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Controversial Films 2021

Independence Day brings with it Sounds of Cinema’s annual controversial films special. The episode celebrates freedom of speech with a look at movies that have been censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial. Below you will find the commentary from today’s show. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial titles, just a selection of relevant pictures that have rattled the cage. For more information on controversial films, see the sources at the bottom. You can also check out the blog post for last year’s episode.

Mississippi Burning (1988)

In 1964 three civil rights activists who had been working on voter registration were murdered in Mississippi. The killings became a national story that resulted in a federal investigation and added momentum to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case was the basis for the 1988 drama Mississippi Burning. The film dramatized a pair of FBI agents investigating the murders and confronting racism and political corruption in the local government and law enforcement.

Mississippi Burning caused a national furor in part for its loose relationship to the facts and the film’s almost exclusive focus on white characters. The actual victims—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—are never even mentioned by name and the movie was clearly based on their murder case while fictionalizing relevant details. African American characters play virtually no part in the story, which narrowed and simplified this civil rights tale into a conflict between crusading FBI agents and backward southern trash. The heroic portrait of the FBI was particularly egregious, given that the bureau had actively attempted to discredit and undermine the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Mississippi Burning drew a polarized response. The film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and was named one of the best films of the year by the National Board of Review. Critics were divided. Many commentators praised the acting and production values but savaged the filmmakers’ approach to the material. Writing for TIME magazine, Jack E. White called Mississippi Burning “a version of history so distorted that it amounts to a cinematic lynching of the truth.”

Those who lived through the civil rights movement also criticized Mississippi Burning. Coretta Scott King discouraged viewers from seeing the film and family members of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner publicly disapproved of it. Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that the film ″reeks with dishonesty, deception and fraud.″ A movie theater located in the region where Mississippi Burning takes place initially refused to play the film on the grounds that it made the community look bad. The theater owner also claimed that local church groups threatened to boycott the cinema if Mississippi Burning was shown. The owner later relented and screened the movie.

Reflecting on the film, Alan Parker conceded some of the criticism of Mississippi Burning. Parker said, “Our film cannot be the definitive film of the black civil rights struggle, our heroes were still white and, in truth, the film would probably have never been made if they weren’t. This is, perhaps, as much a sad reflection on present day society as it is on the film industry.”

I Love You, Daddy (Unreleased) / A Rainy Day in New York (2020)

Two remarkably similar films had their releases disrupted by pressure exerted by the #MeToo movement. Louis C.K. wrote and directed I Love You, Daddy which concerns a father whose daughter falls in love with a much older film director. I Love You, Daddy was originally set for release in 2017 but the film’s opening was canceled when sexual misconduct allegations against Louis C.K. were made public. Distributor The Orchard pulled I Love You, Daddy and the movie still hasn’t been released. Actress Chloe Grace Moretz, who stars in the film, refused to do any press for I Love You, Daddy and opined that the picture should not be released.

A Rainy Day in New York was written and directed by Woody Allen and it’s a standard Woody Allen comedy about a young woman who gets involved with an older filmmaker during a whirlwind press event. Woody Allen has been dogged for years by allegations of sexual assault against young women including his daughter Dylan Farrow who reupped her accusations in a 2014 open letter published in The New York Times. Nevertheless, Amazon Studios signed a multipicture contract with Woody Allen and agreed to distribute his films. But by the time A Rainy Day in New York was completed, Allen had become persona non grata. Amazon shelved the movie and announced it had no intentions to release Allen’s work. The filmmaker filed a lawsuit against Amazon for breach of contract. As the lawyers worked out a settlement, several actors from A Rainy Day in New York publicly expressed regret for working with Allen. A Rainy Day in New York was ultimately released in 2020 by MPI and in 2021 the movie appeared on Amazon’s streaming service.

Kundun (1997)

Martin Scorsese is best known for his gangster pictures but he’s a much more diverse filmmaker than that. One niche within Scorsese’s filmography is his spiritual and religious pictures which have also been some of the director’s most controversial titles including The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence. Among these films is 1997’s Kundun, a biopic about the Dali Lama. The film dramatizes the Dali Lama’s coming of age alongside Tibet’s troubled relationship with China. The picture concludes with the Dali Lama fleeing Tibet under fear of assassination by the Chinese communist government.

China is famously sensitive about the Tibet issue and Kundun was one of several Tibet-themed films to be produced in the 1990s including Red Corner and Seven Years in Tibet. But Kundun, a major production from the writer of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the director Goodfellas, set the stage for a standoff between Hollywood and the Chinese government that would pit artistry and free speech against government censorship and corporate profits. Kundun had originally been proposed to Universal but the studio passed on the film for fear of angering the Chinese government. Kundun was picked up by Touchstone Pictures, which was owned by Disney. The Chinese government made their displeasure about the film known and in a rather prescient statement, former show-business attorney Peter Dekom, told TIME magazine, “Disney had to decide whether it wants to facilitate business or stand for free speech.” By the time the Kundun affair was over, Disney’s priorities were made clear.

Touchstone went ahead with distributing Kundun and the Chinese government retaliated against Hollywood. The Los Angeles Times reported that China’s Ministry of Radio, Film and Television halted the importation of films, co-productions of motion pictures and TV shows, and even discussions of new projects with Hollywood studios. At this time Disney was planning to build a theme park in Shanghai and the edict nearly derailed those plans. Disney’s animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was unable to be dubbed into Chinese and the film was blocked from playing in that country.

When Kundun opened, the film was well reviewed but it was a box office failure, earning only $5 million against a $28 million production budget. Martin Scorsese said that Disney got cold feet and that Touchstone undermarketed the movie. After Kundun’s release, Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner apologized to China for the film. Einser said, “The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it. Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”

Although Kundun wasn’t a success, Scorsese created the film he sought to make and it remains available on physical media and on streaming services (although not on Disney+). In retrospect, Kundun was a watershed moment in the relationship between Hollywood and China. Nearly a quarter century later, Hollywood studios go to great lengths to appease the Chinese communist government, conceiving films to ensure they get distribution in Chinese cinemas which is now the largest film market in the world.

Brazil (1985)

Brazil is a dystopian fantasy picture about a future in which bureaucracy has run amok. There is nothing actually offensive in the picture but controversy erupted between director Terry Gilliam and then head of Universal Pictures Sid Sheinberg. Gilliam completed the film, running 132 minutes, but Sheinberg deemed it too long and too confusing for audiences and blocked the picture from being released. When Gilliam refused to make changes, Universal attempted to take the film away from the director and created its own ninety-four minute cut, known as the “Love Conquers All” version. In an attempt to keep control of his film, Gilliam made the dispute public by taking out a full-page ad in Variety magazine asking Sheinberg to release the film. This did little to improve Gilliam’s relationship with Sheinberg but it did make critics and the public curious about Brazil and cast the narrative in the press of an independent artist struggling against an oppressive studio system. The final stroke came when Gilliam began setting up clandestine screenings of the film on college campuses, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Brazil was eventually screened for Los Angeles film critics, who later awarded Brazil the Best Picture of the Year award, at which point Sheinberg gave up on trying to recut it and released Gilliam’s version. Later critical judgments of Brazil were mixed. The LA film critics were accused of siding with Gilliam on his dispute with the studio and ignoring the actual shortcomings of the film. In retrospect, Brazil is an interesting but flawed take on government, bureaucracy, and identity but the controversy around it is fittingly consistent with the movie’s themes.

American Psycho (2000)

Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho was one of the most controversial books of the 1990s. Told in the first person through an unreliable narrator, American Psycho was about a murderous Wall Street executive whose bloodlust gradually becomes all consuming. The stream of consciousness narration strings together banal observations about fashionable clothing and trendy restaurants with extraordinarily violent murder scenes. The book was controversial before it was even in print with Simon & Schuster abandoning American Psycho after some of its employees objected to the novel’s publication. It was picked up by a Random House imprint and Ellis’ novel became an object of scandal. Some book sellers refused to stock American Psycho and the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women organized a boycott of the publisher.

American Psycho was adapted into a feature film released in 2000. While the release of the movie didn’t generate quite the firestorm that the novel did, the film adaptation of American Psycho encountered resistance before and during its production. For a short while, Leonardo DiCaprio expressed interest in playing the lead character. This was averted by the intervention of feminist activist Gloria Steinem. She had been an opponent of the book and following the success of Titanic DiCaprio was the heartthrob of teenage girls across America. Steinem allegedly told DiCaprio that he should not do American Psycho because teenage moviegoers would see the film if he was in it.

Production went forward with Christian Bale cast in the lead role and Mary Harron directing from a script she co-wrote with Guinevere Turner.  According to Harron, the tabloid The News of the World declared American Psycho ”The most disgusting film of the year!” while it was still in production and the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation said ”There are no redeeming qualities to a misogynist product like this.” Before shooting began in Toronto, Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment distributed a press release that was picked up by the tabloid The Sun. Fears of protests led property owners to refuse the filmmakers access to offices and banks where they had hoped to shoot. As it turned out, no protesters ever showed.

American Psycho was made in the shadow of the Columbine high school massacre in Littleton, Colorado. Following that tragedy there was renewed anxiety about violence in media and the book American Psycho had already been attacked for its alleged potential to incite violence. A Canadian serial killer had been discovered to possess a copy of the novel and although there was no link between the book and the killer’s actions, the association was frequently reinforced in the press. While promoting the film, Mary Harron was frequently asked to answer for hypothetical killers who might be inspired by her film. The American Psycho movie was never linked to any copycats or other instances of real-life violence.

When American Psycho was released it was a modest success. The reviews were lukewarm and the movie earned a D rating at Cinemascore which polls opening night viewers. American Psycho found its audience much later. The film turned up the satirical elements of the novel while turning down its gore and for a present audience that is concerned with toxic masculinity and Wall Street malpractice, American Psycho has found its moment.

San Pietro (1945) / Let There Be Light (1981)

During World War II, the federal government worked very closely with Hollywood to produce newsreels and feature films that would support the war effort. Among the high-profile Hollywood directors to work for the military was John Huston who had to that point directed The Maltese Falcon and In This Our Life and would later helm classics such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen. During the war, Huston was embedded with front line military units and documented the Battle of San Pietro. The film was a mix of documentary footage and dramatic recreations and it was quite effective at capturing the grueling aspects of combat, so much so that the military debated what to do with it. The original cut was deemed too grim and San Pietro was cut down and initially kept from the public because military officials feared that it would hurt morale. When he returned to Hollywood, Huston would refer to the Battle of San Pietro in 1948’s Key Largo.

Huston’s last film for the military was Let There Be Light. Filmed at the war’s conclusion, Let There Be Light profiled servicemen being treated for what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Like San Pietro, Let There Be Light combined documentary filmmaking with dramatic techniques and the film is a frank and moving portrait of servicemen struggling to overcome psychological trauma. But the military wasn’t so happy with Let There Be Light. According to Huston, the military “wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth, which said that our American soldiers went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience.” Let There Be Light was set to screen at a 1946 documentary film festival at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art when it was seized by military police. The film was banned from circulation until the early 1980s. A bootlegged copy was surreptitiously shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which prompted a campaign to get Let There Be Light released. Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti and Vice President Walter Mondale intervened to persuade the military to release the film and it was finally made available in 1981.

Let There Be Light was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry which lists films that are deemed culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Let There Be Light has been restored and can now be seen online—legally and for free—through the National Film Preservation Foundation website.

The Battle of the Algiers (1966)

The Battle of the Algiers is a 1966 war film that dramatizes Algeria’s war for independence from France. The conflict is framed around Algerian resistance leader Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) and French Colonel Philippe Mathieu (Jean Martin) and the escalating violence between their respective sides but Battle of the Algiers doesn’t follow a familiar dramaturgical approach. It’s more of a collage of events. Battle of the Algiers was shot in Algeria with a cinema verité (or documentary) style that gave the picture remarkable vibrancy and it played more like a newsreel than a feature film. Battle of the Algiers depicted bombings and assassinations by the Algerian resistance as well as the use of torture by the French military. That the picture was made not even a decade after hostilities had ceased gave Battle of the Algiers additional edge. But its documentary style did not belie the filmmaker’s sympathies which were very obviously with the Algerian people.

Battle of the Algiers debuted at the 1966 Venice Film Festival. The audience response was enthusiastic and the film won the festival’s Golden Lion award but the French delegation walked out of the screening. When Battle of the Algiers was to be shown in France a theater screening the film was firebombed and another had its screen slashed. Battle of the Algiers wasn’t shown in France until 1971 when filmmaker Louis Malle networked with leftist student groups to organize screenings.

Battle of the Algiers influenced both filmmakers and political activists. The movie’s craftsmanship has been praised by directors such as Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, and Mira Nair. But the Algerian war was also the beginning of the end of European colonialism and this film’s vivid recreation of the conflict may have accelerated revolutionary fervor around the globe. The movie’s dramatization of insurgent tactics has made Battle of the Algiers a popular film among revolutionary groups including the IRA and the Black Panthers.

Cuties (2020)

Cuties was a 2020 French film that caused controversy for its sexualized depiction of young girls. The picture follows an eleven-year-old Senegalese immigrant who lives in Paris with her conservative Muslim family. In an act of rebellion, she befriends a clique of popular pretty girls who wear revealing outfits and video themselves dancing to rap and hip-hop songs. The girls enter a dance competition and their routine uses the hypersexual gestures widely seen in music videos. Cuties is a critique of the sexualization of young girls and an exploration of the immigrant experience.

Cuties initially played at the Sundance and Berlin International Film Festivals where it was acclaimed by audiences and nominated for awards including Best Film. The movie was acquired by Netflix and that’s where its troubles began. Netflix marketed the film with a poster showing the young cast in provocative outfits paired with an inaccurate blurb that described Cuties as the story of girls competing in a twerking competition. The marketing got people’s attention in the wrong way. Petitions accusing Netflix of peddling child pornography and demanding that it remove Cuties from its streaming service accumulated hundreds of thousands of signatures and users threatened to cancel their Netflix subscriptions although ultimately few of them actually did. Cuties director and writer Maïmouna Doucouré received death threats. Netflix defended the movie but issued an apology for the marketing campaign and altered the poster and the description on its streaming service.

Politicians and cultural watchdogs also weighed in on Cuties. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation released a statement condemning Cuties and United States Senator Josh Hawley sent a letter to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings complaining about the film. Senator Kelly Loeffler requested that the Senate Judiciary Committee hold hearings about Cuties and several United States Senators and congressional representatives called for the US Department of Justice to investigate Netflix. A Texas grand jury indicted Netflix on charges of lewd depiction of children. Nothing ever came of these protests and threats.

The negative reaction to Cuties was not entirely baseless. The movie does include sequences of young girls dressed in skimpy outfits and dancing in provocative ways. But cinematic images acquire their meaning by their context. The movie makes clear that this sexualization of children is inappropriate by juxtaposing scenes of the girls dancing with horrified reactions by adult characters. The film also makes clear that these girls are so sexually naïve that they have little awareness of what their lewd gestures actually mean. The picture also visualizes the pernicious way in which this adult imagery impacts children as the girls’ behaviors and values shift to match those of sexualized media. This is the ultimate irony of the Cuties controversy; the film is on the same side as those who spoke out against it.

Red Dawn (1984/2012)

1984’s Red Dawn was an action film that imagined the Soviet Union invading the United States. The picture mostly takes place in a small town in Colorado where local teenagers form their own resistance movement and engage in guerilla warfare against the occupying Soviet army. Red Dawn was said to be the most violent film produced to that point; the National Coalition on Television Violence claimed that the movie contained 134 acts of violence an hour. Despite its violence, Red Dawn was rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America and in fact it was the first movie to be given the rating (Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom prompted the creation of the PG-13 rating but they were officially rated PG.)

Reaction to Red Dawn, both then and now, often fell along partisan political lines. The National Review named Red Dawn one of the best conservative movies. The picture was also derided as a jingoistic and warmongering piece of work. The political interpretation of the film had consequences. Director and cowriter John Milius claimed that Red Dawn’s rightwing politics caused him to be blacklisted in Hollywood.

A remake of Red Dawn was released in 2012. The newer version followed the same premise but changed the enemy. As originally written and shot, the Red Dawn remake imagined China invading the United States. However, the film was altered in post-production, changing the invading army from China to North Korea; the insignias on the uniforms and military hardware were digitally altered and the Asian actors were redubbed to speak Korean. The remake inspired more eyerolling than outrage and it has been largely forgotten.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Fahrenheit 9/11 was one of the most controversial pictures of the 2000s. Michael Moore’s documentary was an exposé of the George W. Bush administration and it was released less than six months before the 2004 election. Moore made no bones about the fact that he hoped Fahrenheit 9/11 would swing the election results in Bush’s disfavor. It failed to do that but Fahrenheit 9/11 did energize anti-Bush voters and the election results may have been closer than they would have been without the film.

Controversy began before production had even started. When Moore accepted the Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine he gave a fiery speech that denounced President George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Production got underway with the backing of Miramax which at that time was run by Bob and Harvey Weinstein and owned by Disney. Executives at Disney prevented Miramax from releasing Fahrenheit 9/11 allegedly because the studio feared that Florida Governor Jeb Bush would take away tax breaks enjoyed by Disney theme parks if the company or its subsidiaries distributed the film. But here’s where things get complicated. The press reports at the time described Disney CEO Michael Eisner censoring Fahrenheit 9/11. This narrative cast Michael Moore as a renegade filmmaker who was fighting the corporate and political machine. However, a piece by Edward Jay Epstein at Slate describes a more complex set of circumstances. According to Esptein, there was always an understanding between the Weinsteins and Disney executives that Miramax would never distribute Fahrenheit 9/11 and it was Michael Moore’s representatives who planted the idea that Disney was stepping in to sabotage the movie. When it became clear that Fahrenheit 9/11 would be a huge financial success, lucrative deals were set up with third parties so that the film was officially distributed by other companies while the profits flowed back to Miramax and Disney.

Another dimension of Fahrenheit 9/11’s controversy was its rating. The Motion Picture Association of America certified Fahrenheit 9/11 with an R for language and violent footage from the war front. Michael Moore proclaimed that the rating was politically motivated. Whether that is true or not is hard to substantiate but the controversy did briefly reopen concerns about the power of the MPAA and some theater owners refused to enforce the R-rating. 

Fahrenheit 9/11 was also controversial because of allegations that Moore distorted the truth or outright lied. While the movie was more truthful than a lot of its detractors would admit, Michael Moore has a skill for presenting images and facts in ways that are semantically correct and yet lead to a distorted impression. For instance, a segment of Fahrenheit 9/11 explores the link between the Bush family and Saudi royals. While there are certainly shared political and business interests between the two families, Fahrenheit 9/11 creates an impression of corruption rather than substantively demonstrating any wrongdoing.

Fahrenheit 9/11 also exposed the failure of the mainstream press. It was released about two and a half years after the September 11th terrorist attack and the culture was still dealing with the trauma. The press was reluctant to speak critically about the George W. Bush administration especially in regard to national security and most major American news outlets parroted the administration’s talking points. (Social media didn’t exist yet and MSNBC was not the liberal venue that it is now.) Fahrenheit 9/11 defied the unspoken cultural etiquette and forced a conversation about pre-9/11 intelligence failures and the complicity of the mainstream press in spreading false word that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Michael Moore positioned himself as the one telling the truth long before the phrase “fake news” became ubiquitous.

The various controversies turned Fahrenheit 9/11’s release into a cultural event, which was unheard of for a documentary film. Fahrenheit 9/11 was an enormous box office success and it became the highest grossing documentary feature of all time. In the aftermath, documentaries briefly became a bankable genre with An Inconvenient Truth and March of the Penguins opening wide and doing impressive business. Its success also transformed the documentary genre into a popular political tool that was used by filmmakers such as Dinesh D’Souza and Robert Greenwald.

In 2018, Michael Moore released Fahrenheit 11/9, a companion piece that examined American politics in the Trump era. 11/9 was actually better than its predecessor in several respects but it didn’t have the cultural impact of the 2004 film in part because the media landscape had shifted.

Sources

“The Battle of Brazil: A Video History.” Brazil. Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. Disc 2.

Dirks, Tim. “The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All Time.” AMC Filmsite.

Five Came Back. Dir. Laurent Bouzereau. 2017. Netflix.

“Five Directors on The Battle of the Algiers.” The Battle of the Algiers. Criterion Collection DVD. Disc 2.

“Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of the Algiers.” The Battle of the Algiers. Criterion Collection DVD. Disc 2.

Milius. Dir. Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson. 2013.

“The Release of Fahrenheit 9/11Fahrenheit 9/11. DVD. 2004.

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