20 Famous Movies That Caused Unexpected Controversy
There’s no shortage of controversy in the world of cinema, from D. W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film Birth of a Nation to this year’s Noah. Usually it’s clear ahead of time which films will ruffle the collective feathers. Extremes in onscreen sex, language, or violence, the crossing of presumed lines of modern decency, and pretty much anything touching on politics, race, religion, or the various touchy subjects of the day can be expected to upset some groups.
Focus on certain individuals (Jesus, Hitler, whoever’s currently sitting in the White House) and you can virtually be guaranteed to provoke controversy. Ditto for anything explicitly based on a true story (unless it’s a documentary, though sometimes even those aren’t immune from criticism).
This list, however, won’t be about those films, hence the absence of A Clockwork Orange, The Passion of the Christ, etc. Rather, these movies sparked public debate – some minor, some fairly widespread – despite their seemingly benign or escapist premises. Sometimes the ire raised was more or less legitimate, other times… less so. What seems obvious and inflammatory to some may go completely over the heads of others, if the perceived transgression even exists at all. Were these controversies justified? You be the judge. And before we begin: No offense.
The Movie: Ridley Scott’s sorta-prequel to Alien, which tackles nothing less than the origins of mankind.
The Supposed Offense: (SPOILER ALERT) The scene halfway through the movie where, according to one interpretation, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) “performs a self-induced abortion.”
The Fallout: Nothing really. A ticket taker at a Regal Cinemas in Seattle apparently took it upon himself to warn moviegoers about this scene, in effect spoiling a major plot twist. Ignoring the fact that the event described concerns the removal of an alien parasite, NOT a human fetus, most can probably agree that spoilers – especially when they’re coming from theater employees – are generally frowned upon.
Thankfully, this seems to have been an isolated incident, and filmgoers more likely took issues with the movie’s numerous plot holes than any alleged, thinly veiled attempts to make some kind of pro-choice or pro-life statement.
The Movie: Steven Spielberg produced this 1984 horror-comedy classic about a young man who receives a cute and unusual creature as a Christmas present, only to have it spawn a horde of rampaging monsters after the simple rules regarding its care are broken.
The Supposed Offense: Some have claimed that the gremlins display both harmless and negative behaviors stereotypical of African-Americans, such as: consuming fried chicken, breakdancing, committing crimes, and being loud during a screening of a movie within the movie. The final theoretical proof of the film’s subversive racism: the only black character is, naturally, the first to die.
The Fallout: Nothing Spielberg ever touched again made any money. Oh wait…
Seriously though, this one almost sounds convincing, but is more likely evidence of paranoia (or worse) on the part of certain critics than attempts by the filmmakers to include overt yet subtle racism. If anything, that those characteristics grouped together in the minds of some viewers and made them think of black people is itself, to put it diplomatically, troublesome.
Besides, if you’re really looking for something to be offended by here, you might have an easier time arguing that the film reinforces cultural stereotypes about Asians (the original creature is purchased by a wise old man in Chinatown). As for the black-guy-dies-first trope? The movie is certainly guilty of this cliché, but the black guy in question is also a respected science teacher and therefore one of the smartest characters in the movie – not exactly a racist screenwriting decision.
The Movie: The 2011 superhero movie based on the Marvel Comics character, played here by Chris Hemsworth.
The Supposed Offense: The casting of Idris Elba – a black actor – as the Norse (and presumably white) deity, Heimdall.
The Fallout: The London-born Elba shrugged off the criticism and the movie made $181 million domestic, none of which likely came from the Council of Conservative Citizens, which made Elba’s casting an issue in the first place.
17. Dallas Buyers Club
The Movie: The true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas man who starts his own unapproved drug distribution service in the 1980’s after being diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live.
The Supposed Offense: In addition to objections to some of the changes made from the real story (as with any such film), some have taken issue with the fact that the (fictional) role of Rayon, a trans woman, was played by a cisgender (non-trans) man (Jared Leto). Leto’s Oscar win for the performance only brought more focus to the issue.
The Fallout: The issue of actors playing characters of a different race, sexual orientation, or in this case, gender, has been fraught with controversy since the regrettable days of blackface. With this film, it’s been pointed out that a trans actor could have been cast in the role, and that the failure to do so represents yet another example of Hollywood’s fear of casting trans people as anything other than prostitutes or punchlines. Others have argued that the refusal to consider NON-trans actors would have been unnecessarily limiting, not to mention showing a lack of confidence in the ability of actors to, well, act.
The director, Jean-Marc Vallée, did, in fact, admit to never considering transgender actors for Rayon (do with that what you will), but of course, it was his right as an artist to cast whomever he deemed most appropriate for the part and not to feel obligated to follow any group’s particular agenda. Leto ended up doing a phenomenal job by all accounts, and while he may not have thanked the trans community in as may speeches as some would have liked, he brought dignity and gravitas to the kind of character that is seldom seen onscreen, let alone in a positive or sympathetic light.
16. The Butler
The Movie: Lee Daniels’ historical drama based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler who served in the White House for over three decades.
The Supposed Offense: The casting of Jane Fonda, who infamously protested against the Vietnam War and visited the enemy during the conflict, as first lady Nancy Reagan. Vietnam veterans were not pleased – they threatened to boycott the film and encouraged others to do the same.
The Fallout: There’s no way around it: Jane Fonda is a polarizing figure. She’d been in films since her anti-war days, of course, but never in a role as iconic or political as the wife of the beloved (to many) conservative president. It’s impossible to believe the filmmakers were ignorant of the uproar her involvement would create (perhaps this was even the plan all along).
It all comes down to one’s personal feelings about how relevant an actor’s or director’s non-career-related actions are to enjoying or paying to see a movie. If we always avoided works of art due to the offensive actions of their creators, there would no doubt be a lot of wonderful books, movies, and pieces of music we’d miss out on. For some though, the principle overrides any potential sense of pleasure to be gained from consuming such works. As we’ll see later on this list, this particular kind of controversy is all too common…
15. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
The Movie: The first of George Lucas’s three prequels to the original Star Wars trilogy.
The Supposed Offense: The use of numerous racial stereotypes in depicting the various alien races and characters, especially the much-loathed Jar Jar Binks and the junkyard dealer, Watto.
The Fallout: One can debate the veracity of Lucas’s claimed inoffensive intentions (and for argument’s sake, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt). It’s much harder, however, to deny that – unintended or not – many of the thickly-accented characters come off as pretty damn racist here. And perception matters.
There were a great many things wrong with this movie, the unfortunate stereotypes just being one of the problems. But in the end, did it really make a difference? The movie was essentially a guaranteed box office smash as soon as it was announced, and it did not disappoint, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and the fifth highest of all time, domestically. To quote the not-so-vaguely-Jewish Watto, “Only money!”