15 Movies That Were Banned in the U.S.
Since the dawn of the movie industry, dozens of projects have been banned within the United States. Here are 15 films with controversial content that were outlawed from American theaters, including one heavily-protested film promoting racial injustice (on page 10).
1. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
While Martin Scorsese’s film about the life and death of Jesus Christ was critically acclaimed, it was met with its fair share of criticism from Christian groups worldwide. The Last Temptation of Christ depicts Jesus having lustful thoughts, as well as facing feelings of fear, doubt, and hopelessness, which many felt to be an affront to the Biblical depiction of his life.
Protests from religious groups targeted Universal Studios, while Edward Theaters, United Artists, and General Cinemas refused to screen the film. Cities including New Orleans and Savannah, Georgia instituted bans on the film lasting several weeks, according to PBS.
Next: After this film’s ban, all copies were lost.
2. Birth Control (1917)
Pioneering sex education activist Margaret Sanger wrote, directed, and starred in this film about her efforts to expand birth control options for women. As noted by the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, the film was only shown once to about 200 people at a private screening. Then, New York license commissioner George Bell banned it, calling it “immoral, indecent, and contrary to public welfare.”
After the ban was appealed, Birth Control became the first film outlawed under the 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio decision. The ruling stated First Amendment free speech protections did not apply to films, because films weren’t art, but merely a business. Although the decision was overturned in 1952, Birth Control was never shown again; all copies were lost.
Next: This film bent the rules to come out on VHS.
3. The Thorn (1974)
If at first you don’t succeed, try again (under a different title). This was the strategy for the creators of a project from the early 1970s. Initially released as The Divine Mr. J, the film’s star, Bette Midler, sued based on the grounds that it exploited her professional status, according to The New York Times. A decade later, the film was released on VHS, this time under the title The Thorn. Magnum Entertainment is listed as the distributor of the religious satire.
Next: You’ll recognize this mobster movie title.
4. Scarface (1932)
Most movie buffs think of Al Pacino when they hear about this classic mobster movie. But the original Scarface film made waves long before the ’80s crime drama. Loosely based on Al Capone, Scarface received attention for its graphic and realistic portrayal of gangster violence.
Likewise, many Italian-American community members felt the film reflected negatively on their culture. Due to pressure from censor boards, Scarface was banned in several states and cities across the U.S., per FilmSite.
Next: Would you ban a Disney nature documentary?
5. The Vanishing Prairie (1954)
Disney produced a series of live-action documentary shorts in the 1940s. One of the films, The Vanishing Prairie, examines the natural beauty of the American West. Critics praised the film at its release. However, New York briefly banned the movie due to a scene depicting the birth of a buffalo, according to Turner Classic Movies. This ban was quite ludicrous even at the time. Here is the first line of The New York Times’ review of The Vanishing Prairie.
Now that the New York State censor has agreed that a film may show a buffalo’s birth without tending to corrupt morals or incite to crime, “The Vanishing Prairie” of Walt Disney should be very much in evidence for some time on the unhindered screen of the Fine Arts, where it opened yesterday.
Next: This film was one of the first to depict female nudity and sexuality.
6. Ecstasy (1933)
One of the most notorious banned films in movie history is Ecstasy. The 1933 Czech-Austrian film stars renowned actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr. She plays an unhappily married young woman. In the film’s most famous scene, Lamarr is skinny dipping in a lake when she’s forced to run naked through the countryside after her horse. After a young man sees her, she becomes obsessed with him and the two meet for a secret rendezvous.
Scandalous at the time for its frank depiction of female nudity and sexuality, Ecstasy was banned in the U.S. until 1940, as noted in Sex, Religion, Media.
Next: Scientologists were not happy about this film.
7. The Profit (2001)
While Christians are often responsible for religious outrage regarding films, this practice isn’t exclusive. The Scientology parody The Profit was met with anger from the community it mocks. Though Scientologists initially denied the connection between The Profit and their church, they later objected to it, saying it may influence a case going to trial. Interestingly, the film was also banned in Spain.
Next: Have you heard of this Monty Python movie?
8. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
The Monty Python films are iconic in popular culture. However, the British comedy troupe pushed conservative buttons with its satire in the Life of Brian. After the “blasphemous” subject matter caused financier EMI to pull funding, The Beatles’ George Harrison paid for the film in full. Life of Brian was banned in Norway, as well as several U.S. towns and the U.K. This ban was lifted years later, and the film experienced a resurgence after a 2004 rerelease.
Next: Do you think this political film is fair?
9. Hillary: The Movie (2008)
In 2008, then-Senator Hillary Clinton was running to be the Democratic candidate for U.S. President. The same year, a documentary was scheduled for release, Hillary: The Movie. The problem? A law in place, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, prevented materials campaigning for or against a political candidate. Republicans viewed the film as propaganda. However, the film sparked discussions regarding this law, and it was amended.
Next: Facing major protests, this infamous film promoted racial injustice.
10. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
This epic two-part film received a lot of exposure, but not for the reasons writer and director D.W. Griffith hoped. Set during Civil War and Reconstruction-era United States, The Birth of a Nation included a sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan and the use of white actors in blackface in place of black actors.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People spearheaded a campaign to ban The Birth of a Nation. Protests took place in major cities like Boston and Philadelphia. Ultimately, mayors in Chicago, St. Louis, and 10 other big cities refused to screen the film on the grounds it promoted racial prejudice.
Next: A Swedish woman explores her sexuality.
11. I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)
Directed by groundbreaking Swedish filmmaker Vilgot Sjöman, I Am Curious (Yellow) tells the story of a young woman who explores her sexuality and ponders social issues while wandering around Stockholm. In one notorious scene, the main character kisses her lover’s flaccid penis.
As noted by Turner Classic Movies, U.S. customs seized the film, declaring it obscene, before the ban was overturned in 1969. Besides its nudity, unconventional storytelling, and surreal imagery, I Am Curious (Yellow) is also famous for incorporating an interview with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who happened to be visiting Sweden when the film was being made.
Next: Would you want to watch pagan rituals and witchcraft?
12. Häxan (1922)
Per IMDb, this 1922 Swedish-Danish film dramatizes the history of witchcraft in Europe, ranging from ancient pagan beginnings to its modern-day conflation with hysteria. Using recreations of pagan rituals and satanic rites, Häxan purports to educate viewers about the evolution of witchcraft throughout the ages.
As noted by Turner Classic Movies, the film includes scenes of “a woman giving birth to demonic creatures, witches kissing the ‘arse’ of Satan during a Sabbath frolic, nudity, vomiting, urination, and all sort of sacrilegious and sexual high jinks.” The film was banned in countries outside Sweden (including the U.S.).
Next: A modern rebellion
13. The Yes Men Fix the World (2009)
The HBO documentary, The Yes Men Fix the World, is a sequel to 2003’s The Yes Men. Following the exploits of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, the film depicts the . troublemakers attempting to stir up controversy around real political issues. The film received accolades on Rotten Tomatoes and saw a third installment, The Yes Men Are Revolting.
However, the documentary was blocked from release in 2010. Due to a pending lawsuit from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the duo allowed peer-to-peer sharing site BitTorrent to distribute the film.
Next: This film was anything but “conventional” at the time.
14. Convention City (1933)
Convention City was made just before the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines were enforced in 1934. This bawdy sex comedy tells the story of a group of businessmen in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The plot involves a salesman trying to seduce his employer’s underage daughter, but essentially the film is a series of racy double entendres, slapstick, and lewd jokes.
As noted by IMDb, Convention City was banned in the U.S. All copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed by Warner Bros. president Jack L. Warner. Today, the film is considered “lost,” although it is possible unknown prints of the film still exist in private collections.
Next: A real insane asylum freaked out potential film-goers.
15. Titicut Follies (1967)
Many films are banned due to their realistic portrayal of controversial topics. But when a Massachusetts court order blocked the release of this 1967 documentary, it was because of how it portrayed the reality of life inside the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane.
Titicut Follies’ creators, Frederick Wiseman and John Marshall, followed inmates in the institution, documenting the neglect and abuse they faced at the hands of their caretakers. But many objected to the lack of written consent the filmmakers received from their subjects, feeling that a wide release would harm both their dignity and privacy. The court order barring the film’s release was only lifted in 1991, notes High Beam Research.
Additional reporting by Nathanael Arnold and Becca Bleznak.
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