Controversial Cinema: The Films that Outraged America. By Kendall R. Phillips.
Westport: Praeger Publishers, July 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0275994648, $44.95. 206 pages.
Review by Robert G. Weiner, Texas Tech University Library
Throughout the history of cinema, some films produced by major studios have caused controversy, outrage, discussion, and for some, a blot on the film industry. Kendall Phillips, a professor of Communication and Rhetoric at Syracuse University, has produced a study of the controversial films that have changed the popular culture landscape. Phillips is concerned with controversy within mainstream American cinema.
The book is divided into chapters, each of which details a particular aspect of cinema that transgress certain boundaries. These categories include general censorship of film, sex and gender issues, violence and crime, race and ethnicity, and religion. Phillips begins each chapter with a historical background related to the category and then usually discusses one particular film that outraged filmgoers, placing it within the historical context of film censorship.
For a mass communications professor, Phillips writes with the detail of a historian, telling the history behind the film’s controversies. He documents everything with a detailed eye. The first chapter goes back to the beginnings of cinema with the likes of the Lumiere brothers and how their film showed the arrival of a train, at a station, which caused riots and terrified audiences (thus beginning the long debate over the power of film to influence a person’s behavior and moral standing).
Sex has always been a hotbed of film censorship since the beginnings of film, the first onscreen “touching” in Edison’s 1890s films The Kiss, and the erotic dancing of Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance. Phillips documents the countless films that caused the ire of censors due to “sexual” content and the rise of the movie production code and ratings system.
One of the most controversial films in the history of mainstream cinema was Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. Oddly, much of the controversy did not center on the film’s depiction of cannibalism (the ultimate taboo and transgression), but rather on the portrayal of the female and homosexual characters. At the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony there were several hundred protesters of the film’s perceived negative depiction of a stereotypical homicidal homosexual killer. Some protesters believed that Demme’s film helped set back positive strides for homosexuals and viewed the film as offensive (and homophobic). Many feminists also saw Jodi Foster’s character as submissive and anti-feminist (although there were those who argued the opposite as well).
Portrayals of violence in film have also been subject to censorship and discussion. From the 1930s gangster pictures to the 1950s juvenile delinquent films, there have been critics who saw these movies as glorifying violence for impressionable young minds. (Even real-life gangster Al Capone loathed gangster films and thought them to be a bad influence on society.) Phillips points out that what is most ironic about portrayals of violence is that violent war pictures are never seen as threatening when they reinforced societal norms.
One of the most controversial violent films in recent years was Oliver Stone’s 1994 number one film Natural Born Killers. (Although not really credited as an influence, Stone’s film has an uncanny similarity to James Landis 1963 serial killer classic The Sadist and the real life story of the late 1950s killing spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.) The characters of Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers are very similar to Starkweather and Fugate. Some critics saw Stone’s satire against media violence and destruction as actually glorifying it. Senator Bob Dole spoke out against the film during his 1996 unsuccessful bid for the Presidency. The irony is that Dole’s “critique did not, however extend to other contemporary violent films like … True Lies (and) Die Hard with a Vengeance,” both of which starred well-known Republicans (79). Apparently, Natural Born Killers did inspire some copycat killings from fans of the film, and some critics even argue that the Columbine Massacre was somehow inspired by this film.
A heated topic in the history of film is the portrayal of race when it shows Native Americans, African-Americans, and Asians etc., as marginalized characters. This is particularly true in the case of Native American portrayals in Westerns. Phillips discusses in detail how race has been showed on screen since the 1915 showing of Birth of a Nation and its horrible depictions of African-Americans to Within Our Gates, the 1920s African-American response to Birth of a Nation. It would have been interesting to know Phillips’s take on the racial depictions in 1954’s Salt of the Earth, which some consider a controversial film (due to its view of equality and female empowerment). Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing caused a great deal of comment in the press for its representation of race, but as Phillips points out, it “was a controversy that never came to fruition” (125).
The last section studies representations of religion in film and not surprisingly picks Mel Gibson’s 2004 Passion of the Christ as its focus. Gibson’s film caused controversy among those who viewed as an anti-Semitic diatribe or a splatter film for Christians. The film was a big success among many churches and many a sermon was preached based upon the film. The film opened a hornet’s nest of debate still discussed today.
Controversial Cinema: The Films That Outraged America is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of transgression in film and how it relates to filmmaking today. Phillips writes in a crisp, readable style that shows his passion for the topic. This volume is suitable for as a textbook for both undergraduate and graduate courses in history, mass communications, rhetoric and writing, screenwriting, and the general study of film.