Many filmmakers yearn for their work to be at the centre of a public conversation. But it’s not always a good thing.
Sometimes, movies – even great ones – are put under the microscope for problematic characters, plotlines or moments.
Often, this is a result of changing social standards. Films like The Jazz Singer utilised blackface at a time when it was more or less completely socially acceptable. Watch it now, however, and you’ll likely be mortified.
Other films, of course, are problematic the moment they hit cinemas – such as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
In some cases, the question of whether or not a film is offensive can provoke strong debate among fans and even those involved in making the film. This week, Michael Caine was in the news after hitting back at claims that the 1964 film Zulu was a “key text” for white supremecists.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the history of cinema is littered with examples of films that have become difficult to watch.
Here are 19 of the most problematic films ever made.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s controversial – and, for many years, banned – adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s cult novel is certainly not without its problematic elements, most famously the sickening depiction of rape. It wasn’t just the public who found Kubrick’s film unsavory: the filmmaker himself pushed for A Clockwork Orange to be removed from cinemas amid fears of copycat violence.
American Beauty (1999)
Sam Mendes’s suburb-set Best Picture winner would be problematic today even if it weren’t for the allegations against lead actor Kevin Spacey. As it is, Spacey’s involvement adds a whole other layer of discomfort to this story of a middle aged father who lusts after his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari). A topless scene involving a then 16-year-old Thora Birch also would also likely raise eyebrows today.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Many of the most overtly racist films of early cinema have been omitted from this list – describing, for instance, the works of Leni Reifenstahl as “problematic” wouldn’t quite cut it. But DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is still celebrated to this day as a revolutionary cinematic milestone, despite its foul and pervasive racism. Some modern film historians have argued that Griffith’s cinematic “innovations” actually originated elsewhere – but even if they weren’t, there’s no excusing this horrific celebration of the KKK.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
This enduringly popular Audrey Hepburn vehicle features one of the most infamous racist caricatures of all time. Mickey Rooney plays the bucktoothed, heavily accented Japanese landlord Mr Yunioshi, a grotesque stereotype. Decades after the film’s release, both director Blake Edwards and Rooney himself had expressed regret at the offensive inclusion.
Many of Disney’s early animated movies (and some of the later ones) contain countless problematic elements. Dumbo is infamous for its racism, with the characters of the talking crows – voiced in a caricaturish African-American dialect – particularly damning.
Flash Gordon (1980)
Most sci-fi films from the 1970s and 1980s have tended to age poorly – but this is usually down to shoddy special effects. Flash Gordon, however, is dated for a different reason: the insidious character of “Ming the Merciless”, played by Max von Sydow. The broad, racist villain figure caused the BBFC to raise Flash Gordon’s age rating in 2020, with a warning about “discriminatory stereotypes” added to its recent re-release.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump could well be one of the most problematic films ever made – and certainly one of the most to have won Best Picture. Whether we’re talking about Tom Hanks’s broad, cartoonish portrayal of a man with learning disabilities, the film’s puritanical slut-shaming towards Robin Wright’s Jenny, or everything to do with its handling of race, Gump is one rancid box of chocolates.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
A confirmed favourite film of one Donald J Trump, this American epic has been accused of whitewashing the horrors of slavery and looking at the civil war through rose-tinted glasses. A scandal engulfed the film anew in 2020 when it was temporarily removed from streaming service HBO Max due to its problematic elements.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
This follow-up to Steven Spielberg’s timeless adventure throwback Raiders of the Lost Ark featured plenty of memorable set-pieces and high-wire derring-do – as well as a lot of unfortunate racism. Temple’s potrayal of India is rife with troubling and outdated stereotypes, leading to the film being banned in India when it was released. Meanwhile, Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott is every bit the problematic damsel in distress.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Al Jolson’s musical film The Jazz Singer will forever hold a place in film history as the movie which heralded the onset of the age of the “Talkie”. However, it’s not such an easy watch these days, thanks largely to the blackface used by Jolson during his performance. At the time, of course, blackface and minstrel shows were not widely considered offensive.
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Sometimes, films become problematic after behind-the-scenes stories come to light – which happened in the horrifying case of Last Tango in Paris. In the film’s most infamous scene, Marlon Brando’s character rapes a young woman from Paris (the late Maria Schneider), using a stick of butter as lubricant. Schneider later spoke out about filming the scene, claiming that it was not in the script. “I was so angry,” she said. “Marlon said to me, ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by [director Bernado Bertolucci].”
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This groundbreaking epic from David Lean is a long, expensive and thematically dense work of real cinematic bombast. While there are complexities to its handling of race, critics have argued that its portrayal of TE Lawrence’s (Peter O’Toole) exploits in the Middle East are wrapped up in problematic “white saviour” narratives. Furthermore, Alec Guiness’s casting – as Prince Faisal – wouldn’t fly today, particularly given the actor’s use of brownface.
Can you ever truly separate the art from the artist? Everyone has their own take on the issue, but it’s particularly hard with a film like Manhattan. Woody Allen, whose late career has been coloured by long-denied allegations of child sexual abuse, directs and stars in this black-and-white romcom which pairs his 42-year-old character with a 17-year-old high school student love interest, played by Mariel Hemingway.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to a little controversy, and his 1960s-set Hollywood epic is up there with his most provocative works. While some films stumble into their problematic reputations over time, Once Upon a Time was scandalising from the get-go – as Tarantino contrived a perverse redemption arc for wife-killer Cliff Boothe (Brad Pitt) by having him brutally fustigate a cadre of young female assailants.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s biblical epic has been widely criticised for its depiction of Jewish people in the retelling of Jesus’s story. If you take into account the context of Gibson’s own offscreen antisemitism scandal, there’s plenty of cause for unease in watching this gory religious drama.
The Searchers (1956)
Racism abounded in old Hollywood films, particularly in westerns, which frequently saw white heroes butt up against Native American or Mexican foes. The Searchers, John Ford’s seminal 1956 western, was, on the one hand, a scathing indictment of the corrosive evil of racial hatred. On the other hand, it has also long been accused of racism itself in its problematic handling of its Native American characters.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
The feel-good films of John Hughes have come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years, with projects from The Breakfast Club to Weird Science to Uncle Buck facing censure for outdated racial and sexual content. Sixteen Candles may be Hughes’s worst offender, thanks to a shockingly cavalier plotline involving date rape. There was also the regrettable inclusion of Long Duk Dong, a discomforting Asian stereotype played by Gedde Watanabe.
Trading Places (1983)
This rags-to-riches (and vice versa) comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd boasts a number of button-pushing scenes, including a supposedly lighthearted gag in which a character is sexually assaulted by a gorilla. However, it’s the scene of Dan Akroyd in blackface which remains most unpalatable – and makes this otherwise enjoyable movie a tough watch today.
Cy Endfield’s well-regarded war drama depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, which took place during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. Zulu has been accused by some critics of racism, with recent research by William Shawcross suggesting that the film could provide inspiration for “white nationalists and supremacists”. Michael Caine, who starred in the film, has described this claim as “the biggest load of bulls***”.