There’s no such thing as bad publicity, according to the marketing department. Negative press, especially the kind that generates some kind of righteous outrage, can be a good thing when it comes to generating viewer engagement and clickbait. Before people could get mad about rumors on Facebook, or even the shows they saw on TV, they were ranting about movies.
Considering how central this form of media has become to a global audience, film hasn’t been with humanity for all that long. The last hundred years have been turbulent ones, however, and it’s interesting that movies have been here to record even just a sliver of it. Here are a few movies that either recorded history or made it, and generated a lot of controversy upon release.
9 Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Watching it now, decades after gay marriage was recognized as a civil right, you can’t help but wonder why this film generated so much controversy when it was released. There isn’t even any cursing, gore, or nudity, all the fun content that makes a move R-rated, so what was the deal with Brokeback Mountain?
Believe it or not, there was a time when a gay character couldn’t be in a film unless they were the coded comic relief, a flamboyant stereotype, or dying of AIDS. Just watching this movie, which portrayed a homosexual drama with none of these bigoted stereotypes, was too much for a lot of people to handle. Watching the movie today without the same political pressure and it’s simply a touching love story.
8 The Phantom Menace (1999)
In an ironic twist, the excitement that preceded this movie’s release was part of the reason for the controversy that exploded when it hit theaters. Fans were looking forward to an expansion of a franchise that they had grown to love after 20 years of waiting. What they got was what some longtime fans considered a boring, convoluted vanity project from a creator who was more concerned with impressing his peers than making a good movie.
Proof that fans don’t need Twitter to doxx actors and ruin careers, the rabble that followed could be one of history’s earliest examples of pure, undiluted nerd rage. Star Wars fans savagely harassed voice actor Ahmed Best, who played the despised Jar Jar Binks, and saw to it that Jake Lloyd, who filled the role of Anakin Skywalker, never worked in Hollywood again.
7 Natural Born Killers (1994)
Oliver Stone was no stranger to controversy in his movies, but by the mid-1990s he had dropped off the radar. That’s one of the reasons nobody really noticed his movie about the media’s glorification of serial killers until it was released.
The movie faced a lot of positive and negative criticism. Initially, it was praised for an unapologetic portrayal of an amoral media obsessed with ratings and the American love affair with guns. The shocking controversy this film generated, however, was the real-life issue of copycat killers seeing the movie, missing the point entirely, and trying to replicate the exciting drama they saw on-screen.
6 Birth Of A Nation (1915)
Even when this movie was first released, it generated protests, so don’t let anyone try to claim the racist content was normal or acceptable for the time. Given the historic period, it got a lot of attention for the groundbreaking technology it employed, but the subject matter wasn’t as admirable.
The KKK wasn’t exactly well-loved when this movie came out, either, despite popular belief, and the way Birth of a Nation portrayed the group as benevolent was more than enough to generate a few public protests. It’s also a fact that this was the very first movie that was ever screened at the White House. According to the media and the relevant authorities, however, this has nothing to do with the culture of the nation presently, and the institutional racism that this film glorifies is totally over.
5 The Great Dictator (1940)
If we’re going to talk about movies that were controversial for the wrong reasons, then let’s keep it fair and balanced and include one that pissed off the bad guys. Charlie Chaplin had a reputation for slapstick comedy, but as Fascism was taking hold in Europe, he produced a movie that proved he took his writing and filmmaking seriously and had a profound ability for drama.
His reputation as a comedian was partly why The Great Dictator didn’t attract a lot of attention until it was released. Chaplin didn’t pull any punches with his direct and obvious parallels between himself and a certain real-life dictator. Hitler threw a tantrum, surprising no one, and banned the film in Germany and every country that the Nazis occupied.
4 La Vita É Bella (1997)
Granted, Life Is Beautiful hasn’t aged well, and more contemporary films like JoJo Rabbit have handled the subject better but not without public outcry. Comedies involving Nazis are always going to be controversial, and this Italian movie did it with a big budget and the star power of a popular comedian.
Alberto Bergnini has a comfortable run as Italy’s favorite funnyman, and although his fall from that pedestal was spectacular, this movie marked the peak of his career. His reaction when this movie won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film the following year also generated controversy, but of the positive kind.
3 Blue Velvet (1986)
Nobody was surprised when David Lynch made a controversial movie that people loved to talk about. It’s practically listed as a qualification on his resume. What was shocking about this movie, however, was what the main character Dorothy Valens is subjected to in the course of the story.
This also led to some uncomfortable questions as to how much actual physical and mental abuse star Isabella Rossellini was subjected to during the filming. Positive criticism of this film took note of how it saw past the veneer of innocence that often covers the true ugliness of life in a small town.
2 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The book was controversial too, and Stanley Kubrick always walks a fine line, but this film still shocked a lot of people when it hit theaters. It’s still just as chilling as when it was first released, indicating that it’s not just the social stigma or gore that gets less interesting with the passage of time or the art of special effects.
Based on the equally dystopian novel of the same title by Anthony Burgess, there were various additions, both improvised and planned, that were deliberately designed to make the audience uncomfortable. Part of the controversy this film generated was from how unnerving and disorienting it was, but it was actually designed to be that way.
1 The Exorcist (1973)
Movies about religion always seem to generate a visceral reaction in the moviegoing public. So do horror movies involving a lot of blood, gore, and other bodily excretions. Combine the two and the result is The Exorcist. This movie is a critical favorite today, heralded for opening up a whole new Pandora’s Box in the world of entertainment. The acting and special effects were a bit too convincing, the star Linda Blair needed 24-hour protection from the religious fanatics that saw the movie and thought it glorified the occult.
So why did this hideous movie become a successful franchise? It turns out that controversy, despite the hate, pain, and trolling, is worth a lot of money to someone.
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