Craig Zobel’s “The Hunt”, in which twelve strangers are hunted for sport by “elites," was originally set for release on Sept. 27, 2019. Then the nation suffered two horrific mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, forcing Universal Pictures to pull the film from its release slate. The film finally arrives this Friday, March 13, at a time when the country is in full freakout mode (justifiably) over a completely different threat. Even then, the unabashedly political film is sure to provoke no shortage of arguments and hot takes over the next few weeks. We’ve been here before, sometimes for better; other times for worse. Here are 25 films, television shows and pieces of music that caused hellacious stirs.
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ” might be the most controversial film ever released in the United States. Evangelicals and Catholics railed against the movie’s depiction of Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene and siring children. Though the sequence in question was Christ imagining what might happen if he was freed from the cross, these groups still took it as blasphemy. A theater in Paris was hit by an incendiary device that injured 13 people; a protestor dressed as MCA chairman Lew Wasserman pretended to drive nails into the hands of Christ; an evangelist leader made an offer to buy the film outright so he could destroy it. The film itself performed poorly at the box office, but its critical reputation has only grown over the years.
It’s all right there in the title, and you best believe the provocative content did not go down well with the nation’s law enforcement. The song was recorded with Ice-T’s thrash metal group Body Count, and it’s an aggressive condemnation of police brutality in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Though Ice-T is only playing a character on the song, media watchdogs like Tipper Gore excoriated the song as a call to violence against the police. Many groups threatened a boycott of Time Warner (which distributed the album), and called for the album to be pulled off shelves. Ultimately, the album was released without “Cop Killer” (which was offered as a free single alongside the LP), and has never been restored.
“Hill Street Blues” creator Steven Bochco pushed the prime-time network envelope in the fall of 1993 with the premiere of “NYPD Blue," and conservative groups were not amused. Though the show’s use of profanity and deployment of mild nudity would feel somewhat chaste today, there wasn’t anything on network television at the time with content anywhere near this edgy. Brent Bozell formed his powerful Parents Television Council in response to the show, and during its 10th season, it filed a formal complaint with the FCC over its content. No fine was levied at the time, but the FCC did retroactively hit ABC with a $1.4 million fine in 2008 for an episode titled “Nude Awakening." An appeals court struck down the ruling.
Director William Friedkin (“The French Connection." “The Exorcist”) is no stranger to controversy, and he certainly stoked it with his adaptation of Gerald Walker’s cop thriller “Cruising." When Village Voice journalist Arthur Bell, whose reporting on a serial killer targeting gay men in New York City partially inspired the book, read a leaked copy of the screenplay, he was incensed by its lurid depiction of the gay club scene and rallied the community to protest the production wherever it shot. The tactics worked to a degree: Friedkin was forced to replace much of the location audio with overdubbed sound. Star Al Pacino insisted that he found the film to be focused on a small subculture in Manhattan’s gay community and not defamatory of the entire culture. The movie opened to more protests but did not perform particularly well at the box office. To this day, audiences are still split as to whether the movie is homophobic.
Public Enemy “Minister of Information” Professor Griff infuriated Jewish leaders in 1988 when, in an interview with the Washington Times’ David Mills, he said “Jews are responsible for the majority of wickedness in the world.” Though Griff was subsequently dismissed from the band, Chuck D was still fuming over the episode on the group’s 1990 track, “Welcome to the Terrordome," which features these lyrics: “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction/So-called chosen frozen/Apology made to who ever pleases/Still they got me like Jesus." This provoked a new round of criticism, none of which affected record sales. Their LP “Fear of a Black Planet” went on to sell over 2 million copies.
When hasn’t “South Park” been controversial? Series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone love to ruffle the public’s feathers, and they did so right out of the gate just by depicting a group of grade school kids hurling foul language and epithets around with reckless abandon. Brent Bozell of the Parents Television Council and Peggy Charren of the Action for Children’s Television inveighed against the show, calling it “dangerous to the democracy." Twenty-three years after its premiere on Comedy Central, “South Park” is still trucking. The democracy? We’ll get back to you on that.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were kind of asking for it when they wrote and directed a comedy about a pair of journalists who are recruited to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but they couldn’t have expected this outcome. Furious with the premise of the movie, hackers sympathetic to North Korea got into Sony’s computer systems and released loads of emails from top executives, some of which were incredibly damaging. As a result the studio scrapped the film’s wide release and offered it via streaming on Dec. 24, 2014, all but ensuring that it would lose money on the $44 million movie.
The legendary hip-hop group broke through to the mainstream in 1988 with the release of its second LP, “Straight Outta Compton," which contained a pleasant little ditty called “F*** Tha Police." As you might expect, law enforcement all over the country didn’t care for this song one bit. The biggest pushback came from the FBI, which fired off a disapproving letter to Ruthless Records — though the band’s manager, Jerry Heller, claims that the missive was the work of a “single pissed-off bureaucrat with a bully pulpit.” In any event, the group enjoyed a contentious relationship with the police throughout its brief time together.
When the Fox television network went live in 1986, it needed to make a splash to stand out among the established big three of ABC, CBS and NBC, and this series about an unrefined suburban Chicago family more than did the trick. At a time when the Huxtables represented the platonic ideal of the sitcom family, the Bundys' uncouth behavior felt like a shock to the system. Al (Ed O’Neill) was a curmudgeon who seemed to hate his family; Peggy (Katey Sagal) is a lazy, nagging housewife who lives to spend Al’s money; Kelly (Christina Applegate) is a promiscuous teenager with barely a coherent thought in her head; and Bud (David Faustino) is a burgeoning juvenile delinquent who’s obsessed with sex. There were the typical threats of protests and boycotts, but the show was a ratings hit and lasted a remarkable 11 seasons.
Oliver Stone hit the third rail of political filmmaking in 1991 with this searing drama about New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His muddled conclusion — that it was a vast conspiracy executed by disparate parties, one of them being Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson — struck a raw nerve with the surviving members of the administration. MPAA president Jack Valenti fired off a seven-page screed in which he compared Stone’s film to the Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl. Hollywood and the rest of the country shrugged. The film was nominated for Best Picture and was a box office hit despite its three-hour-plus runtime.
Marilyn Manson was already a lightning rod for controversy when he released this 2000 opus, which he called a “declaration of war” against media and politicians who had partially blamed him for the Columbine school shooting. Manson went all the way with his provocations by depicting himself as a crucified Jesus Christ on the album’s cover. Evangelical groups cried blasphemy (one pastor threatened a hunger strike until the album was pulled), while Walmart and Kmart refused to stock the CD. The LP sold reasonably well but was not as big of a success as the Manson’s previous record.
Now entering its 31st season, it’s hard to believe that “The Simpsons” was once considered a threat to the American family. Early in its run, President George H.W. Bush said that he was going to “make American families a lot more like ‘The Waltons’ and a lot less like ‘The Simpsons’.” Bill Cosby, then America’s television dad, criticized Bart Simpson for being “angry, confused, frustrated.” While satire may sometimes be, in the words of George S. Kaufman, what closes on Saturday night, "The Simpsons" brand of mockery has endured long enough to see Cosby thrown in jail.
Stanley Kubrick shook up the world with his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel. The film initially received an X rating for its depiction of the ol’ ultraviolence, and was, shock of shocks, taken the wrong way by sociopaths who incorporated elements of the film into crimes they were going to commit anyway (e.g. there was a real-life gang rape in which the attackers sang “Singin’ in the Rape”). As copycat crimes mounted in the U.K., Kubrick asked for the film to be withdrawn in the country. It was not rereleased in England until after the filmmaker’s death in 1999.
The Rolling Stones courted loads of controversy when they kicked off their 1968 album, “Beggars Banquet,” with the instant classic “Sympathy for the Devil." The song, with its provocative lyrics acknowledging the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, created a stir, while its perspective led some to believe the band had become Satanists. The LPs' cover depicting a filthy public restroom caused enough problems with the band’s record label that it was ultimately scrapped (though it later resurfaced on CD reissues).
Some 100 million people tuned in to Nicholas Meyer’s TV movie, “The Day After," when it aired on Nov. 20, 1983, and the world looked awfully different the following day. Americans finally understood what a nuclear holocaust would look like, and they were shocked. The film was so disturbing that ABC created a 1-800 hotline to field calls from distraught viewers. The film stoked anger and fear, which was absolutely the point. Perhaps no one was more shaken than President Ronald Reagan, who began to pursue a policy of nuclear deescalation. After signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union, Reagan sent Meyer a telegram stating, “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.”
In the year of “Psycho” (1960), director Michael Powell released his own take on the nascent serial killer genre with “Peeping Tom," and it nearly cost him his career. The account of a serial killer who films his female victims dying moments, “Peeping Tom” was met with extraordinarily harsh reviews. Derek Hill of the Tribune wrote, “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Pepping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer.” The film has since been hailed as a masterpiece, but reactions like Hill’s greatly damaged Powell’s reputation.
When Tipper Gore picked up a copy of Prince’s “Purple Rain” for her 11-year-old daughter, she probably thought she was bringing home the innocuous equivalent of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller." Everything was going funkily swell as they listened to the album together. And then “Darline Nikki," with its opening line about Prince masturbating in a hotel lobby to the titular “sex fiend," hit. What ensued was a media firestorm that created the Parents Music Resource Center and resulted in edgy musicians like Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and, um, John Denver testifying before the U.S. Senate. Out of this came the Parental Advisory sticker affixed to any LP with objectionable content — all because of His Royal Badness.
Americans were just beginning to understand the scope of the AIDS epidemic in 1985 when NBC aired this groundbreaking TV movie about a gay lawyer (Aidan Quinn) who discovers he’s HIV positive. Homosexuality was rarely depicted on network television in the mid-1980s (and usually in a broad comedic fashion), so twinning this with a film about a rapidly spreading (and fatal) virus was a stiff double shot of reality. Many audiences weren’t ready for it. Indeed, NBC lost $500,000 in ad revenue because companies didn’t want to appear supportive of homosexuality. Nevertheless, the broadcast outperformed "Monday Night Football" and helped start a national conversation about AIDS.
Kinji Fukasaku’s adaptation of Koushun Takami’s dystopian novel about junior high school students being forced to fight to the death went over about as well as could be expected one year after Columbine. The film was a huge hit in Japan but was blamed for youth violence as much as “A Clockwork Orange” had been. As for the United States, no distributor would touch it. If “The Matrix” could catch heat for having inspired the most deadly school shooting in the nation’s history, an action film about kids killing kids was completely off the table. “Battle Royale” did manage to play festivals around the country and was rapturously received, but it never received a major theatrical release.
Ever since “Like a Virgin," no American musician has courted controversy more profitably than Madonna. The alleged blasphemy of her “Like a Prayer” video (in which the singer dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint), which cost her a Pepsi contract, is up there on her long list of scandals, but nothing can top the outraged reaction to her “Justify My Love” video. The artily shot black-and-white video depicts Madonna writhing in a hotel room while light sadomasochistic scenes play out. One topless shot caused the video to be banned by MTV, the network that essentially launched her career. The ensuing controversy led to a "Nightline" segment (where the video was aired in its entirety), and the release of a VHS single (which flew off shelves). It all felt awfully manufactured, but therein lays the genius of Madonna.
The 45-year-old sketch comedy show hit the pop culture like a nuclear bomb when it premiered in 1975, but the show’s anarchic sensibility caused no shortage of headaches for its network. The biggest controversy might’ve been a segment titled “The Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Championship," a bad-taste goof on the French singer having shot and killed Olympic skier Spider Sabich (which she dubiously claimed was accidental). It was nothing more than stock Olympic skiing footage narrated by Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin; whenever a skier wiped out, there would be a gunshot followed by Chevy or Jane saying, “Well, Jessica, he seems to have been accidentally shot by Claudine Longet.” Longet’s lawyers were none too pleased, issuing a cease-and-desist to the network. This prompted an on-air apology by Don Pardo the following week, which was by far the funniest part of the bit.
Following in the footsteps of “Cruising," Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller drew sharp criticism from the LGBT community for its depiction of a homicidal bisexual. Protesters tried to interrupt shooting, and, having snared a leaked copy of Joe Eszterhaus’ screenplay, protested the opening of the movie by brandishing signs purporting to spoil the end of the film (though the resolution is actually ambiguous, ludicrously so). The film’s notoriety turned it into a box office smash and deservedly launched Sharon Stone into superstardom.
George Michael fired a shot across Madonna’s Queen of Controversy bow with this wildly overheated single that got an equally overheated video in which the singer draws the words “explore” and “monogamy” on the back of his then girlfriend Kathy Jeung. MTV forced an edit of the video before it would air it, while the BBC flat-out banned the song from its airwaves during the day. The track was nevertheless a Billboard smash, but Michael soured on it over time, dropping it from his set list after the Faith World Tour in 1989.
This ill-conceived reality show made “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” look like “Victory at Sea." The concept sounds almost acceptable (cameras follow four families with members eager to break with their racist clan), but when word leaked that the producers, in classic reality show fashion, were paying its subjects to be more racist to goose the drama, A&E deep-sixed the show and never aired an episode. Given that it was set to premiere in 2017, the network clearly did the right thing, but that this was ever greenlit in the first place is indicative of the soulessness of reality television.
“I was never so moved by any theatrical performance since stuttering through my own bar mitvah,” raved SCREW magazine’s Al Goldstein! This groundbreaking pornographic film from Gerard Damiano kicked off the porn chic era of the 1970s; cultural giants such as Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson and Barbara Walters all admitted to seeing it theatrically. Even the vice president of the United States, Spiro Agnew, gave it a whirl! Obviously, there was a multitude of obscenity charges leveled against the film, one of which ended in the conviction co-star Harry Reems (that was later overturned by an appeals court). The film was so far beyond the pale that the usual religious scolds couldn’t wrap their minds around how to fight it. In the end, they lost the battle. Pornography became an accepted art form in the United States, and that’s why you’re now just one bookmark away from seeing a stepson in flagrante delicto with his stepmother.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.