked in its fair share of controversy because of the cascading violence as the two main characters descend into brutality. Critics saw the combinations of sex with violence and humor with murder as glorifying violence. Some people even said that Arthur Penn made this film as an expression of his own discontent with the nation.
Newspaper critics had wildly negative reactions to this film. Nonetheless, it gained critical acclaim and earned nominations for ten Academy Awards.
Baby Doll (1956) – Elia Kazan
Starring: Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach
Baby Doll is about a married, pretty 19-year-old girl who sleeps in a crib and sucks her thumb, while her husband waits to consummate their marriage when she turns 20. Meanwhile, a rival cotton gin owner who suspects the husband of burning down his gin, takes revenge in the most erotic way possible.
This film earned highly controversial ratings on its release. The Legion of Decency condemned it for being immoral. There was so much negative talk that it resulted in the movie’s withdrawal from more than 70% of the theaters in the US. Even film critics labeled it as a highly pornographic film.
Triumph of the Will (1935)– Leni Riefenstahl
“Starring”: Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Max Amann, Martin Bormann, Walter Buch
This movie’s reputation is one of the most controversial and horrific of all time – outside the context it was created in. Commissioned by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, it showcases the 1934 Nazi party rally. Unsurprisingly, it faced nearly universal, years-long bans.
Hitler wanted Leni Riefenstahl to document the celebration of the sixth Nazi Reich Party Congress held in Nuremberg in 1934. As such, this film shows a glorified account of the unjust Nazi regime.
Critics considered it the most powerful propaganda film ever made. After the war, allies imprisoned the director for four years. Protests accompanied her release and later life. She was never able to clear the image of her Nazi-tainted past, in spite of her pleas.
The Birth of a Nation (1915) – D.W. Griffith
Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall
This film did not have a screenplay – Griffith just shot it as he went along. The story revolves around two white families separated by the American Civil War and reunited.
This movie excelled in outdoor and night photography and panoramic long shots but has become highly controversial for its outlandish racial prejudices, its vicious portrayal of blacks as conniving and sexually animalistic, its pro-Klan stance, and endorsement of enslavement.
It invoked a major censorship battle and riots broke out in many places in the US. Lawsuits and picketing plagued the film for many years. The movie stirred new controversy in 1993, when voting put it on a list of the top 100 American films.
Values change with the passing of time, and what was shocking in the past often does not impact us in the same way now. Yet the film makers who brave controversy to get their thoughts across live on forever through their unforgettable creations.
Note: This post was originally published on March 22, 2009. We updated it with some background on controversy in film and a list of additional controversial movies submitted by readers.