Recall the most recent controversial film you have watched—the one whose credits you did not skip because you were too busy figuring out what you just saw. It was not the film’s plot that blew your mind, but the fact that it made you doubt your own morals, your own beliefs, your breakfast, your neighborhood, your country, your politics, and your life.
Can’t think of one?
Unless you are a devoted cinephile searching for controversial films to watch, you probably would not be familiar with divisive 21st-century films like Wild (2016), Climax (2018), The House That Jack Built (2018) or—okay, you might know this one—Cuties (2020). In a world ruled by popular culture, most film companies that give voice to ambitious filmmakers secure their colossal incomes by playing it safe and intentionally choosing to adopt the opinion that most people generally accept at that given time.
Therefore, every time you browse films or TV shows on platforms like Netflix or Hulu, you will hardly find any work that pushes the boundaries of popular culture—and if you do, they are likely tucked away in a distant corner of the website. I’m not necessarily referring to films or shows that espouse the views of a particular political party, but rather media that makes you question the order of society, our learned roles, and what we think of as “right.”
This needs to change.
The film industry should be promoting a diverse range of opinions because challenging our beliefs urges us to defend them and either reject or more deeply endorse them. However, there is a silver lining: Film studios may be neglecting controversial voices, but streaming services provide a new way for these films to be distributed to a wider audience. When Cuties was on the receiving end of severe criticism, Netflix did the right thing by defending the film.
By controversial, I mean stories with avant-garde themes that force a viewer to reckon with their beliefs. I am not referring to movies that are controversial due to partisan divides. To be clear, controversial films are not the same as bigoted films, like Daily Wire’s What is a Woman. Controversy is adaptive to contemporary debates that branch out from the cultural zeitgeist: politics, history, religion, science, sex, entertainment, environment, law, technology, and psychology. Controversy is not provoking or degrading marginalized groups. While debate is natural and healthy for society, human rights will never be up for debate.
The award-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once, which tackles themes such as the meaning of life, the importance of family relationships, the struggles of immigrant families, and the cycle of generational trauma, is an example of a film that meets popular culture’s demands, steering away from inciting controversy in its content. Although several of these topics specifically target underrepresented minorities, the rest are largely universal. In fact, the film engages discussions currently taking place in popular culture circles, like complicated mother-daughter relationships and finding balance between family and work. The movie prompts the audience to empathize with the characters, not disagree with them.
Yes, Everything Everywhere All at Once is one of the few excellent and innovative Hollywood films that features an all-Asian cast, but at the risk of sounding cynical, this cast was one of its selling points. In an age in which media strives to be more diverse, inclusive, and thoughtful, audiences appreciate films that manage to meet all three criteria. If these are the movies people are seeking, it is only natural that a movie like Everything Everywhere All at Once would be such a hit. And after all, what kind of producer doesn’t love to make a hit?
However, films like Everything Everywhere All at Once do not challenge societal norms. While there was certainly a Republican outcry regarding the film’s all-Asian cast, the film’s controversy was not a result of the messages it espoused. To clarify, I do not intend to criticize the content of the film—honestly, I think it is great—but to highlight the difference between a film that’s controversial because of its cast versus a film that is controversial because of its actual content, we can look at Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties.
Cuties is the 2020 French coming-of-age drama debut film of French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré. It follows 11-year-old Amy, who becomes a member of a dance group called Cuties as she tries to escape her family’s conservative traditions. The group becomes increasingly provocative in their dance routines, leading to conflicts between Amy’s traditional Senegalese upbringing and her desire to fit in with her peers. This film was very controversial for its marketing and portrayal of young girls, but the controversy over the hypersexualization of the young girls was exactly what it was meant to provoke from its audience.
Doucouré’s approach to showing the struggles of modern pre-teen girls was to actually portray the sexualization of young girls instead of just implying it through dialogue. Her intent was to make the audience feel uncomfortable and disturbed. By showing, not telling, the unsettling reality that young girls face, she forces her audience to reckon with the influence of hypersexual imagery in the media on young girls. Unlike Everything Everywhere All at Once, the controversy surrounding Cuties focused on the film’s content. The discourse was not about the ethnic origin of the lead actress or director, but the message of the movie itself. However, popular outrage, like harsh online critique, stifled an honest discussion of its content, such as discussions within the audience.
Films provide an excellent forum for debate; however, these discourses are too often censored to appease viewers—the Cuties of the world are swept under the rug, while films like Everything Everywhere All at Once win awards and make headlines. The film industry should seek to create films that explore a variety of opinions and contradictions. Controversy is essential to challenge our beliefs. Regardless of whether watching an evocative film ultimately changes your beliefs, these films remind us that we get to choose our values instead of passively agreeing with everyone else.
John Stuart Mill makes a similar point. In his work, On Liberty, he discusses the importance of diverse opinions within a society, arguing that a diversity of thought is necessary for the development of human knowledge and progress. He believes that allowing people to freely express and explore diverse ideas and opinions, even those that may be considered unpopular or offensive, leads to a richer understanding of the world and better decision-making, as people are better able to critically evaluate their own beliefs and challenge potential biases. Thus, suppressing dissenting opinions stifles intellectual growth and leads to a stagnant society.
Taking these points into account, it is conspicuous that so few films are produced with the intention of challenging our perspectives. Films should aim to depict an aspect of human society most people do not want to see, or present the world through the eyes of a person whose opinions do not align with everyone else’s. Being confronted with films like these would force people to reckon with their own beliefs in ways that will ultimately enrich them.
In summary, a film like Everything Everywhere All at Once is not really controversial. It only is considered controversial because of its surface-level diversity, not because of its underlying themes. In contrast, Cuties pushes the boundary of what is acceptable and thus prompts conversation around important societal issues. Both of these films spark discussion we need to be having, but one was only controversial because of a culture war, where one presented such radical ideas it was nearly canceled by the media.
I encourage you to watch films that question the status quo and make you uncomfortable. They encourage critical thinking and promote change. The future of cinema should be innovative and thought-provoking; it should challenge our beliefs and expand our worldview.