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Controversial Films 2020

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. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial titles, just a selection of relevant pictures that are of interest. For more information on controversial films, see the links at the bottom. You can also check out the blog post for last year’s episode.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Dir. Victor Flemming

Gone with the Wind is one of the most popular films ever made. Adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind is still the highest grossing title in film history and it set a record for the most Academy Award nominations (thirteen) at that time, including a Best Supporting Actress award for Hattie McDaniel who was the first African American to win an acting Oscar. Gone with the Wind found itself back in the news in 2020. The movie was briefly pulled from the HBO Max streaming service after screenwriter John Ridley wrote an LA Times op-ed criticizing Gone with the Wind for glorifying the Antebellum South. The movie was restored to HBO Max a few weeks later with an introduction by University of Chicago film professor Jacqueline Stewart who explained Gone with the Wind’s historical and cultural significance as well as the way it reinforced racist stereotypes.

But the controversy over Gone with the Wind is not new. Margaret Mitchell’s novel, although a bestseller, was contentious and when the production of the film adaptation was announced, Selznick International Pictures was inundated with letters expressing concern over the film’s historical and racial implications or objecting to Gone with the Wind being made at all. The NAACP president encouraged producer David Selznick to hire a black historian to help with the project and he later called Hattie McDaniel an “Uncle Tom.” Members of the African American community spoke out against the film at the time of its release in 1939. Filmmaker Carlton Ross wrote an open letter to Selznick that compared Gone with the Wind to 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, the infamous silent film that disparaged African Americans and romanticized the Ku Klux Klan. The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s largest black newspapers at the time, discouraged African American moviegoers from patronizing the movie. And theaters showing Gone with the Wind were the site of protests by black activists.

Parsing out Gone with the Wind’s racial politics is not easy. For a contemporary audience, Gone with the Wind comes across tone deaf, so much so that aspects of the movie play like a parody of the Antebellum South. But in 1939 Gone with the Wind wasn’t far removed from the era of blackface and minstrel shows and the fact that a movie of this scale and stature featured black actors in prominent roles was significant. Producer David Selznick had multiple audiences he needed to appease: the Production Code Administration, which had censorial power over Hollywood movies, the press and letter writers who were concerned about Gone with the Wind’s racial implications, and white moviegoers and cinema owners who would ultimately determine the picture’s fate. Gone with the Wind had to be made in a way that would allow it to play in theaters without alienating these constituencies. The movie did soften some of the more objectionable aspects of Margaret Mitchell’s novel and Selznick enlisted outside advisors to help shape the film. The final result is a compromised movie that was probably as progressive as was possible for a big budget Hollywood event picture produced within the conditions of that time. 

This tension is evident in the stories of the film’s premiere. When Gone with the Wind debuted in Atlanta, the black cast members were not allowed to attend due to Georgia’s segregation laws. Two versions of Gone with the Wind’s souvenir program were published, one featuring Hattie McDaniel and another that didn’t. Segregation laws also prohibited McDaniel from sitting with her fellow cast members at the Academy Awards where she became the first black actor to win an Oscar. These contradictions illustrate the needle that the makers of the film had to thread.

That’s not to say Gone with the Wind should be given a pass. The movie did romanticize the Confederacy and it did sanitize the history of slavery and white supremacy. To let that go uncommented upon has the effect of propagating the Lost Cause myth which is exactly what Gone with the Wind has done for over eight decades. Warner Media’s decision to present Gone with the Wind on HBO Max as originally produced but with the added historical context is the right way to approach it. Part of the value of movies, as well as other forms of art, is as historical artifacts. Gone with the Wind’s ahistorical approach to slavery and the Civil War doesn’t tell us much about nineteenth century American history but period pieces tend to reveal much more about the time in which they were made. Gone with the Wind is visual evidence of the myth of the genteel Antebellum South and the film is a testament to why that myth has persisted. Understanding Gone with the Wind will help us grapple with the disconnect between historical fact and cultural memory.

The Last Shark [a.k.a. Great White] (1981)

Dir. Enzo G. Castellari

With the protection of the First Amendment, very few films are legally banned in the United States, meaning that it is against the law to commercially distribute or exhibit them. Films do disappear or come in and out of circulation but that decision usually rests with the distributor or copyright holder. One picture that was legally banned in the United States was the Italian picture The Last Shark, also known as Great White. Originally released in 1981, The Last Shark is the story of a seaside resort community plagued by a man eating great white shark. The movie is quite similar to Jaws and Jaws 2 and was even titled as a Jaws sequel when it was released in some international markets. Universal got a legal injunction that prevented The Last Shark from being exhibited in North America. The injunction has been enforced as recently as 2008. However, The Last Shark has appeared on some streaming services as well as an episode of Rifftrax.

As an amusing post-script, in the mid-1990s a shark film titled Cruel Jaws began circulating. Cruel Jaws was directed by Bruno Mattei, who was sometimes referred to as the Italian Ed Wood for his notoriously cheap productions.  Like The Last Shark, Cruel Jaws was advertised in some international markets as a part of Universal’s Jaws series. However, all the shark footage of Cruel Jaws was taken without permission from Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, and The Last Shark. Unsurprisingly, Cruel Jaws has never been officially released in the United States.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)

Dir. Peter Greenaway

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover was an absurdist farce about a gangster and his wife who frequent a fine dining establishment. The movie was directed by British filmmaker Peter Greenaway and it was interpreted as a grotesque parable about the Thatcher era. The plot included sexuality, torture, coprophagy, and cannibalism and the excessive images contrasted with the high society setting.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover received an X-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board. That rating doomed the film’s chances of playing in theaters. The MPAA’s X rating was supposed to denote movies that were strictly for adult audiences but in popular culture the MPAA’s X rating was indistinguishable from the XXX rating used to describe pornography. Many mainstream cinemas refuse to show X-rated films or are barred from doing so under the terms of their land leases. The distributor opted to release The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover to cinemas unrated but most theaters treat an unrated film the same as one rated X.

When The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover was released in the United States in 1990, the video rental market was dominated by Blockbuster Video. The rental chain did not stock X-rated titles and so an R-rated cut of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover was created specifically for the home video market. This version was twenty-six minutes shorter than the X-rated cut.

Roger Ebert lamented the situation in his review of the film. He wrote that “serious filmmakers like Greenaway, filmmakers with something urgent to say and an extreme way of saying it, suffer the MPAA’s tacit censorship.” The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover was one of the last films to receive the X rating before the MPAA rebranded it as the NC-17 rating. The hope was that the new rating would allow mature films to find a place in the theatrical marketplace but the rebranding from X to NC-17 did not change the situation.

The Hunt (2020)

Dir. Craig Zobel

The Hunt was an action film inspired by The Most Dangerous Game. In The Hunt a diverse group of Americans awaken to discover that they have been kidnaped and transported to a rural estate where they are hunted by wealthy killers. The filmmakers added a political layer to the premise; the hunters are all wealthy liberals and the hunted are working class conservatives. The script was written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and their script was sold to Blumhouse which has a distribution deal with Universal. Although there were reports that some executives at Universal were uneasy about the themes and ideas of The Hunt, production went smoothly and the trailer debuted in summer of 2019 without incident. Things started to turn in the aftermath of a pair of mass shootings in August of 2019. The Hollywood Reporter ran a story about canceled television ads for The Hunt and drew attention to a line of dialogue in the film about the joy of “slaughtering a dozen deplorables,” a reference to the way Hillary Clinton had described Donald Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign. Fox News amplified the political angle of the story, quoting a DePauw University professor who called The Hunt “harmful to a culture that surely needs messages of unity and understanding.” The vice-president of the conservative Media Research Center implied that The Hunt would incite violence against Trump supporters. President Trump then Tweeted “The movie coming out is made in order…to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!” The day following the President’s Tweet, Universal announced it was pulling the movie from its fall 2019 release date. The Hunt’s cinema debut was rescheduled for spring of 2020 and the new marketing campaign emphasized the controversy with the tagline, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” Unfortunately, The Hunt opened just as theaters were closing due to the coronavirus pandemic. The film was then fast tracked to video-on-demand outlets.

Planet of the Humans (2020)

Dir. Jeff Gibbs

Planet of the Humans was a 2020 documentary about climate change and alternative fuels produced by Michael Moore and directed by Moore’s frequent collaborator Jeff Gibbs. Moore and Gibbs are well identified with the political left and climate change, for better or worse (mostly worse), has become a politicized issue so viewers probably expected a full throated endorsement of alternative and renewable energy. Instead, Planet of the Humans critiqued green energy and some of the movement’s chief spokespeople like Bill McKibben and Al Gore. According to this documentary, the green energy movement has been taken over by billionaires and industrialists and alternative energy sources like solar, wind, and biomass are built upon a foundation of fossil fuels and are unable to satisfy the energy needs of the industrialized world. The film makes this point as part of a larger argument that the massive consumption of resources is unsustainable and technological innovation will not save us.

Planet of the Humans debuted on Michael Moore’s YouTube channel where it could be viewed for free. The movie attracted millions of views but also denunciation from climate activists. Among the movie’s chief detractors was Josh Fox, the filmmaker of the Gasland documentaries. Fox organized a campaign against Planet of the Humans, writing a letter that was cosigned by high profile climate scientists and said the documentary “is unscientific, flies in the face of decades of renewable energy science, engineering and research and is counter productive in the age of urgent need for Climate Action.” Fox called on the progressive website Films for Action to take down the documentary. Films for Action did briefly remove Planet of the Humans before restoring it with a statement that “media literacy, critique and debate is the best solution to the issues with the film.”

After being available on YouTube for about a month, Planet of the Humans was pulled from the site. The documentary used about four seconds of footage by environmental photographer Toby Smith. Smith said that he did not approve the context in which his work was used and filed a copyright complaint with YouTube. Smith told The Guardian, “I went directly to YouTube rather than approaching the filmmakers because I wasn’t interested in negotiation. I don’t support the documentary, I don’t agree with its message and I don’t like the misleading use of facts in its narrative.” Planet of the Humans director Jeff Gibbs called the action a “blatant act of censorship” and “a misuse of copyright law.” PEN America also criticized the removal of the film and called for an expedited review of the copyright claim. Planet of the Humans was restored to YouTube about a month later.

Joker (2020)

Dir. Todd Phillips

Joker was an origin story of the DC Comics villain. The movie used a stark, realistic style and presented The Clown Prince of Crime as a pathetic street performer who is pushed to murder by a toxic mix of mental illness and societal cruelty. Although the movie was set in the 1980s, Joker hit a contemporary nerve. Seven years earlier, an Aurora, Colorado theater showing The Dark Knight Rises was the site of a mass shooting. Erroneous reports circulated that the shooter had been dressed like The Joker and referred to himself that way. Those reports were refuted by the prosecuting attorney—the shooter picked The Dark Knight Rises because the auditorium would be packed and he never referred to himself as a comic book villain—but the rumors continued to circulate and shaped the reaction to 2019’s Joker. Survivors of the 2012 Aurora shooting criticized Warner Bros., fearing that the movie would incite violence, and the theater where the shooting took place refused to screen Joker.

The Aurora activists weren’t the only ones alarmed by Joker. The Hollywood Reporter surveyed Academy members about the film and while many of them were positive some questioned the morality of the movie or accused it of being vacuously cynical. Critics had a similar reaction. The film got generally positive reviews but some critics reiterated the fear that the movie was irresponsible. Panic over the supposedly inciting power of Joker went beyond film discourse. Theater chains clamped down on security policies and the Los Angeles and New York police departments increased their presence around cinemas. What was underreported in all this hysteria was the absence of any credible threats. The panic over Joker wasn’t based on anything tangible but a vague fear that the movie would inspire someone to do something terrible. No one did. 

Whether by coincidence or design, Joker tapped into its cultural moment in a way that was distressing. The public had been inundated with news headlines about mass shooters as well as supposed think pieces about so-called incels, sexually frustrated young men who lash out violently for want of attention. The film was also released at a moment when populism had taken a sour turn and there was a lot of anger and resentment and political polarization, at least partially rooted in economic anxiety. Joker nodded to all of these variables floating around in the culture at that moment. That relevance, along with the skill with which it was made, turned Joker into an astonishing box office success. For all the hysteria and hyperbole leading up to its release, Joker didn’t inspire the public to do anything except buy movie tickets.

Africa Addio (1966)

Dir. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi are credited with creating the mondo or shockumentary genre with 1962’s Mondo Cane. That film was a travelogue documentary which presented strange, sexual, and violent aspects of cultures around the world. Mondo Cane was a major success and Jacopetti and Prosperi set about making similar movies including Mondo Cane 2 and Women of the World. Mondo films were lucrative but also highly contentious. Jacopetti and Prosperi were accused of racism and fraud. And, by their own admission, the filmmakers did indeed embellish their films, creating pickup shots or staging moments for the camera.

Jacopetti and Prosperi turned their cameras to Africa in the late 1960s. At that time the last vestiges of European colonialism were surrendering control of African countries back to the indigenous people. That transition came with a lot of chaos and Jacopetti and Prosperi were there to film it. For three years, the filmmakers crisscrossed the African continent and filmed the political and environmental upheaval including riots, executions, and the mass slaughter of African wildlife. That footage was assembled into the 1971 film Africa Addio, or Goodbye Africa.

Before it was released in Italy, Africa Addio was the subject of a scandal. The film contains several genuine sequences in which people are executed on camera and accusations were made in the press that Jacopetti and Prosperi had orchestrated and directed the killings. The matter was investigated by Italian authorities and Jacopetti and Prosperi were cleared of any legal wrongdoing but the stigma remained over the movie. Similar accusations were made regarding the animal killings. Film historians David Kerekes and David Slater note the incredible coincidence that Jacopetti and Prosperi’s cameras were present for so many instances of poaching in which elephants and hippopotamuses were killed. 

When it was released, Africa Addio had a polarized response. The movie was awarded a David di Donatello award (the Italian equivalent of an Academy Award) for Best Production and the National Board of Review named Africa Addio one of the top foreign films of 1967. The movie had fierce detractors as well. The film’s chaotic depiction of post-colonial Africa was deemed to be racist. Several African delegates to the United Nations spoke out against the film and the United States ambassador to the UN called Africa Addio “grossly distorted” and “socially irresponsible.” Roger Ebert said, “Africa Addio is a brutal, dishonest, racist film. It slanders a continent and at the same time diminishes the human spirit. And it does so to entertain us.” According to Kerekes and Slater, when Jacopetti spoke at the Centre for Italo-Congolaise Relations, fistfights broke out among the audience and when Africa Addio was shown in Berlin “protesters mobbed the theatre, tore down the screen and hurled stink bombs at the projectors.”

In its original form, Africa Addio ran 140 minutes. Possibly due to the controversy, the movie was not a financial success although Jacopetti and Prosperi have named Africa Addio their favorite project. For its American release, eighteen minutes of footage was removed and the original Italian narration was significantly rewritten for the English language version. Jacopetti said that the editing was done without his input and he has disowned this version. In 1970 the movie was further cut down to 83 minutes and retitled Africa: Blood and Guts.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Dir. Sean S. Cunningham

In the 1980s the slasher film was a major staple of Hollywood’s release slate. Following the success of 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 1978’s Halloween, the theatrical market was flooded with movies about teenagers stalked by masked killers. Things really kicked off in 1980 with the release of Friday the 13th. The movie did incredible business, earning 39.7 million dollars against a 550 thousand dollar production budget. The original Friday the 13th wasn’t much better or worse than a lot of other slasher titles but the film had the backing a major studio. Friday the 13th was produced independently and then obtained by Paramount which gave the film a wide release and a lavish marketing campaign. This is not uncommon today but in 1980 it was considered scandalous for a Hollywood studio to distribute what was regarded as a sleazy low budget horror film and elevate it to the level of a major release. Friday the 13th’s high profile made it a target for those who opposed the gore films of that time. The Catholic Legion of Decency added the movie to its list of condemned films and most critics were dismissive or hostile to Friday the 13th. The film’s most virulent opponent was Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. He was offended by these pictures and campaigned against them in his newspaper column and on the television program At the Movies which he co-hosted with Roger Ebert. Siskel’s review of Friday the 13th deliberately spoiled the reveal of the killer so as to dissuade viewers from seeing the movie. Siskel also encouraged his readers to write complaint letters to Paramount’s then parent company Gulf & Western and to Friday the 13th actress Betsy Palmer, shaming her for being a part of it. The protests did little to blunt the success of Friday the 13th and it remains a popular title forty years later.   

More recently, Friday the 13th has been at the center of a different controversy. In the 1970s, Congress amended the copyright laws so as to allow creators to reclaim ownership of their work. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this aspect of the copyright law was primarily used by songwriters but it has recently become a tool of screenwriters attempting to take back ownership of high profile properties. Screenwriter Victor Miller has attempted to do that with Friday the 13th but his claim has been disputed by Sean Cunningham, the director of the original film and producer of many of its sequels. The case is now before the courts.

Desire (2017)

Dir. Diego Kaplan

Desire (originally titled Desearás al hombre de tu hermana) is a 2017 Argentinian erotic drama about the sex lives of a pair of affluent sisters. The movie was picked up by Netflix and caused controversy. Desire opens with a prologue sequence in which one of the sisters, as a preteen girl, accidentally causes herself to orgasm while horsing around with a pillow. The conservative news site PJ Media drew attention to the scene and ran articles and social media posts accusing Netflix of hosting child pornography. One of PJ Media’s commentators claimed to have reported Desire to the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The Parents Television Council also took aim at the film and asked Netflix to remove it from their service. Filmmaker Diego Kaplan responded to the charges, saying that the sequence was staged carefully under the observation of the child actors’ parents and that everything sexual about the scene was created through illusion. The FBI never publicly commented on the film and Desire remains available.

Miral (2010)

Dir. Julian Schnabel

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Rula Jabreal, Miral is the story of a Palestinian orphan growing up amid the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Given the subject matter, it is little surprise that the film generated controversy. Miral was screened for the United Nations General Assembly in front of an audience of diplomats and UN employees as well as guests from the film industry. The American Jewish Committee sent a letter to UN General Assembly President Joseph Deiss claiming that Miral “portrays Israel in a highly negative light” and that the event “will only serve to reinforce the already widespread view that Israel simply cannot expect fair treatment in the UN.” In response to the protest, Miral director Julian Schnabel said, “I love the State of Israel. I believe in it, and my film is about preserving it, not hurting it. Understanding is part of the Jewish way and Jewish people are supposed to be good listeners. But, if we don’t listen to the other side, we can never have peace.” Shortly after Miral opened in theaters, actor Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered by a masked gunman. The reason Mer-Khamis was targeted is unclear although Mer-Khamis had once predicted that he might be killed for some of the plays being performed at a theater he managed. No evidence has linked Mer-Khamis’s murder to his participation in Miral.

Sources

Bracke, Peter. Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th. Sparkplug Press, 2005.

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

Godfathers of Mondo, The. DVD. Dir. David Gregory. Blue Underground, 2003.

Jackson, Robert. Fade In, Crossroads: A History of the Southern Cinema. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Kerekes, David and David Slater. Killing for Culture: From Edison to ISIS. Headpress, 2016.

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