10 controversial movies that were banned in America

Film censorship heightened in America during the mid-20th century as people began to morally oppose depictions of violence, sexual freedom and more. A movie that fits the controversial criteria for its plot or values can stir up public anger and a harsh decision to be banned through government censorship, becoming synonymous with extreme cinema in the process.

Since the beginning of the US motion picture industry until 1966, film censorship has been a frequent feature of the industry. Although statewide regulation lasted until the 1980s, government censorship was severely constrained by court rulings in the 1950s and 1960s.

Numerous genres have fallen victim to film censorship in America, whether it be the romance tale presenting erotic content alongside nudity in a conservative society or a grizzly horror showcasing some shocking and sickening violent visuals. As public attitudes rapidly changed towards the end of the 20th century, movies that were once banned began to take on a cult following, with their dated ‘violence’ and ‘sexual themes’ seeming petty in comparison to contemporary depictions.

Including notorious movies in the extreme cinema genre, controversial re-tellings of biblical stories and films that unnerved sensitive audiences, here are the stories behind ten notorious features.

10 movies banned in America:

Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

Lamberto Maggiorani stars as a desperate father living in Rome whose bicycle is stolen. As he needs it for his job to keep his family afloat, he tracks the culprit down with his son, played by Enzo Staiola.

Despite being cited as one of the greatest films ever made, Bicycle Thieves was banned by MPAA in March 1950. This was due to a scene where a little boy urinates and for depicting a disturbing culture inside a brothel, alluding to a lifestyle that strayed away from conservative ideals.

The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915)

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic drama presents the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and two families during the Civil War. The film is a racist and hate-fuelled depiction of the formation of the Klu Klux Klan and presents some of the most offensive portrayals of the black community in cinema. 

Rightfully so, Griffith’s revolting film was banned throughout America for its bigotry and unjust portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as something to celebrate. Birth of a Nation was banned in Chicago, Las Vegas, Denver, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, Ohio, Kansas, and West Virginia, as well as other jurisdictions. It was then re-released in 1916 outside of Kansas.

Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato,1980) 

Robert Kerman stars in this found footage cannibal horror film as an anthropologist who leads a rescue team into the Amazon rainforest. In their search for a missing film crew, they discover a tribe of cannibals. 

Cannibal Holocaust presented the extreme subject matter of dismemberment, sexual violence, murders, and animal cruelty, resulting in a five-year ban. The film has also received criticism for exploiting South American countries in its effort to comment on journalism ethics. When speaking to Electric Sheep about the negative response his film received, Ruggero Deodato stated: “My film is fiction. Why do people react to CH, but don’t react to an American soldier being beheaded? Forget my film for a second; do people have no recollection of what happened in history?”

He added: “There are horrible things that are far more serious because they’re real. Everybody wearing rose-tinted spectacles. That makes me angry.”

Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963)

Flaming Creatures is an experimental film directed by Jack Smith and displays eccentric drag performers partaking in unconventional sexual antics and commercials. The film features the poet and director Piero Heliczer.

Smith’s film holds graphic portrayals of sexuality, defiance of gender norms in clothing and members of the intersex community. As a result, it was banned in New York City for its boundary-breaking and unconventional nature. 

If You Love This Planet (Terre Nash, 1982)

Terre Nash’s short documentary film is a recording of a lecture at SUNY Plattsburgh by anti-nuclear activist Dr Helen Caldicott. The content showcased the danger of nuclear weapons and was distributed by the National Film Board of Canada.

If You Love This Planet was released in response to the Regan administration during the Cold War. In turn, the Department of Justice designated Nash’s capturing of the lecture as “foreign political propaganda” and suppressed it in the United States. Despite this, the film won the 1982 Academy Award for ‘Documentary Short Subject’. 

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Gordan Douglas, 1950)

Gordan Douglas’s stylish Hollywood crime drama stars James Cagney as a crooked lawyer called Luther Alder. Ward Bond and Barton MacLane also star as two corrupt cops. The film is based on Horace McCoy’s novel. 

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was banned in Ohio due to its extreme illustration of crime and sadistic approach to its brutality. The film captures the appropriate energy and intensity of a crime noir but lacks style and direction. 

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

Martin Scorsese’s epic religious drama depicts the life of Jesus Christ as he struggles with temptation in many forms. His vision of the biblical tale sees Christ engage in sexual activities, which rubbed Christians the wrong way.

Following this response, the film was banned in Savannah, Georgia, when city leaders petitioned Universal Pictures requesting a ban. However, it opened in Savannah on September 23rd, 1988, six weeks after its national debut.

Pink Flamingos (John Waters1972)

The first instalment in John Waters’ ‘Trash Trilogy’ stars Divine as a morally bankrupt woman who takes pride in being “the filthiest person alive”. Her disgusting reputation is challenged by criminals who try to one-up her filthy antics.

Waters’s manifesto is morbid, grotesque, crude and explicit in the most unorthodox way possible. This blueprint is what got the director’s second feature film banned in Orange County, Florida, until 1997. The film garnered controversy due to explicit sexual content, animal cruelty, and showcasing the lead character eating dog faeces in the end.

Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)

In this sequel to the American classic, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale escapes from a psychiatric ward to return to the land of Oz to rescue her friends.

Return to Oz took a much more abrupt and overtly dark tone than its predecessor and landed a PG rating, leading to protests over its “restricted” rules at the Ingham County Library. The library decided it could not sell the film because it couldn’t comply with the school board, as only G-rated films were allowed to be shown.

Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)

Frederick Wiseman’s masterful documentary Titicut Follies charts the life of the patient inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital with John Marshall working behind the camera. 

The film’s content examines social institutions and depicts the facility’s conditions, such as incidents of force-feeding and public strippings. In Massachusetts, the general public issued a court order that banned Titicut Follies from distribution because the film violated the inmates’ privacy.

Shirley McQuay

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