The 10 Most Controversial Movies Of All Time

The most controversial movies of all-time include Birth of a Nation, Kids, A Clockwork Orange, and even Borat.

By Rick Gonzales | Updated

Controversial movies seem to be a large part of film cinema history. From silent movies to the advent of talkies to the films of today, there has always been a filmmaker out there wanting, willing, and able to push the boundaries of what could and should be shown on film. From the subject matter to the film content, we have come up with the 10 most controversial movies of all time.


1. The Birth of a Nation (1915)

It is only proper to start a most controversial movies of all time list with what has been routinely called “the most controversial film ever made in the United States.”

The Birth of a Nation is an epic 1915 silent film from writer/director D.W. Griffith that stars the “First Lady of American Cinema,” Lillian Gish, and is based on the 1905 Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel and play, The Clansman.

The film was controversial before it even made it to the movie theaters, and it has remained controversial to this day. It earned its “most reprehensibly racist film in Hollywood history” title by showcasing its racist depictions of African Americans.

In the film, the African Americans are shown as unintelligent as well as being very sexually aggressive toward the white women in the film. Most of them were portrayed by white actors in blackface.

The Birth of a Nation also portrayed the Klu Klux Klan as heroic figures, that were created to protect white women, preserve American morals and values, and maintain white supremacy over African Americans. What makes the controversy even more telling at the time is just how much the film brought in.

The Birth of a Nation was made for an unheard-of (at the time) $100,000. D.W. Griffith was joked about for spending that much on a film. But when the movie finally hit the theaters, he gained that back and then some.

The film is said to initially have made $20 million, but those figures are now presumed to be very low. It is now said that the film has made anywhere between $50 to $100 million during its time of release.

2. Freaks (1932)
most controversial movies

Before director Tod Browning released his personal project Freaks, he hit the jackpot with his 1931 monster film, Dracula, a film that shot him to the top of the most-wanted list of directors. It allowed him to finally move forward with Freaks, a story about carnival people.

The story follows a devious trapeze artist who joins a carnival sideshow with her sights on marrying the troupe’s dwarf, then murdering him so he can gain his inheritance. What made the film immensely controversial is that Browning insisted on using actual carnival performers who had their own deformities.

The movie was filmed in Los Angeles in the fall of 1931, but a number of MGM (the studio that financed the film) employees were uneasy with the “performers” being so close to them, so MGM constructed a large tent away from everyone for them to live in while the movie was being made.

During a test screening, audiences found the film too grotesque to sit through, and one woman miscarried, causing the threat of a lawsuit. The film was eventually cut down to a 64-minute running time, but even then, audiences couldn’t stomach the film.

3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
most controversial movies

A Clockwork Orange is the first of two controversial films actor Malcolm McDowell has performed in. The second film, Caligula, didn’t hit our top ten, but it too was a controversial film filled with explicit and pornographic sex.

Legendary director Stanley Kubrick brought A Clockwork Orange to theaters a mere 3 years after another semi-controversial film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, had audience’s minds trying to wrap their mind around what they just saw.

The controversy surrounding A Clockwork Orange had much to do with the ultraviolence and extended scenes of sexual assault presented. In England, politicians, newspaper columnists, and critics alike debated on the merits of the film, decrying the supreme violence. The talk eventually got to Kubrick, so he pulled the film from being shown in the UK.

4. The Exorcist (1973)
most controversial movies

When The Exorcist was released in 1973, it earned the tagline, the scariest movie of all time, and they weren’t joking. Audiences had never seen anything like The Exorcist before on the big screen and unfortunately, there were some unprepared for what was to come.

The film was directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel of the same name. It tells the story of 12-year-old Regan McNeil who becomes possessed by the demon Pazuzu. Controversy overtook both the filming of the movie and the release of it as well.

While filming, a fire destroyed the set, a few crewmembers died, and Linda Blair (who played Regan) and Ellen Burstyn (who played her mother, Chris) both suffered debilitating back injuries. When the film was released, audience reaction only furthered the controversy surrounding the film.

It was reported that some moviegoers vomited, some passed out, heart attacks were reported, and, like Freaks, there was a report of a miscarriage.

All of this stemmed from the possession scenes of Regan, first when she goes through a very realistic cerebral angiography and then later when she is violently masturbating with a cross.

5. Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers (1994)

most controversial movies

What gets Natural Born Killers on the list of the 10 most controversial movies of all time is its extreme and unflinching violence. The film, directed by Oliver Stone, was based on an original script by Quentin Tarantino (who eventually disowned the finished film). It told the story of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) who had suffered traumatic childhoods and are now lovers and mass murderers, who become mass media stars.

What got the film in trouble was the extreme violence. When Stone first screened the film, the MPAA told him the film would be given an NC-17 rating unless he made some significant cuts to it. Stone eventually excised 4 minutes from the film, allowing the MPAA to give it an R-rating.

Although the violence was trimmed, more controversy followed as the film has been accused of inspiring numerous mass murders throughout the country including the Columbine High School mass murder where 12 students and one teacher were killed in an attack that the killers called “NBK.”

6. Kids (1995)
most controversial movies

According to filmmaker Larry Clark, “I wanted to present the way kids see things, but without all this baggage, this morality that these old middle-aged Hollywood guys bring to it. Kids don’t think that way…they’re living in the moment not thinking about anything beyond that and that’s what I wanted to catch.” That is where his controversy begins and ends.

Clark’s unflinching look at a group of teenagers who enjoy having unprotected sex, using illegal drugs, and drinking alcohol were immediately controversial for the content and explicit sex scenes appearing to involve teenagers.

Rosario Dawson made her feature film debut as a 16-year-old in the movie while Chloë Sevigny was barely in her 20s when she joined the film’s production.

Two other stars of the film, Leo Fitzpatrick and Justin Pierce, were also very young when the movie was produced. Clark discovered Fitzpatrick when he was 14 years old and sadly, Pierce was found dead by suicide in 2000.

7. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
most controversial movies

One wonders if The Passion of the Christ got its controversy more from who made the film, Mel Gibson, or by the extremely gut-churning violence that followed Christ’s final few hours. The answer to that is it is probably a bunch of both.

Mel Gibson was already well-known for making his anti-semite comments when The Passion of the Christ was being filmed and when it finally hit theaters, he did not turn the camera away as Jesus (played brilliantly here by Jim Caviezel) endures the endless beatings, stoning’s, and the skin-flaying of a whip.

Rumor has it that more controversy will be dialed up for the sequel, The Passion of the Christ: Resurrection, a film that will see Caviezel return as Jesus, once again under the direction of Mel Gibson.

8. Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
most controversial movies

One thing you can’t fault Sacha Baron Cohen for is the lengths he will go to for a laugh and his Borat character is proof positive. Cohen created a whole boatload of controversy while filming Borat as his character consistently found himself in hot water during unscripted interviews.

The film’s loose storyline was told in mockumentary style and had Borat leaving his home country of Kazakhstan to film a documentary about America and the American way. Along the way, Borat offends all, leaving no stone unturned.

After the film premiered, one news reporter claimed to have lost her job because of Borat. Bobby Rowe, the producer of the rodeo in which Borat sings the National Anthem felt duped into allowing it to happen. The Veteran Feminists of America also felt duped by “Borat’s” interview. The things we do for a laugh.

9. The Interview (2014)
most controversial movies

It sounded so simple at first. A movie about two men, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco, who were hired to assassinate leader Kim Jong-un while in North Korea interviewing him. Okay, maybe not the best storyline, but with Rogen and Franco, laughs should be had.

Instead, Amy Pascal, the Sony President at the time, got fired, North Korean hackers found their way into Sony emails and ended up releasing some brutal emails, numerous threats were made against the United States. The film ultimately was pulled from the theatrical release.

10. Joker (2019)
most controversial movies

There was plenty of concern before Todd Phillips’ Joker was released in movie theaters. The film dealt with mental health issues along with political violence and featured an “incel”-like protagonist in Joaquin Phoenix. There was so much concern about the film that many chose to skip opening weekend for fear of movie theater violence.

In fact, the FBI and the DoD both produced warnings to moviegoers that if they were going to see the film, to be vigilant. Thankfully, no violence was reported that first weekend, and there was also none to follow. It didn’t stop the film from being one of the 10 most controversial movies of all time.