Freaks (1932). Director Tod Browning (Dracula) basically shortchanged his own career (as Michael Powell would do with 1960's Peeping Tom) by tackling a movie that turned so many people off, his status as a Hollywood filmmaker was clearly affected (he would make only four more pictures after this). With various circus sideshow performers (midgets, Siamese twins -- played by Violet and Daisy Hilton, who later ended up living in Charlotte, people without limbs, etc.) at its center, this tells the story of how a voluptuous trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) tries to dupe them for financial gain -- and what happens when her scam is discovered ("One of us!"). Is this film sensationalistic or sensitive? Its various titles (Freaks, Nature's Mistakes, The Monster Show) would indicate the former, but the movie depicts its unusual protagonists in a sympathetic light. Regardless, the film was heavily edited upon its original US release and banned in England for 30 years. Today, it's a cult favorite that continues to resonate -- both The Player and Toy Story have paid it homage.
Salt of the Earth (1954). Based on an actual strike among Latino mine workers in New Mexico, this independent feature (which placed professional actors at its core but used real-life strikers for the smaller roles) included among its topics better working conditions for laborers, equality for women, and comparable wages for all workers regardless of ethnicity -- so naturally, the movie was labeled "anti-American" by the right-wing and others in power. Made by victims of the Hollywood blacklist, the picture was denounced as Communist propaganda on the floors of Congress, lambasted by the mainstream media, hampered by production woes (companies refused to develop the film, the cast and crew were continually harassed by locals, and the leading lady was deported back to Mexico), and barely able to secure release since most theater owners were either afraid or unwilling to show it (according to film historian Danny Peary, the picture played only 13 theaters across the country). Today, it's considered a landmark of independent cinema, though it's still not the easiest movie to locate.
Life of Brian (1979). As would be the case with 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ, the loudest criticism aimed at this comedy from Britain's irreverent Monty Python troupe came from religious zealots who never even bothered to see the film but felt they had to jump on the bandwagon. If they had checked it out, they would have noted (between fits of laughter) that, despite the rumors, this movie never makes fun of Christ. Rather, it centers on a guy who just happened to be born in the manger right next to that of the Son of God. Nevertheless, some countries (Ireland and Norway among them) banned the film outright, while its original US release created a hailstorm of controversy here in the Bible Belt (CL Associate Editor Ann Wicker was a first-hand witness, as she crossed the picket line -- twice -- to catch showings in Charleston, SC).
White Dog (1982). A sterling example of political correctness careening out of control, this film was such a hot potato right from the start that it never played the US theatrically, only showing up here and there on pay-cable and video. Director Samuel Fuller (who co-wrote the script with future L.A. Confidential writer-director Curtis Hanson) fashioned an interesting drama about a young woman (Kristy McNichol) who adopts a beautiful dog that, initially unbeknownst to her, has been trained by its previous owner to attack and kill black people. She decides to put the dog down, but a black animal trainer (Paul Winfield) insists on taking a crack at deprogramming the canine's color-coordinated instincts. Does the movie endorse the idea that a dog should be trained to kill minorities? Of course not, which made the charges of racism utterly moronic, and led to Fuller throwing up his hands and bolting to Europe to make films after Paramount cowardly shelved the movie.