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20 Famous Movies That Caused Unexpected Controversy

18 May 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Jason Turer

unexpected controversial movies

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.


20. Prometheus

prometheus abortion

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.


19. Gremlins


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.


18. Thor


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

non-traditional actors

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 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!”



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  • Drvobradi

    I never understood why is #18 bothering people.
    They are saying ”It sucks! A Norse good cannot be black!” but they are forgetting that the residents of Asgard in the films are NOT gods.
    In fact, it was referenced in the first Thor film, when Odin (or was it Thor?) says that it is enough for them to come to Earth, shoot a lightning bolt here and there, and everybody would think of them as gods.
    So, they are just and advanced race of interdimensional beings – not gods.
    Therefore, Heimdall being black is not controversial at all.
    I mean, have you ever seen an interdimensional humanoid being?
    Why can’t it be black?

    • Ryan Perez

      Its silly. But, in an age where intentionally-finding-things-to-be-offended-by is the new “thing”, this is only to be expected. Doesn’t make them right, or justified, however.

    • Stiggie

      The idea of aliens having ethnic groups that mirror those here on earth is much weirder than the idea that gods do.

      I thought it was a bad idea to have actors of several “races” portray the dark elves in Thor 2, because this mirroring just seems so ridiculous to me, having aliens look like humans is one thing, but specifically having asian, caucasian, and black aliens is just one step further.

      The norse gods can be explained by them taking on a human form after having come to earth, the dark elves are a different matter.

      Also, complaints about Heimdall are twofold, for one, they are mad because Heimdall should be a representation of a norse god, and since the norsemen were white their gods would be white, it’s a matter of historic accuracy.

      Secondly, Heimdall is described as being the whitest of the gods, although I expect that that was in reference to his character, not his skin tone.

      If you are a fan of Heimdall I can understand you wanting him portrayed the way you imagined him, I personally still don’t like the idea of a blonde James Bond.

      Personally I don’t have any attachment to Heimdall so all I cared about was whether or not he was cool, and that he was.

      • ianwestc

        “The idea of aliens having ethnic groups that mirror those here on earth is much weirder than the idea that gods do.”

        Absolutely no weirder than the notion that the aliens would all be one ethnic group (Star Trek was guilty of this, especially back in the 60s) with little variety. Or that they would perfectly resemble humans.

        At some point we just have to accept that a number of ‘aliens’ will be played by humans in movies and TV shows and thus will reflect the variety of human life that we have on this planet. Or will we fall back to the notion that light pinkish-white is the default ‘human’ color, and anything darker is just some oddity?

        Why assume that a whole species is going to be exactly one color in every environment?

        If the gods in Thor were the Norse gods, then fine. But they aren’t. They’re travelers, visitors who liberated the Norsemen from the frost giants and gave them their legends. The Norse, being all white, recast them in their own image over time.

        • Stiggie

          It is necessarily weirder, because it extra information that specifically matches up.
          An alien race that kind of looks like humans is very unlikely, but if the ways they vary also mimics the way humans vary then that is an extra unlikehood added on top.
          If it were up to me I would have one ethnicity per alien race, unless the facial features of the actors happen to match up very well despite the difference ethnicity, or unless there is enough make up to effectively mask the difference.

    • Erika Fiore

      ” to come to Earth, shoot a lightning bolt here and there, and everybody would think of them as gods.” Fandral said that to Thor.

    • Maja Ulfsparre

      At school we learned about Norse mythology. I don’t remember ever hearing or reading about all the gods being white. We just assumed.

    • Unkle Amon

      Because there were no blacks in the north at that time. Btw, Tarantino is biggest douche in cinema history.

  • Mike

    #5 : When the word “retard” is referred to as the “R-word” makes me want to shake my head at how sensitive people become. Hell Tarantino drops N-bombs in every movie he makes, some argue that’s why he does it so he can get away with saying it, but how many people really get their panties in twist over it? Pulp Fiction isn’t on this list is it? Or any number of his movies, why? Calling someone who’s got developmental issues a retard is bad, pretty much an absolute in the world we live in, calling someone who doesn’t a retard when they do something that’s absolutely stupid is usually well warranted and very apt.

    • Brett Lovejoy

      I hate when people say ‘the r-word’ for ‘retard’ as much as I hate when people say ‘the n-word’ for ‘nigger.’ It’s okay. It’s just a word. You can say it, it’s all about the context.

  • mph23

    The Silence of the Lambs ‘offence’ makes no sense. The film (and the book) clearly have characters state the Buffalo Bill is NOT gay, and only thinks he’s transgender. His pathology is actually much darker. Lechter says those almost exact words to Starling during thier through-the-glass conversations.

    I was also more offended by the ‘black’ transformers in Bay’s T2:RotF than I was by any Star Wars ‘racism’. How is Watto a Jew? because I guess all sorts of jews are slave-owning used space ship/junk dealers…

    • Fredric Dong

      I thought Watto was arabic.

  • F. Ewe

    Gremlins. Racist. Seems to me that the perpetration of racial bias comes more from those who need to remind us all that blacks eat fried chicken while breakdancing at a silent film festival every chance they get, and oh look lets retroactively accuse the decades past of horrible hatred.

    I’m pretty sure you let the 80s die along with all the watermelon gum and parachute pants, and the rest will follow. Plenty of new reasons to hate each other! :p

  • CabezaQueso

    Gebus the queers need to relax, why so serious?

  • BrianRommel

    The thing about the last airbeder is that in the show most of the main voice actors are white.

  • Stiggie

    Short version: A lot of people bitching about nothing, just like with Black Pete.

  • Looking at the movies that made this list… First and foremost, I will say that people in America are by far TOO damn sensitive! Period. As far as the Muzlemz that were offended? Why? Why are they offended? Maybe it is due to the fact that the truth hurts. If they or their prophet are depicted in ANY way other than the glory that they see themselves as, they ban it and use if as fuel to continue their reign of terror and murder.

    As far as homophobic folks in society or Hollywood… Who cares? I am not a gay man. I do not care to be. I worked at the Andy Warhol Museum when I was attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and let me tell you that I have known more than my share of Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexual people. Let me clue you lemming sheeple in on a little known secret… Whether you like their lifestyle or not, they are people. Whether you hate them or not, they are people. They are not out there killing you if you do not convert! They are not cursing you with the threat of hellfire and brimstone if you do not convert… That right there is how the LGB’s have a step ahead of the judgmental religious morons in this country!

    Point being, that no matter WHAT it is! NO MATTER WHAT YOU LOOK AT… Depending on too many variables, no matter what it is that you look at, if you did not make it, you can find a way to be offended by something!

    If you want everything to be vanilla, boring, and dull, all in hopes that YOU are not offended, eventually the colorful and tasteless humor you like will offend someone else, and that too will be contraband.

    If you do not like something, great move on and do not look at it, partake in it or support it. That does NOT give you the right to say others who have no impact on your life do not have the right to do what it is that makes them happy and continue to tick on…

    So to the overly sensitive Lemming Sheeple of this age… Piss off!

    • Lars Franssen

      Sorry, but it seems to me that your post provides ample evidence against your argument. You seem to have bought into the stereotype that all Muslims are out to convert you or kill you. And if such stereotypes are reinforced, it DOES impact the lives of people you have never met. You may have learned that LGBT are people, but so are Muslims. There are of course terribly screwed-up Muslims, but most of the people who suffer by them are other Muslims. So, to the desensitized Lemming Sheeple of this age … Piss off yourselves!

  • CainCrow

    any chance we can just call prejudice prejudice, respect different oppinions and acknowledge that ‘homophobia’ isnt a real thing?

  • Kat

    The funny thing is, Buffalo Bill was based on actual people — Ed Gein (who was also the inspiration for Norman Bates!) and Gary Heidnik. Gein was the one who made skin suits out of women (mostly dead bodies he dug up from the graveyard, although he did kill at least two women) and Heidnik kept several women chained up in his basement where he had a pit dug to put them in when he wanted to torture them further. I mean, it’s more like an offense to serial killers than transgendered individuals. (I read a book that had a chapter on Heidnik — it gave me nightmares)

  • Liz Leyden

    What about Flightplan? The 2005 film stars Jodie Foster as a woman whose young daughter disappears during a flight. The flight crew try to cover up the disappearance by pretending that he daughter was never on the flight. Apparently a uniopn representing flight attendants called for a boycott.

  • TheOogsterday

    “The undeniable homophobia” “someone with such offensive views”…ugh. Certainly Mr. Turur, with his Bachelors from Cornell, knows that homophobia is nothing more than a buzzword used to belittle people who hold a view that has little to do with a fear of anything. And though the views may be quite offensive to the greater Hollywood community (no surprise there), they are in line with the majority of Americans. The shaming of those who believe in traditional morals is growing tiresome.

  • Lex

    The only problem I have with separating the art from the artist debate is we must remember, the artist is getting money for this art people support. So I don’t have a problem people not seeing the art because they don’t like the artist because it is one less dollar.