Sex! Violence! Racism! Religion? These are all just some of the topics that have stirred controversy at the box office over the years. And with Cuties causing several people to get upset with Netflix (even to the extent that there’s been a backlash over the original Netflix poster) it just goes to show that if a topic is still taboo, then people will still get upset about it.
But do you know when a film has truly struck a chord? When it came out years, maybe even decades, ago, and people are still talking about it because of its subject matter. And that’s what this list is all about. Now, whether Cuties will have as lasting a legacy as some of the other films on this list (which I think it will) is still undetermined. But what’s important to know is that no film lives in a vacuum, and that none of these films were made solely for the purpose of offending people, which is why they’re still so talked about and maybe even relevant today.
Song Of the South (1946)
Song of the South is a live-action/animated movie about a collection of Uncle Remus stories told by Uncle Remus himself (played by James Baskett) to a child (played by Bobby Driscoll) on his grandmother’s plantation. The animated section features the characters Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear, who you might have even seen on the ride, Splash Mountain, which will soon be changed to a ride based off of The Princess and the Frog. Plus, one of Disney’s most popular songs, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” comes from this movie. So it’s definitely well-known.
But it's also super controversial. Song of the South is the only film on this list that I have never seen and likely will never see in my entire life. Because Disney won't let me! A relatively recent article in The Guardian called the film Disney’s “most shocking movie,” and it definitely is, but mostly because it features black characters who look to be the slaves of the white characters.
I’ll even give you a story about this movie. I was at Disney World on the way to Splash Mountain, and a woman said something about a “tar baby.” I turned around and said “What?” since “tar baby” is a derogatory term for black people. And then she clarified to me (and was quite startled) that there is a character called “tar baby” in the movie. And that’s my history with Song of the South.
Joaquin Phoenix stars (and won the Academy Award for) this controversial film about the clown prince of crime in the D.C. universe. In this (mostly) Batman-less film, the Joker gets abused and then takes his anger out on his assailants and starts a sort of revolution in the city of Gotham. It also made a lot of money on a pretty moderate budget so it’s probably the most successful controversial movie of all time.
Joker was controversial for multiple reasons. According to The Atlantic one of the major reasons for the controversy happened before the movie came out since people were afraid that it might cause people to mimic the Joker and shoot people. That (thankfully) didn’t happen. The other reason was its plot surrounding mental health, which might have an even longer lasting legacy with this film, as some saw it as being insensitive and misguided.
Kids is about kids (really teens) having sex, getting STDs, doing drugs, and pretty much showing teens in the worst light imaginable. It was Rosario Dawnson’s first movie, and it scared the living crap out of parents and actual kids alike when it came out.
Kids is pretty much the Cuties of the '90s, though I would say it is much, much worse. Rolling Stone Magazine goes even more deeply into the controversy and the actors in the film. But watching teenagers talking about sex with virgins, getting HIV, and buying dime bags, really freaked me out as an actual kid in the ‘90s. And it’s still pretty shocking today. See for yourself!
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)
Based on the Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same name, The Last Temptation of Christ, which stars Willem Dafoe (as Jesus!), Harvey Keitel (as Judas!) and even David Bowie (as Pontius Pilate!) is a story about Jesus imagining being tempted into sexual behavior, doubt of being the messiah, and a fear of being crucified. So, basically, a movie that humanizes Jesus Christ. Oh, the horror!
As a Christian, The Last Temptation of Christ is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and it’s an excellent film, too. But as you can see in an 1988 article from The Los Angeles Times the Catholic church was furious that there would even be a notion that Jesus was a human being who might have had the same thoughts and feelings of an actual human being.
Salo, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom (1975)
Kind of sort of based off of a book by Marquis de Sade, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is about some “gentlemen” who kidnap 18 teenagers and basically have their way with them, torturing them sexually, emotionally, physically, you name it. The director, Pier Paolo, was murdered three weeks before its release, though not because of the content of this film. In the end, the movie is an allegory for fascism’s ultimate intention.
Salo may just be the most disturbing movie on this list, and you can read an article about why from Medium.com. But when you have an entire scene dedicated to people eating feces (“Mangia! Mangia!”), then you’re pretty much (intentionally) setting yourself up for being one of the most controversial movies of all time.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Cannibal Holocaust is the closest film on this list that is exploitation just for exploitation’s sake. The story is a faux-documentary where a rescue team goes into the Amazon, behaves badly, and gets their comeuppance from some cannibals. And that is the cleanest description I can give you of this movie, thank you very much.
How controversial is Cannibal Holocaust? So controversial that the director of the film had to actually go to court to prove that he didn’t murder members of his cast. You can read about more of that on CBR.com ), but the gist of it is that there is this one scene in particular that is so grisly (it involves a naked woman and a pole), that that scene alone has solidified this movie's infamy. Not to mention the real killing of actual animals, which is all put on film. Gross.
The newest film to enter the fray, Cuties is a French-Senegalese film about a young Muslim girl who starts to rebel by dressing in skimpy clothes and getting deeply involved in showing off her body and dancing with her friends, who are all only 11.
I have to tell you. I am usually never shocked by anything I watch, but Cuties shocked me. A recent article in USA Today (opens in new tab) discusses how some people want the film to be pulled from Netflix since it sexualizes little girls. And it does, but it’s all intentional. The message is that kids, especially girls, don’t really get to be kids anymore because of internet culture, and so they “grow up” way too fast. It’s hard to watch, but it's meant to be.
Old school controversy, Tod Browning’s Freaks is about a female trapeze artist who marries a little person just to murder him and take his money. But the rest of the circus “freaks” don’t like when one of their own is threatened (especially since they accepted her!), and they take it upon themselves to get revenge.
Freaks is mostly controversial today because it used real circus performers with deformities in the roles of the characters, so it’s seen as insensitive today. But as you can read at Screen Rant, it was also very controversial at the time for its subject matter, which even today is kind of taboo. American Horror Story took a lot of cues from this movie in their popular “Freak Show” season.
The Passion Of The Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is the other religious film on this list, but it’s controversial for a totally different reason than The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s the story of Jesus before, during, and after his crucifixion, and it is all shown in a very bloody fashion. Don’t watch it if you’re squeamish.
As you can read in this old CNN article The Passion of the Christ was seen to be way too violent for a religious picture, and also because some viewed the movie to be anti-Semitic. Interestingly, I vividly remember a priest in my Catholic church saying that everybody should see this movie (take the kids!). I even distinctly recall a whole sermon about what a “beautiful” film this is. So just in case you’re keeping notes, according to the Catholic church, The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus imagines what it might be like not be the Messiah (but ultimately chooses to be the Messiah anyway), bad. But Jesus graphically getting beaten to a bloody mess, according to one priest, “beautiful.” Okay. Fair enough.
The Birth Of A Nation (1915)
The first movie ever shown in The White House (let that sink in), Woodrow Wilson once said that The Birth of a Nation was the cinematic equivalent of “writing history with lightning.” At its heart, the movie is about the relationship between a family in the North, and a family in the South during the Civil War. But it also lionizes the Ku Klux Klan, and makes “black people" (many of them played by white people in blackface) look like dumb rapists. It’s still probably the most well-known controversial film of all time, and it’s even a silent film! That takes effort.
There’s a great scene in BlacKkKlansman where modern-day KKK members are watching The Birth of a Nation and cheering. If that doesn’t sum up why this movie is controversial, I don’t know what will. But if you need more help, here’s a video from History.com.
It’s always interesting to watch what was controversial “back then” as opposed to today, but I would say that all of these movies hold a certain controversial aspect that holds up even today. Whether the films are good or not, is not really the issue. But as long as a movie can actually make you feel something (even if it’s repulsion), then I think the movie is definitely worth your time. Have you seen all (besides A Song of the South) of these controversial films? If so, which one was your favorite? Sound off in the comments.
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.
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