The Oscar race is about a lot more than just the movies. Narratives emerge and swirl around films, lifting mediocre efforts to glory and pushing great movies out of the conversation all together. Even though much of the country is gearing up to see Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, the film has made headlines thanks to emerging details about a rape case Parker and his co-writer, Jean Celestin, were involved with in college. The discussion around around the charge, which Parker was acquitted of and Celestin served six months for has overshadowed the early buzz around the film. With it’s release this weekend, people are either going to see the movie or protesting it.
The Birth of a Nation is not the first Oscar-worthy film to be mired in controversy upon its release. Some of these films managed to overcome the drama and take home a gold man. Will Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation join that list?
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Upon its release in 1969, Midnight Cowboy was slapped with an X rating by the MPAA. The rating was largely due to a reference to gay sex in the film. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and the film was downgraded to an R rating and rereleased into theaters by 1971. In the end Midnight Cowboy overcame the stiff rating to become the first X rated film to take home Oscar gold.
Dances with Wolves (1990)
While not exactly offensive per se, Dances with Wolves took heat for its romantic, even idealistic view of the American West and portrayal of Native Americans. Though the film did big box office numbers, critics described the film as “naive” and “childlike” when it came the historical accuracy. As New York Times critic Vincent Camby put it, “The movie teeters on the edge of Boy’s Life literature, that is, on the brink of earnest silliness.”
Life of Pi (2012)
The controversy surrounding Life of Pi had nothing to do with the content of the film, but with the production itself. Rhythm & Hues, the VFX company responsible for much of the FX work in Life of Pi, went bankrupt during the film’s Oscar push. Hundreds of employees were laid off. The PR component of the story was worsened when neither Lee nor his cinematographer Claudio Miranda thanked the visual effects team that worked on the film.
American Sniper (2014)
When we entered 2014 Oscar season, it looked like American Sniper was perfectly positioned for glory. And then, Sniper’s campaign was thrown a curveball. Many people began to question how true was the real life story of the main character. American Sniper is based on a book of the same name: memoirs written by Marine sniper Chris Kyle. False claims Kyle made, such as killing two Texas carjackers and getting into fisticuffs with Jesse Ventura cast doubt on the veracity of the rest of his story. The film was already drawing criticism for its pro-American sentiment about the Iraq War, but the doubt around Kyle’s story launched the film into national headlines.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
The violent, drug-addled profane world of Pulp Fiction shocked film goers as it splashed its way through the film festival circuit, and propelled Tarantino’s second film to the status of a national phenomenon. But, the graphic nature of the film, and particularly its much discussed rape scene, may have cost it the Best Picture win. It’s an odd thing, but the very thing that generated heat for the film also made it a cinematic classic.
Despite being released more than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, Platoon poked at some very fresh wounds. Many Vietnam veterans viewed the film as a referendum on their own experience, and the film launched conversations from the halls of the VA to the floor of Congress. The film would go on to win Best Picture and become a central cultural artifact of the Vietnam War.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Gritty and dark, Taxi Driver was an unrelenting look at just how seedy 1970s New York could be. The film narrowly avoided an X rating, thanks to an agreement that the blood would be colored to a brownish hue in post-production. Thirteen year-old Jodie Foster had to undergo psychiatric evaluations to ensure that she was mentally and emotionally prepared for the role. When the film eventually aired on television, it was accompanied by the disclaimer, “To our Television Audience: In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. ’Taxi Driver’ suggests that tragic errors can be made. The Filmmakers.”
The Pianist (2002)
While recent years have brought increased scrutiny on those accused of sexual assault (like Nate Parker), there are still many artists who continue to work despite being mired in controversy. Director Roman Polanski isn’t allowed to step foot on American soil without reporting to prison, yet he has continued to work on Hollywood films (shot on location) long after his 1978 arrest. As recently as 2015, the US has been attempting to extradite Polanski, but to no avail.
Citizen Kane (1941)
No one has tried harder to sink a movie in American history than William Randolph Hearst tried to kill Citizen Kane. The film is essentially a biopic of the newspaper mogul, which portrays both he and his mistress Marion Davies in a poor light. Rumor has it that “Rosebud” is even a reference to Davies’ … rosebud. Hearst struck at Kane by threatening studios and running damaging stories about director Orson Welles in the press. The film was booed on Oscar night, and only took home one of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated, though it has since gone on to be recognized as one of the best films of all time.
A Clockwork Orange (1972)
Not only was A Clockwork Orange rated X (the second and last Oscar nominated film to receive the rating), but the Catholic Church gave the film a “C” meaning “condemned.” A rash of copycat crimes and threats following the films release led Kubrick to request the film cease screening in the UK. The film continued to play in the US, and earned four Oscar nods, though the film left Oscar night empty handed.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Upon it’s release, uptight critics saw Bonnie and Clyde as a great way to bolster their argument that films have gotten too violent. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther led that charge against the film. Audiences had a different opinion than stuffy critics and moralizing politicians, however. When the dust settled, Bonnie and Clyde was a top five movie of the year, and Bosley Crowther was let go from the Times, opening the door for younger critic Pauline Kael.