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The 5 Most Controversial Movies of All Time

Robin Raven
Freaks Publicity Still (1932 Film)
Freaks Publicity Still (1932 Film)

Controversial films spark discussion, raise awareness, and even cause arguments all while entertaining audiences. Within over a century of film history, many problematic films were seen as socially unacceptable at the time they premiered, while others continue to be debated even decades after their initial release. The most controversial movies are worth watching just to see what all the fuss is about.

A Clockwork Orange

One can be pretty sure that a movie is controversial when the director himself has it banned. That's exactly what Stanley Kubrick did with A Clockwork Orange. He withdrew the movie from UK cinemas after violence erupted that seemed to mirror the horrible crimes in the film. However, Kubrick's self-imposed ban on the film was not something he ever explained. It has been reported that he did so because people made death threats against Kubrick's own family over the killings and violence that were allegedly inspired by his movie.

The 1971 dystopian crime film includes extremely upsetting rape and murder scenes and other graphic violence. Malcolm McDowell gives a strong performance as the extremely dark lead character Alex, and according to the acclaimed actor, the reason that the movie was so controversial is that the audience is asked to sympathize with a protagonist who is a complete sociopath and rapist. Its own tagline described it as showing "the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven."

A Clockwork Orange was nominated for four Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, and seven BAFTA Awards. It even won for Best Picture at the New York Film Critics Awards. However, none of its acclaim has eclipsed the controversy that the film continues to stir.


Freaks premiered in 1932 and shocked audiences at the time. The story is a rather timeless one about love and betrayal. It centers around a female trapeze artist who is trying to manipulate and use the dwarf who has fallen in love with her. The casting of the film was groundbreaking in that people with disabilities were cast in both leading and supporting roles. They portrayed freak show performers, and the movie reveals the humanity of the characters in positive and negative ways. Among those characters were a bearded lady, a man with no legs, a man who had no limbs altogether, and conjoined twins.

Widely criticized for being exploitative of the sideshow characters, Freaks was only released for a limited time in the United States before it was pulled from the cinema, and the movie was outright banned in the UK. Audiences of the time were shocked to see a cast of actual freak show performers because they were not used to such actors appearing in feature films. After the movie's quick departure from US cinemas, it was taken on tour as an adult-only roadshow.

Freaks is considered a horror movie from Pre-Code Hollywood, the era in which the Motion Picture Production Code guidelines had not yet been set. Its director Tod Browning is credited as being one of the pioneers of horror movies. Freaks was so controversial at the time, however, that it was said to have cost him his career. Freaks is now considered an important part of movie history.

United 93

Made less than five years after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the words "too soon" were tossed around in countless media reports that anticipated the release of United 93. Some even called for the removal of the trailer. In fact Town Hall even proclaimed that the controversy surrounding the movie was controversial itself.

Although CBS News acknowledged the controversy, it also pointed out that the movie shed new light into the heroes that are the central focus of this story. As its name suggests, this film is about the brave heroes who stood up to terrorists who had hijacked their airplane on 9/11. When these people realized what was going on and were notified of the tragic events that had already transpired that day, they ultimately foiled the terrorist plot, and the plane crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

While more time has now passed since the movie's release than had passed between the time of the tragedy and the making of the movie, some mixed feelings still persist regarding the film. Entertainment Weekly included it among its list of the most controversial movies ever, yet it has also been on the receiving end of critical acclaim, earning two Academy Award nominations and critical acclaim.

The Exorcist

This is a film that is undoubtedly frightening and could be considered disturbing. Both Variety and AMC included The Exorcist as their picks for the most controversial movies. Den of Geek also described the film as "courting controversy." Many cities around the world attempted to ban it from being shown in theaters. So why all the controversy?

Twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is at the heart of this story. The audience first sees single mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and Regan living a normal life and enjoying a close mother-daughter relationship. Things start to slowly go south, though, as Regan begins exhibiting unusual and, finally, very disturbing behavior. The girls is possessed, and what follows is the exorcism of her demons in classic horror film mode.

It may seem an absurd notion that when The Exorcist was released in 1973 a media frenzy erupted, complete with reports of moviegoers fainting, vomiting, and having heart attacks in the aisles. Evangelist Reverend Billy Graham declared that an actual demon dwelled in the celluloid reels of the film. Religious groups were infuriated. Some areas of the US and England banned the movie altogether. After its original theatrical release, parts of the film were cut to tone down some of the controversy, and they were not seen again by the public until 30 years later.

Amid all the controversy that has continued through the years, what many failed to notice about The Exorcist is that it is a largely dialogue-driven, emotional movie that packs a big punch with the rare extreme scenes in the film. Perhaps they are so powerful because much of the film is more quiet. Movie critic Roger Ebert described the movie as being about the "weather of the human soul," but for many, the message got lost within the sensationalism and controversy that endures to this day.

Fifty Shades of Grey

As one of the most anticipated adaptations of a popular book, Fifty Shades of Grey premiered on Valentine's Day 2015 to much controversy as critics denounced it for showcasing emotional abuse and domestic violence. The National Center of Sexual Exploitation and other groups called for a boycott of the movie, even creating a hash tag that said #FiftyShadesIsAbuse. Headlines like 50 Shades of Abuse and 50 Shades of Shame announced articles full of deep criticism for the film.

Suddenly people were discussing what had largely been taboo. Some controversy was to be expected for a movie that brought BDSM into mainstream pop culture, and even that was controversial since BDSM enthusiasts claimed that the story got the important consensual aspects of the lifestyle wrong. Critics claimed that the problem went a lot more deep than mere subject matter, with some claiming that Christian, the lead character, was actually an abuser who completely misunderstands the alternative lifestyle depicted.

Dr. Ruth, the popular sex therapist, did not think much of the criticism was warranted. Jamie Dornan, who played Christian, defended the film's feminism. In fact, one thing that the critics failed to mention is that violence against women is often depicted in mainstream films in a much harsher and frightening way than what is shown in Fifty Shades of Grey. One needs only look at the work of the most critically acclaimed male directors in history to see films that contain plenty of violence against females. However, Fifty Shades of Grey was directed by a woman, based on the best-selling series of books written by a woman, and marketed primarily to a core audience of women, many of whom defend it as simply fantasy, not a guidebook for a real-world relationship.

Tune In and See for Yourself

It's really important to watch films with a critical eye, to notice what you are seeing and consider how it may impact how your views are being shaped and changed. If a movie doesn't feel right to you speak up about it, but think twice before avoiding a movie simply because it has been seen as controversial.

The 5 Most Controversial Movies of All Time