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Controversial Films Special 2024

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.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

The silent film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The novel had been published twenty-five years prior to Nosferatu and Dracula was still protected by copyright laws. It’s unclear if filmmaker F.W. Murnau ever approached the Stoker estate about the rights since a lot of the legal documentation from that time has not survived. But we do know that Murnau did not have the rights to Dracula and he went ahead with a film adaptation anyway; he had previously directed The Head of Janus which was an unauthorized adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen kept the premise of Dracula intact but altered the details. The location was moved from Great Britain to Germany, names were changed, secondary characters were omitted, and a new ending was conceived. The changes weren’t enough to evade copyright infringement. The Stoker estate filed a lawsuit and won. The court ordered that all prints of Nosferatu were to be destroyed. Fortunately, copies of the film survived and Nosferatu is now regarded as one of the essential films in the horror genre. 1922’s Nosferatu now resides in the public domain but well before that the film was subject to piracy and violations of copyright with various editions of the film released on home video.

Lust, Caution (2007)

Lust, Caution is a 2007 erotic drama set in China during the Japanese occupation. A group of young people conspire to assassinate a collaborator; a young woman becomes his lover to draw him out. Due to explicit sex scenes and some violence, Lust, Caution was rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association. The rating limited the film’s theatrical distribution. A lot of theaters will not book NC-17 rated films and some outlets will not accept adverts for them. Blockbuster Video would not carry NC-17 rated titles. The NC-17 version of Lust, Caution played in theaters and it was director Ang Lee’s preferred version but the distributor created an R-rated version for home video.

Lust, Caution had a troubled release and legacy in China. Filmmaker Ang Lee is Taiwanese and the film was financed by American, Chinese, and Taiwanese companies. This complicated the picture’s national identity and it fell on tensions between the three countries. Lust, Caution was altered for its release in China. Some of the edits were applied to the sexuality and violence but the Chinese censors also required changes to the film’s climax. In Ang Lee’s version, the young woman thwarts the assassination plot but in the Chinese release version this moment was rendered ambiguous. China is also highly censorious toward images of sexuality and actress Tang Wei was blacklisted for years because of her role in Lust, Caution.

L’Amore (1948) and The Moon is Blue (1953) and the Production Code

From the very beginning of cinema, there were attempts to censor and control the medium. States and major cities operated their own censorship boards often in conjunction with the Catholic Church or other faith organizations. This censorship was legitimized by the 1915 US Supreme Court case Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio. The court determined that motion pictures were industrial products, not speech, and therefore were not covered by the First Amendment. In an effort to protect the industry and clean up Hollywood’s reputation, the studios adopted the Production Code which was a highly restrictive set of rules around depictions of violence and sexuality as well as criminality, religion, and morality. The Production Code Administration worked in collaboration with the Legion of Decency, which evaluated motion pictures and advised Catholics as to which films were morally safe for them to patronage. The Production Code was adopted in the mid-1930s and reigned until the 1960s. During this period, most theaters would not show unapproved movies and so motion pictures that didn’t get the PCA seal of approval were blocked out of the theatrical market.

In 1952 the US Supreme Court decided Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson which reversed the court’s opinion about film and speech, affirming that motion pictures were indeed protected by the First Amendment. Burstyn v. Wilson was fought over the Roberto Rossellini film L’Amore, which consisted of two shorts: “The Human Voice” and “The Miracle,” the latter episode causing controversy. “The Miracle” depicted a woman who might be eccentric or might in fact carry a miraculously conceived pregnancy. “The Miracle” caused an uproar. The Legion of Decency accused the film of blasphemy and protesters demonstrated around the Paris Theatre in New York City. The Burstyn v. Wilson decision cleared a path for distribution of “The Miracle” and marked the beginning of the end of the Production Code.

Filmmakers immediately began testing the new limits. Released the year after the Burstyn v. Wilson decision, Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue concerns a woman who is aggressively courted by two men. The movie is fairly innocuous but it includes discussions about sexuality and the dialogue featured words like “virgin” and “seduce” and “mistress” which were not allowed under the Production Code. The PCA refused to issue the film a seal of approval but instead of cutting the objectionable material United Artists withdrew from the Motion Picture Association and Preminger took the unprecedented step of releasing The Moon is Blue without a PCA seal. The film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and challenged by several state and local censorship boards but the controversy turned The Moon is Blue into a hit at the box office. When The Moon is Blue was banned by the Kansas Censorship Board, the filmmakers filed suit in a case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where the ban was struck down and the Kansas Censorship Board was dissolved.

Steven Spielberg and the PG-13 Rating

After the Production Code collapsed in the late 1960s, the Motion Picture Association replaced it with the Classification and Rating Administration, which is the rating system in place today. That system is imperfect and has been criticized by filmmakers and commentators both for being too lenient and for being too restrictive but also for being arbitrary and favoring studio films and meting out harsher ratings to independent and international films. The documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated took a close look at the rating system and pointed out some of its inconsistencies.

In the early 1980s the rating system consisted of four categories: G, PG, R, and X (now NC-17). Two films released in 1984, both associated with Steven Spielberg, prompted the creation of the PG-13 rating. Gremlins was a fantasy about a young man who is gifted a friendly and furry creature for Christmas and inadvertently unleashes an army of destructive reptilian monsters. The Gremlins advertising campaign leaned heavily on the name of producer Steven Spielberg, who had released E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial two years earlier, and the previews did not hint at the intensity or level of violence. Many parents felt ambushed and were quite upset about the movie. One of the film’s most provocative scenes was a tragic Christmas themed monologue delivered by Phoebe Cates. According to filmmaker Joe Dante, Warner Bros. executives wanted the monologue cut but it remained in the film.

The other Spielberg film of 1984 was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The film departed from the lighter tone of Raiders of the Lost Ark with some brutal scenes of child abuse and a gory human sacrifice. In the official making-of documentary about the original Indiana Jones trilogy, Spielberg claims that he requested the Motion Picture Association create a new rating between PG and R which eventually became the PG-13. However, it should be noted that both Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are officially rated PG by the MPA.

Temple of Doom ran into other problems. Most of the story is set in India but the filmmakers had trouble getting permission to shoot there because the Indian government was very critical of the script and demanded changes. The picture was eventually shot in Sri Lanka. When it opened, Temple of Doom was banned in India for a time. The film remains contentious for its racial politics and whitewashing of colonialism.

India: The Modi Question (2023) and Monkey Man (2024)

In 2002, three days of riots broke out in the Indian province of Gujarat. The violence was incited by the deaths of Hindu pilgrims and India’s Muslim community were the primary targets of the violence. Over 1000 people were killed, 2500 people were injured, and hundreds of religious sites were destroyed. The event has been described as genocide against India’s Muslim community. 

The 2023 BBC documentary India: The Modi Question investigated India’s prime minister Narendra Modi who was Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time of the riots. Modi’s tenure as India’s Pime Minster has been marked by an embrace of Hindu nationalism and with that has come incidents of religious violence. The Indian government scrambled to prevent The Modi Question from being seen in their country. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting used emergency powers legislation as a pretense to order Twitter and YouTube to take down accounts that aired clips of the documentary; both companies complied with the request. Some Indian college students resisted the ban and coordinated screenings of The Modi Question. Authorities responded by cutting power to the campus

The 2024 action picture Monkey Man was subject to a backdoor ban in India. Monkey Man depicts a fighter from a low social caste who avenges his mother who was murdered by corrupt police officials and he eventually takes on the entire political system. The film’s depiction of India emphasizes the corruption of the police, the inequities between social classes, and the corrosive influence of Hindu nationalism. Monkey Man is quite blatantly political; the climax takes place on election night with the hero and other marginalized characters attacking the political elite. Universal made cuts to the international version of Monkey Man, intending to dampen the political themes, but India’s Central Board of Film Certification never screened the film for its advisory panel which prevented it from being seen in the country.

Barbie and Oppenheimer (2023)

Among the biggest films of 2023 were Barbie and Oppenheimer. The pictures opened the same week and moviegoers turned the release into an event known as “Barbenheimer” in which they saw both movies the same weekend or even back-to-back. It helped that both pictures were well made and wildly different in tone and style and Barbie and Oppenheimer were among the best received pictures of 2023. However, both films also ran into censorship abroad.

Oppenheimer was a biographical picture about J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as “the father of the atomic bomb.” The film was released throughout much of the world in the summer of 2023 but its release in Japan was delayed. The film does not depict the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the devastation wrought by those atomic weapons. Some people, including filmmaker Spike Lee, felt this was a distasteful omission. Oppenheimer also caused a stir in India because of a sex scene in which the title character reads from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita while engaged in sexual intercourse. India’s Information Commissioner Uday Mahurkar called the scene “a direct assault on religious beliefs of a billion tolerant Hindus.” The line reading remained in Oppenheimer. However, a nude scene of actor Florence Pugh was altered for India and Middle Eastern markets; a CGI black dress was added to Pugh’s character to preserve the rest of the scene.

Barbie was a feel-good movie but it was nevertheless banned and censored in several countries. Barbie was banned in Vietnam because of a scene including a map of the South China Sea featuring the so-called nine-dash line. China and Vietnam have an ongoing dispute about ownership of that part of the Pacific Ocean and the map featured in Barbie illustrated China’s claim to that territory. Barbie was also banned in Kuwait, Lebanon, and Algeria on the grounds of promoting homosexuality.

Defamation Lawsuits

Several recent films and television miniseries have been caught up in defamation lawsuits. In the United States, defamation must satisfy a specific set of requirements. First, the statement at issue has to be false. Second, that statement has to be communicated to a third person. Third, that statement must be negligent, meaning the person uttering or publishing a defamatory statement has to at least not done their homework or known the statement was false. Last, a defamatory statement has to cause some harm to the reputation of that person or entity.

The 2022 documentary 2000 Mules is a work of conspiracy theorizing co-directed by Dinesh D’Souza, whose other works include nonsense such as 2016: Obama’s America and America: Imagine the World Without Her. D’Souza’s filmmaking career is built upon reinforcing paranoid delusions with specious claims and cherrypicked evidence. 2000 Mules claimed to expose a conspiracy to steal the 2020 presidential election in favor of Joe Biden. In particular, the film claimed that Georgia voter Mark Andrews had participated in election fraud, a claim that has been debunked by journalists and law enforcement but resulted in death threats against Andrews and his family. Andrews filed a defamation lawsuit against distributor Salem Media Group, Inc. as well as D’Souza and the organization True the Vote. In response, Salem Media Group pulled 2000 Mules from circulation and apologized to Andrews.

Netflix was sued for defamation over the drama Baby Reindeer. The dramatic series is based on a story by comedian Richard Gadd about his alleged experience being stalked by a woman he met at a bar. According to the BBC, Fiona Harvey has identified herself as the woman on whom Baby Reindeer is based and she claims the series falsely depicted her as a convicted criminal who spent time in prison for stalking. Neither Gadd nor Harvey’s real names are used in the series, and neither Netflix nor Gadd have confirmed that the character was based on Harvey. The lawsuit seeks over $170m in damages.

When They See Us is a dramatic series based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case in which five young Black men were wrongly convicted of assaulting a white woman. The series was generally well received but it was the cause of multiple lawsuits. When They See Us shows police officials using the Reid technique in interrogations and characters claim that the Reid technique is “universally rejected.” The Reid technique is propriety knowledge of John E. Reid and Associates, Inc. who sued for defamation. That suit was ultimately thrown out of court. Netflix was also sued by former Manhattan Prosecutor Linda Fairstein who is depicted in When They See Us as overzealous and disinterested in the truth. Fairstein had a career as an author and a television commentator but after the release of When They See Us Fairstein was dropped by her publisher and resigned from leadership positions at various organizations. Fairstein sued for defamation. A settlement was ultimately reached.

Death Wish (1974)

In the 1970s the violent crime rates of major American cities were extraordinarily high and there was a feeling of frustration and depression about the country. This gave birth to a series of urban vigilante films including Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver and 1974’s Death Wish. Based on the book by Brian Garfield, Death Wish told the story of a mild-mannered architect, played by Charles Bronson, whose wife and daughter are attacked by muggers. Abandoning the pacifism of white liberal society, Bronson’s character patrols the New York City streets, baiting criminals and killing them with a handgun.

When Death Wish opened it caused a sensation. The violence of the film was cathartic for urban moviegoers who responded enthusiastically to the movie, turning Death Wish into a box office hit. Critics were divided. Some admired it as an effective piece of entertainment while others derided Death Wish as a reckless incitement to vigilante violence. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called Death Wish “a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.” The Catholic Church’s Division for Film and Broadcasting also objected to Death Wish, saying that it appealed “to the dark side of the American Character.” The fears of Death Wish’s detractors were not unfounded, as there were several copycat vigilantes.

Another critic of the movie Death Wish was Brian Garfield, the author of the original novel. He hated the movie, which he felt had dumbed down and reversed the core ideas of the book. In fact, Garfield fought with CBS when the television network chose to broadcast Death Wish. Garfield called the decision to air the film in primetime “irresponsible.” The author subsequently wrote a sequel to Death Wish, titled Death Sentence, which from Garfield’s point of view corrected the themes of the story and the trajectory of his characters. Filmmaker James Wan adapted Death Sentence into a 2007 feature starring Kevin Bacon which resembled the novel in name only.

The Death Wish series continued throughout the 1980s with cinematic sequels starring Charles Bronson. Produced by Cannon Films, the Death Wish sequels were low budget affairs that transformed the series from a gritty crime drama into a shoot ’em up adventure. Although the movies were profitable they weren’t well received. Film critic Roger Ebert, who gave the original Death Wish a three star review, awarded no stars to Death Wish II, a score he reserved for “movies that are artistically inept and morally repugnant.”

More information on the Death Wish series can be found in the book Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films by Paul Talbot. Listen to an interview with Talbot below:

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Probably the most controversial film of the 1990s was Natural Born Killers. The movie was a satire of media sensationalism especially in regard to crime reporting but it also probed the roots of violence and the corruption of social institutions, namely law enforcement and incarceration. The movie is ambitious, employing multiple film formats and unusual editing accompanied by a wide variety of music. The film is very broad with cartoonish elements intended to provoke the audience into considering how media shapes our conceptions of violence.

Natural Born Killers has been criticized for becoming the very thing it was satirizing. And just as in the movie, real life and media violence collided as copycat murders were linked to Natural Born Killers. Some of the connections between real life crimes and the film were tenuous. In 1995, a pair of teenagers went on a cross-state crime spree during which they shot and paralyzed a store clerk and killed a cotton gin manager. The teens were allegedly inspired by Natural Born Killers. Novelist and sometime lawyer John Grisham led a civil suit against director Oliver Stone and distributor Warner Bros., claiming that the movie constituted incitement to violence. The case was ultimately dismissed.

Natural Born Killers was cut for its domestic theatrical release. Although the trims were mostly slight, they had an impact on the tone. According to Oliver Stone, the MPA ratings board required many of the film’s excesses to be cut which dampened the satirical nature of the film and paradoxically made the violence more brutal. In 2019 Natural Born Killers was screened at Beyond Fest for its twenty-fifth anniversary. Oliver Stone wanted to show the unrated director’s cut but was prevented by Warner Bros. More recently, the director’s cut of Natural Born Killers has been released on 4K Blu-Ray through the boutique label Shout! Factory.

Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club was adapted from the Chuck Palahniuk novel about disillusioned men who create an underground boxing club. The violence escalates into domestic terrorism with the men taking aim at cultural and economic targets. Fight Club drew divided reactions from critics and the negative reviews were quite livid. Bob Thomas, writing for the Associated Press, called Fight Club “the ugliest, most inhuman film since Natural Born Killers.” Rosie O’Donnell revealed the film’s twist ending on her daytime television show and urged her viewers to avoid the movie. President Bill Clinton also weighed in on Fight Club. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Clinton acknowledged that Fight Club was well made but criticized the film’s politics, saying it was “a little too nihilist” for him. Rupert Murdoch, who ran News Corp which owned Twentieth Century Fox at the time, reportedly despised Fight Club and clashed with then-studio head Bill Mechanic over putting it into production. The film’s disappointing box office returns may have played a part in Mechanic’s departure from the studio.

Fight Club did not do well at the box office in 1999 but it has since gained a very strong cult following. That following has itself been problematic. Fight Club has been embraced by the so-called incel movement of contemporary young men who are socially isolated. Writing for Esquire, Matt Miller called Fight Club a misogynistic film that endorsed toxic masculinity. However, an honest reading of Fight Club does not support this interpretation. Arguing that Fight Club somehow validates the incel movement completely ignores the sexuality of the film and the relationship between Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter’s characters. Fight Club does indeed suggest that men are alienated and emasculated by consumer culture but it also blatantly dramatizes how their countercultural revolution is itself dehumanizing.

In 2022 it was reported that Fight Club’s ending had been altered for its release in China. Media is controlled in that country and stories that glamorize lawlessness or antigovernment sentiment are frequently censored. Fight Club climaxes with the members of Project Mayhem setting demolition charges in several high-rise buildings. According to The New York Times, the Chinese version of Fight Club ends with on screen text saying that the police “rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding.” It is unknown if the new ending was forced by the Chinese government or if the film was changed preemptively by the distributor. After news of the altered conclusion went viral, the original ending was restored although some sex scenes remained cut.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most controversial and widely censored films in cinema history. The movie was one title in a trend of Italian cannibal films released throughout the 1970s and 80s. Cannibal Holocaust is a story in two parts. A filmmaking crew has disappeared in the Amazon while making a documentary about cannibalistic natives. The first half follows an anthropologist in his search for the filmmakers. He recovers their footage which is screened in the second half, revealing what happened to them.

What’s odd about the controversy over Cannibal Holocaust is that the details of the controversy are themselves disputed. Here’s what’s known for sure: Cannibal Holocaust opened in Italy and after about ten days of release the movie was seized by local law enforcement. Director Ruggero Deodato and others were charged and convicted with obscenity. The movie was entangled in legal matters for years before it was finally cleared for exhibition. The popular story, which was iterated by Deodato and repeated ad nauseum in countless articles about Cannibal Holocaust, claims that the Italian authorities believed the picture was a genuine snuff movie and Deodato was charged with murder. This narrative also holds that the actors were brought into court to prove that the movie was fiction. The murder charges are an urban myth. There is no evidence of any indictment for murder. At issue was the explicitness of the film as well as its inclusion of real-life animal killings. A turtle, a monkey, a pig, a coatimundi and several other animals were slaughtered on film by the actors.  

Cannibal Holocaust ran into censors in other regions as well, most notably the United Kingdom. Films shown in the UK are required to pass through the British Board of Film Classification and the board has the right to ban films outright. However, in the early 1980s the BBFC’s authority only applied to theatrical screenings and when home video showed up, unauthorized films flooded the market. This caused what is now referred to as the video nasties panic. Video shops were raided by police and titles deemed to be obscene were seized and destroyed. Cannibal Holocaust was one of the primary titles at issue and for years it was illegal to possess the film in the UK. As recently as 2001, Cannibal Holocaust was banned in South Africa with that country’s Film and Publication Board calling it “undoubtedly the most disturbing” film they had screened.  

Cannibal Holocaust remains a difficult and challenging film but it is also an important one with implications about anthropology, corporate power, the disposition of nature, and media ethics. I’ve addressed this and more in my book Dissecting Cannibal Holocaust which is available now.

Additional Sources

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

Hamsher, Jane. Killer Instinct: How Two Young Producers Took on Hollywood and Made the Most Controversial Film of the Decade. Crown, 1998.

Jackson, Kevin. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. BFI Film Classics. Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.

Kiselyak, Charles, dir. “Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers.” 2001. Natural Born Killers. Blu-Ray. Shout! Factory, 2023.

Talbot, Paul. Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films. iUniverse, 2006.

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