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Controversial Films Special 2023

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.

Midnight Express (1978)

Midnight Express was an adaptation of the memoir by Billy Hayes in which the author recounted being arrested in Turkey for drug smuggling and sentenced to prison. The movie was harsh and depicted the Turkish prison staff as sadists but it was also a success, doing quite well at the box office, earning several Academy Award nominations, and winning Oliver Stone the adapted screenplay Oscar. Midnight Express was attacked by some critics. Pauline Kael wrote that Midnight Express “works in xenophobic, melodramatic terms portraying all Turks as bestial, sadistic, filthy.” Midnight Express was banned in Turkey until 1992 and the Turkish government issued an Interpol warrant against Hayes that stood for the next twenty years. The film was said to have caused a downturn in the Turkish tourism industry and damaged relations between Turkey and the West. The movie continues to be a sensitive topic. In 2019, President Trump reportedly asked Turkish President Erdoğan if he had seen Midnight Express and said “That’s a dark movie for you guys.”

The legacy of Midnight Express was explored in the 2016 documentary Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey. In this documentary Hayes addressed the way Midnight Express departed from reality and accused the filmmakers of distorting his story. Oliver Stone replied to Hayes’ accusations in his own memoir Chasing the Light. Stone acknowledged the details he and the other filmmakers had fabricated, namely a scene depicting Hayes killing a Turkish prison guard. However, Stone also opined that Hayes had not been entirely truthful, omitting that he was arrested on the fourth of his drug smuggling trips, not the first, and that he was gay. Stone doubted that he would have written the script the way he had knowing these details. Hayes responded to Stone in a letter to Variety, saying that his lawyers advised him against admitting to further drug smuggling and implied that Stone was being dishonest.

Seaspiracy (2021)

Seaspiracy was a 2021 documentary about the harm commercial fishing is inflicting upon the world’s oceans. The documentary alleges that commercial fishing is wiping out ecosystems and that our current consumption of fish is unsustainable. Seaspiracy was shown on Netflix and it was a successful title for the streaming service but it proved contentious. But instead of a fight breaking out between the documentarians and the commercial fishing industry, the debate over Seaspiracy played out between extreme elements of the animal rights community and marine biologists. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals praised Seaspiracy but many marine biologists criticized it for being grossly inaccurate. Marine biologist Daniel Pauly accused Seaspiracy of distorting the facts to fit its narrative and fisheries expert Ray Hilborn called the documentary “a propaganda film made by vegan activists” and said, “The idea that the oceans are being emptied of fish is simply false.” Ultimately, Seaspiracy’s distortions actually did a disservice to conservation and ecology by distracting from the real complexities of the problems facing the oceans.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the source of several controversies. Behind the scenes business dealings resulted in lawsuits that tied up the film rights for years. The movie was also subject to censorship and was banned in multiple countries around the world including the United Kingdom where Texas Chainsaw Massacre was unavailable until 1998. The irony of the censorship of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that the film contains very little gore. Most of the violence is just off screen but the film is so intense that viewers come away believing they’ve seen more carnage than they actually did.  

Filmmaker Tobe Hooper returned for a follow up in 1986 which was produced by Cannon Films. In the twelve years between the first two Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, the slasher genre had become a popular mainstream form of entertainment distinguished by gory makeup effects. Hooper embraced the viscera and poked fun at the genre that he had helped to create while also skewering 1980s yuppie culture. Where 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre had implied a lot of its violence, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 went the other way and the film is a brilliant but extraordinarily gory farce. The sequel was in some respects the movie that the detractors of the original film had claimed it to be.

Like its predecessor, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 suffered from shady behind the scenes machinations and suppression by censors. Cannon Films was known for their unscrupulous financial dealings and according to several members of the cast and crew the studio executives did not fund the production to the amount agreed upon. The finished picture apparently was not Tobe Hooper’s preferred cut and the unused film materials are believed to be lost. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was unable to secure an R-rating and so it was released unrated in the United States. Most major theater chains are subject to agreements between the National Association of Theater Owners and the Motion Picture Association which is what gives the ratings system its leverage; a lot of theaters cannot or will not show unrated movies. However, it was alleged that some theaters were showing Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and claiming it was R-rated. Because the MPA’s rating system is a federally registered trademark, unauthorized use of their ratings is actually illegal. Internationally, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was banned for years in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was not a financial success at the time, partly owing to its limited theatrical options but also because many fans rejected it. The stylistic departure from the first film and overt sense of humor caught viewers off guard and critics were harsh to it. But decades later, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is now well regarded and it is the fan favorite of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series.

Tropic Thunder (2008) & All-Star Weekend (Unreleased)

2008’s Tropic Thunder was a show business comedy about a Hollywood production of a Vietnam War film that goes awry. Tropic Thunder was a bawdy satire that poked fun at tentpole filmmaking, egomaniacal Hollywood stars, and pretentions to artistry. In particular, Tropic Thunder satirized the way Hollywood and some of its performers exploit identity issues in pursuit of awards and prestige. Robert Downey Jr. played a white Australian thespian so committed to method acting that he wears blackface make up and Ben Stiller was cast as a Hollywood star whose previously chased awards gold by playing an intellectually disabled character known as Simple Jack. 

Tropic Thunder was a critical and financial success but it also attracted protest. Representatives of the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities demonstrated outside Tropic Thunder’s Los Angeles premiere. The chairman of the Special Olympics called for a boycott of the movie. Part of the issue was the repeated use of the word “retard” in the film’s dialogue. Tropic Thunder was also criticized for its depiction of race, namely Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as a white actor in blackface but also for the depiction of Asian people who are not presented in a satirical context. The Asian characters of Tropic Thunder echo the “yellow peril” caricatures seen in the sorts of movies that Tropic Thunder ridicules.

Tropic Thunder has remained in the public consciousness over the years in part because of present concerns about representation and so-called cancel culture. Articles continue to be written critiquing or defending the movie. Alongside Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, Tropic Thunder is frequently cited as a movie that “could never get made now.” That discourse is frequently stupid and wrong.

However, the debate over Tropic Thunder is relevant to the as-yet-unreleased film All Star Weekend. The picture, which was Jamie Foxx’s directorial debut, stars Foxx and Jeremy Piven as friends who win tickets to the NBA All-Star game and get into a series of crazy scenarios. Foxx reportedly plays multiple characters including a white police officer and Robert Downey Jr. is cast as a Mexican. All Star Weekend was shot in 2016 but it still hasn’t been released. Foxx indicated that All Star Weekend has been shelved indefinitely because of the present cultural climate.

Sahara (2005)

The 2005 film Sahara was based on the book by novelist Clive Cussler. The film was intended to initiate a franchise around the hero Dirk Pitt but the film was a spectacular box office failure.  Reports of the production budget are varied but most estimates are around $150 million (not including marketing costs). Sahara earned well below that and became one of the biggest box office flops in Hollywood history.

What happened afterward was much more interesting than the movie and nearly as stupid. In his contract, Clive Cussler had creative rights including approval over casting and the script. However, Paramount executives were not particularly interested in the author’s input in part because Cussler was reportedly intransigent in the development of the screenplay which went through many writers and drafts. Production of Sahara went forward with a script Cussler didn’t approve. Cussler was unhappy with the way he’d been shut out of the production and publicly trash talked Sahara before it was released and filed a $100 million lawsuit against the producers for breach-of-contract. The producers countersued Cussler claiming that the author’s behavior had impaired Sahara’s box office potential and that he had abused his consultation rights. They also claimed that Cussler had misrepresented and exaggerated sales of his novels, leading the producers to believe Sahara was a more popular intellectual property than it actually was and therefore spend more money on the production than was justified.

The ensuing trial was a public relations disaster for all involved. Unflattering details about Cussler’s behavior (including disparaging comments about minorities) were made public as were some of the excesses of the film’s production. Stars Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz were given massive perks and bribes were doled out to people in power in Morocco where the film was shot while local crew members were paid a pittance. The legal outcome was unusual with both sides claiming victory but no one actually won anything. After a trial that lasted fourteen weeks and an appeal to an appellate court affirmed the outcome of the trial, neither the author nor the producers obtained an affirmative judgement, meaning that no one got paid except the lawyers whose legal fees were estimated at $20 million.

To Leslie (2022)

To Leslie was a little seen 2022 film in which Andrea Riseborough played a woman who wins the lottery and squanders her windfall. Riseborough is an actress who has worked steadily over the years in movies both big and small but she has primarily occupied the indie film world. To Leslie was not widely seen and so it came as a great surprise when Riseborough was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. This is where the controversy began.

The Hollywood awards circuit is as political as any election for public office. And just as there is a lucrative industry of strategy and image consultants who craft political campaigns, there is an equivalent industry in Hollywood in which millions of dollars are spent in pursuit of awards. Andrea Riseborough had no such campaign behind her. Instead, Riseborough’s manager and a handful of other people involved in To Leslie worked a grassroots campaign to get the movie seen by as many Academy Award voters as possible and encouraged them to spread the word on social media. The effort worked and got Riseborough the nomination although she ultimately did not win.

The reaction to Riseborough’s nomination was harsh. There were insinuations in the press that Riseborough and company had done something unseemly. The Academy investigated the To Leslie Oscar campaign and released a statement that cleared Riseborough of any wrongdoing but said the Academy “[discovered] social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern.” The Academy later issued a new set of Oscar campaign rules that clamped down on awards talk between Academy members.

At scale, the Academy Awards and the rest of the Hollywood awards circuit don’t mean very much. The whole thing is a grotesque charade celebrating corporate products under the guise of art appreciation. But the mishigas over Andrea Riseborough’s Oscar nomination is notable for the way it circumvented the awards industrial complex and the way the response to her nomination revealed how the Academy is beholden to corporate power.

The Doom Generation (1995)

The 1990s produced a subgenre of nihilistic movies often about young people on road trips that take a violent turn such as Kalifornia, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers. Among these titles was 1995’s The Doom Generation directed by Gregg Araki. The movie concerns a pair of teenagers (James Duval and Rose McGowan), who pick up a drifter (Johnathon Schaech). Their road trip turns into a surreal, sexual, and violent descent into madness.

The Doom Generation’s release history is an example of marketplace censorship. After initial screenings at film festivals, The Doom Generation was picked up by The Samuel Goldwyn Company but the distributor dropped the film when they discovered its content. It was then acquired by Trimark Pictures which distributed The Doom Generation theatrically and on home video. Trimark required edits to the movie for its brief theatrical run and The Doom Generation underwent more edits for its home video release. In the 1990s Blockbuster Video dominated the home video market and they would not stock NC-17-rated titles. The Doom Generation was cut down to just seventy-five minutes for its R-rated, Blockbuster approved version. Gregg Araki said that he had nothing to do with that cut and that it had erroneous color timing and sound mixing. The R-rated cut was the only version of The Doom Generation available until 2023. Araki recovered the rights to the film and restored and remastered it including footage that hadn’t been seen since The Doom Generation’s initial film festival screenings in 1995. The restored version of The Doom Generation is not yet available for home viewing but it has screened at festivals. 

TFW NO GF (2020)

The 2020 documentary TFW NO GF explores the world of so-called incels—young men who are “involuntary celibates” because they have no romantic relationships. (The title refers to an internet abbreviation for “That Feeling When No Girlfriend.”) The documentary profiles several young men in this subculture from different parts of the United States. They are linked not only but their lack of romantic prospects but also by their nihilistic sense of humor, investment and reliance on online spaces, low economic power, and an overall sense of hopelessness. It’s an extraordinary portrait that in time may be one of the defining documentaries of this era.

Reactions to TFW NO GF were mixed. The documentary includes interviews with these young men who talk about their lives and frustrations but does not include outside perspectives nor does it challenge their pessimistic views. Detractors of the documentary argue that TFW NO GF implicitly downplays or dismisses the violence perpetuated by young men who are involved in this subculture. Film critic Eric Langberg expressed his reservations about TFW NO GF on Twitter, where he suggested the film was “one of the most irresponsible docs” that he had ever seen. That comment provoked online trolls who deluged Langberg with hateful messages. 

The filmmakers of TFW NO GF could have provided outside testimony or pushed back on their subject’s claims but if they did TFW NO GF would be a different sort of film. TFW NO GF is reminiscent of the work of Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman in the way it plunges us into these people’s lives. The very term incel is less about a lack of romance and really about the loneliness, isolation, and despair of a certain segment of the American male population and TFW NO GF succeeds as a portrait of these men. Demanding that the filmmakers provide an outside point of view ignores the role that viewers play in their own viewing experience.

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection was one of the defining movies of the 1970s. Based on true events, The French Connection was about two New York City detectives (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) who pursue a heroine smuggler. The characters are morally ambiguous and the film was shot in a gritty style that was unique at the time. The French Connection was a great success. It was one of the top five grossing movies of 1971 and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film inspired a sequel and a television show and its influence can be seen in many law enforcement dramas of the following decades.

The French Connection has recently had a contentious history on home media. The movie has a very specific visual style but the first Blu-ray disc of The French Connection, published in 2009, completely changed the style of the film. The coloring had been altered, giving The French Connection a bright pastel look that was contrary to the way the movie had been intended. Filmmaker William Friedkin claimed that there had been an error in the manufacturing of the disc. A new Blu-ray edition of The French Connection was released in 2012 with color timing that resembled the original look. The French Connection made news again in 2023. Viewers watching The French Connection on streaming services and their own digital libraries noted that a key line of dialogue, in which Gene Hackman’s character uses a racial slur, had been excised. As news of the censorship spread, consumers snatched up physical copies of The French Connection and prices on the secondary market spiked. Disney acquired The French Connection as part of its purchase of 20th Century Fox in 2019. So far, Disney has not commented on the change to the film.

While we don’t know the details or justification for Disney’s censorship of The French Connection, it is illustrative of the perilously plastic nature of digital media. The deletion of this dialogue in William Friedkin’s film occurs alongside edits to books by Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming and stories of purchases disappearing from consumer’s digital libraries with little or no explanation (and certainly no refunds). Digital distribution has many benefits but if it comes at the cost of integrity and permanence then we are entering a scenario in which art and media will be perpetually imperiled. In a digital economy, consumers don’t really own anything and the work of creators can be altered or discarded on a whim. That’s especially worrying in a corporate culture that will exploit any way to get consumers to spend more money (like making them buy the same item over and over again) and is prone to eradicate anything that might threaten the interests or public standing of the parent company. Or these corporate owners may simply calculate that a work of art is more valuable to them discarded as a tax write off than as part of their inventory. The censorship of The French Connection, among other titles, highlights the importance of physical media in our schools and libraries as well as in our personal collections.

Tongues Untied (1989)

Tongues Untied was a fifty-five-minute documentary by Marlon T. Riggs that explored the experience of Black gay men. Combining poetic narration with stock footage and dramatization, Tongues Untied was a passionate and unapologetic demand for respect and recognition. Confronting racism and homophobia is always a prickly matter but Tongues Untied had the added distinction of being released around the height of the AIDS crisis. Fear of the disease had inspired a homophobic relapse in American society. Filmmaker Marlon Riggs died of AIDS complications a few years after Tongues Untied was released.

Tongues Untied was first shown at several film festivals and later broadcast on the PBS series P.O.V. At least seventeen stations in the top fifty markets refused to air it. The documentary’s television debut brought the film into the mainstream and, predictably, Tongues Untied was attacked by homophobic activists and organizations. But the controversy over the film took on a specifically political dimension. Tongues Untied had been financed by a grant that traced back to the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA’s support of the film and Tongues Untied’s broadcast on public television made it a centerpiece for a critique of government spending on the arts. During the 1992 presidential primary, Republican candidate Pat Buchanan critiqued sitting president George H.W. Bush, accusing him of supporting the NEA’s funding of Tongues Untied, and erroneously described the documentary as pornography. In a letter to the New York Times, filmmaker Marlon Riggs responded to the controversy, comparing the attack on Tongues Untied to the infamous Willy Horton ad that had aided George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election.

Riggs was a filmmaker working in the realm of arthouse cinema and so much of his work hasn’t been widely seen. That’s starting to change and Tongues Untied has had a significant cultural legacy. In 2021 the Criterion Collection released The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs, a multidisc set that included Tongues United and other films. And in 2022 Tongues Untied was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry which recognizes titles that are deemed historically, aesthetically, or culturally significant.

Scarface (1932 & 1983)

There have been two version of Scarface with each film controversial in its own time. The 1932 original was directed by Howard Hawks, produced by Howard Hughes, and starred Paul Muni as Tony, an ambitious gangster who rises to the top of Chicago’s criminal underworld during Prohibition but is undone by his excesses and his complicated relationship with his sister.

1932’s Scarface was originally conceived as a biography of real-life gangster Al Capone. Filmmaker Howard Hawks actually met with Capone who reportedly took a personal interest in the film’s production. Although the gangster of the original Scarface is not really a hero he is charismatic and the filmmaker’s approach to the story ran up against the censorship apparatus of the time. Politicians and conservative groups were suspicious of motion pictures, which at that time were relatively new, and some localities ran their own censorship operations, requiring edits or title changes to films before they could be shown publicly. In an effort to clean up their image, Hollywood instituted the Production Code Administration. Films had to get the PCA’s approval before they could show in theaters and the code was very restrictive on violence and sexuality and required that criminals be portrayed in an unambiguously negative way.

The postproduction of 1932’s Scarface became a negotiation between the filmmakers, the PCA, and several major censorship boards. Working first with the PCA, Hawks and Hughes discarded and changed scenes to downplay Tony’s perceived heroism. Three different versions were made with the final cut sporting a new ending. In the original version, Tony went out in a hail of bullets during a shootout with police. The new ending retooled the finale to rein in Tony’s martyrdom. Despite appeasing the PCA, some local censorship bodies still refused to pass Scarface. Howard Hughes went on the offensive against the New York censorship board which eventually relented. When it did go to theaters, Scarface was challenged by Italian American organizations which felt the movie slandered their ethnicity.

A remake of Scarface was released in 1983. This version was directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, and starred Al Pacino as a Cuban immigrant involved in the cocaine trade. By 1983 the Production Code was gone and the filmmakers embraced the new creative freedom. The Scarface remake was excessive in ways that suited 1980s culture and the extreme violence of the drug cartels.

Much of 1983’s Scarface is set in Miami and part of the film was shot there. However, when rumors spread among Florida’s Cuban community that Scarface would be a pro-Castro or anti-immigrant story, locals made trouble for the production company and forced them to relocate.

The Production Code had been replaced by the MPA’s ratings board which refused to give Scarface an R rating. After the third submission to the board came back with an X-rating, the producers arranged a hearing in which they brought in a panel of experts, including psychiatrists and narcotics officers, to argue that Scarface was an accurate portrait of the drug underworld. The producers won. However, De Palma surmised that if the third cut of Scarface was judged an R then the very first cut should have been an R as well. He asked the studio if he could release the original cut but was told that he couldn’t. But since the studio executives didn’t know the differences between the various cuts that had been submitted, De Palma released the original version of Scarface to theaters anyway.

Scarface was not a big success at the box office in its theatrical run and it was treated harshly by critics; Brian De Palma was nominated for a Razzie award for Worst Director. But over time 1983’s Scarface has gained a passionate fan following and it has inspired rap and hip-hop artists as well as the television show Breaking Bad. Both versions of Scarface are now considered among the great gangster pictures.


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

It Runs in the Family. Dir. Michael Felsher. 2006. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 Blu-Ray. Vinegar Syndrome.

“The Scarface Phenomenon.” Scarface (1983) Blu-Ray.

Stone, Oliver. Chasing the Light. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.