In the 20th Century, it took very little for a film to be considered controversial – it simply had to challenge a general notion, feature an unconventional person, or display some sort of uncommon violence. A lot has changed since the turn of the century, but filmmakers still try to push boundaries and expose audiences to thought-provoking stories and themes they have never seen before.
But sometimes those controversies get in the way of an actually pretty inspiring plot. There are many films society has developed a negative perception of that just don’t deserve to be remembered in such a bad way. In retrospect, were they really so offensive? Did they deserve the backlash they received?
While certain films were bad then and are still bad now, time has revealed that audiences and critics alike were wrong about many movies hailed as controversial for such long periods of time. As our perceptions and cultural contexts change, so do our interpretations regarding particular stories.
This is your opportunity to uncover 15 Controversial Movies That Are Actually Inspiring. Open your mind, look past your biases, and maybe give another shot at reevaluating these films for the stories they told, the themes they carried, and nothing else.
15 A DOG’S PURPOSE
Up until the week before its release, A Dog’s Purpose had everything going for it. It was poised to become the next Marley & Me of cinema. A video exposing the production’s awful treatment of the animal actors, however, went viral – causing a huge backlash in regards to the movie that no marketing campaign could ever overcome.
While Hollywood should definitely be held accountable for its practices regarding animal actors (and child actors!), the plot of A Dog’s Purpose, adapted from the novel of the same name by W. Brice Cameron, remains the same. It’s an inspiring tale of reincarnation, friendship, and purpose. It is very fortunate that animal mistreatment was called out, but it is unfortunate that an otherwise beautiful and moving story was overshadowed by behind the scenes controversy.
14 HARD CANDY
The film is about a teenage girl who meets a creepy man online. He claims to be a photographer, and she goes on a “date” with him that ends up inside his house. The movie takes a very sharp turn when it turns out the girl isn’t being fooled. She is there to end this pedophile’s behavior by exposing his pornography archive and castrating him.
While Hard Candy is mostly remembered for its infamous and very detailed castration scene, the film is about a girl avenging other victims of pedophilia. It’s about taking control of your own destiny, about exposing evil where it exists. It is shocking that audiences turned out to be more terrified by the prospect of a man being castrated than by a girl being potentially molested in the first act of the movie.
13 UNITED 93
United 93 is the perfect example of a film that became controversial because of release timing.
The 2006 movie is based on the true story of what happened inside United flight 93 on September 11th, 2001. The airplane was hijacked by terrorists and was intended to hit the United States Capitol. Passengers, however, regained control of the plane, and it crashed in an empty field in the state of Pennsylvania.
United 93 is a gut-wrenching film about panic, fellowship, and sacrifice. Five years after the attacks of 9/11 in New York City, there was just still no desire from audiences to relive those moments in such a vivid manner, even if the movie ultimately showed the final acts of love from passengers during their last moments, and how courageous they had to become to save lives outside of the airplane. It’s an inspirational story about real-life heroes fighting evil and sacrificing themselves to save the day.
12 BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
Arguably the most important French film of 2013, and one of the most relevant LGBTQ films of the decade, Blue is the Warmest Colour had to deal with a lot of controversy surrounding its infamously long sex scene between protagonists Emma and Adèle.
The explicit 7-minute sex scene between two girls exploring their sexualities raised a great deal of controversy, with hate groups reacting negatively to the positive portrayal of a lesbian sex scene on film. There was also controversy among supporters and members of the LGBTQ community, who wondered how was possible for the two actresses to have professionally performed such an explicit scene, in which no body parts were hidden and sexual performance was portrayed in such a raw way.
But Blue is the Warmest Colour is simply a love story. It’s really just about a girl exploring her sexuality, encountering her first love, and then going through the motions of a break-up. It’s an atypical and inspiring LGBTQ film.
11 LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL
A storm of controversy arose over the relationship between Mathilda and Léon in Léon: The Professional when the 12-year-old girl proclaimed to be in love with the adult assassin during the film, even if he didn’t necessarily feel the same way.
Mathilda ends up with Léon when her entire family is killed during a DEA drug raid that takes place in their apartment. Léon, a ruthless hitman and Mathilda’s neighbor, sets out to take care of the girl and teach her his ways around weapons and killing. As she gets into trouble trying to avenge her family, Léon finishes the job for her and leaves all of his money in her name.
The film, while brutal and sad in many ways, ends on a very inspirational note as Mathilda plants Léon’s houseplant in a field near her school, honoring his presence and importance in her life.
The horror movie Freaks, from the Dracula director Tod Browning, pushed too many boundaries for 1932. It came out in the era of cinema known as Pre-Code, a period between 1929 and 1934 in which movies had no censorship guidelines or official ratings.
It was just too early in the history of cinema for a film to portray a traveling circus made out of conjoined twins, a man with no arms or legs, and a bearded lady. Freaks is a love letter to, well, freaks! However, audiences at the time were horrified by the images of disfigured human beings on the big screen.
As seen on American Horror Story: Freak Show, such a story is now more widely accepted and celebrated. Physical differences between people should be acknowledged and validated, not vilified.
9 PINK FLAMINGOS
For a very long time, the independent film Pink Flamingos was just about the only widely recognized piece of LGBTQ film out there, but for many wrong reasons.
The John Waters film is trashy, violent, frivolous, and tasteless, but unapologetically so. The drag queen Divine takes ownership of her role as protagonist Babs Johnson and the movie celebrates underground queer culture as it wanted to be seen. Pink Flamingos’ tagline reads, “An exercise in poor taste.” It’s safe to say that it wasn’t meant to be loved and understood by everyone.
But unlike 1980’s Cruising starring Al Pacino, which portrayed queer culture as merely sexual, Pink Flamingos exposed multi-faceted LGBTQ creativity through shock-value. Along with its director John Waters, the film is now considered a staple in cult cinema and trash culture.
8 THE LIFE OF BRIAN
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is pure satire, and like all the best satires, it ruffled a lot of feathers, sparking worldwide protests from religious institutions.
The film’s protagonist is Brian, a Jewish man who shares a birthday with his neighbor, Jesus Christ, and is often mistaken for the Messiah. The movie acknowledges Christianity and makes fun of it at every turn, but just like the Broadway play The Book of Mormon, it also makes great points about the significance of religion and faith for certain people.
Within The Life of Brian’s satirical take, the Monty Python comedy group makes intelligent and inspirational remarks regarding how one should look at his or her political systems and religious institutions. The point of the film is to challenge firm assumptions through ridicule, but it doesn’t mean any actual harm.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat is a very hard movie to defend. It is brash, arrogant, and politically incorrect at every turn. However, with time, even a Kazakh foreign minister came out to acknowledge that the film helped the tourism of Kazakhstan tremendously. The movie that was once seen as an outrage by several countries in the Middle East seems to have aged well or, at the very least, well enough to be ignored.
Borat is essentially a “fish out of water” story that, in truth, spends a lot more time poking fun at U.S. culture than it is devoted to mocking Kazakh culture. It was the film that launched Sacha Baron Cohen’s career and introduced to cinema an evolution of what was accomplished on MTV’s Jackass TV show and movies.
6 MADONNA’S TRUTH OR DARE
Madonna’s Blond Ambition World Tour was a scandal on its own, immortalized in the very controversial documentary Truth or Dare, which is credited for having invented the category of television reality shows.
The Blond Ambition shows ran in 1990 and Truth or Dare came out in 1991, right as the HIV/AIDS crisis was reaching its peak and public opinion was extremely anti-LGBTQ. It was controversial that the film featured Madonna's dancers, many of whom were gay men, being completely free and unashamed about their lives. The movie spent what was perceived as a long time (in reality, a few seconds) showing two men tongue-kissing, and addressed Madonna’s refusal behave like a conventional pop star.
Truth or Dare was the first time that a lot of gay kids in the 1990s saw two men kissing on a movie theater’s big screen, which is inspirational on its own. The film is also about friendship, family, loyalty, and art. It’s a pop music masterpiece.
5 ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO
The movie received mostly awful critical responses that disapproved of its filthy dialogue and superficial plot. But regardless of whether Zack and Miri Make a Porno was good or bad, the controversy regarding the film focused solely on its theme and marketing campaign. Unfortunately, many deemed a story about two people producing a Do-It-Yourself porn movie as “outrageous.”
According to reports at the time, director Kevin Smith was incredibly upset over the backlash regarding Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and took a hiatus from writing in order to recover from the situation. Ultimately, however, the movie was just a harmless love story about two people who had to go through very unusual circumstances to realize it. Sounds like some people we all know, doesn’t it?
4 BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
Yet another victim to LGBTQ controversy in cinema, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain didn’t even call for any of the backlash that it received, but many stories came out in the press that people left movie theaters as soon as they realized that the “cowboy movie” they were watching featured love and sex between two men.
Brokeback Mountain was about the secrets people keep in order to maintain the illusion of to society. The two men who fall in love in Brokebakc Mountain were only happy when they were honest about themselves, and didn't worry about society expectations of "right" and "wrong". The film was about boundaries, shame, and guilt.
Overall, Brokeback Mountain is a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t allow yourself to get out of your box. It is meant to make audiences think about their own types of shame and limitations, to inspire viewers in their search for more authentic lives.
3 THE DAVINCI CODE
If you had a pulse in 2006, then you certainly heard about The DaVinci Code and you’re aware of the backlash it received from Christian institutions.
What is odd, however, is that while the film (and the Dan Brown novel it is based on) was superficially about scientifically exploring the ins and outs of certain aspects of Christianity, all it did was validate the religion even more. The story goes as far as linking its female protagonist to Jesus Christ, labeling her as a direct relative to the Christian Messiah, full-on acknowledging and verifying the existence of Jesus Christ and his powerful legacy.
If you’re a Christian, it is safe to assume that you feel likeThe DaVinci Code is controversial. However, if anything, the film carries a somewhat inspiring message that even if you go through great lengths to seek the truth, you will still find out that the Bible was ultimately already telling the truth.
2 ENTER THE VOID
Enter The Void is a 2009 French film by the always controversial filmmaker Gaspar Noé, who most recently released the equally contentious Love.
Sure, the movie is violent, a little nasty, and features drugs. However, like Brokeback Mountain, all of these elements are merely vessels carrying deeper meanings. Enter The Void is a trippy film about taking a good look at your life from a bird’s eye view; most film is an out-of-body experience told through a first-person point of view.
The protagonist Oscar floats through Tokyo, Japan and is able to watch several things, including what is being done to his unconscious body and the types of lives people that he knows are living. He is also able to journey to his past, where he is exposed to a revelation that transforms the entire film.
1 I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE
Like in the case of Freaks in 1932, audiences were just not ready for I Spit On Your Grave to come out in 1978.
The movie is about a woman seeking revenge against her rapist. Its original title was actually Day of the Woman, but it was later re-released to match the name of the French novel it is inspired by.
I Spit On Your Grave is viewed by many horror die-hards as a classic of transgressive feminism, but in 1978 it was banned in countries such as Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Ireland. It was released in the United States and Australia with a censored, edited version.
Like Hard Candy, the film is about a woman taking control of her own destiny. And though she goes to great lengths to achieve her goal, the movie is intended to inspire those who feel victimized to regain control of their own destinies.
What controversial movies do you feel are misunderstood? Let us know in the comments!