Netflix’s library of originals now boasts over 4,000 unique titles; some have been extremely controversial. Below, we’ll dive into our picks of the most contentious and then cover some of the others that didn’t quite make the list.
We’ve selected a mix of movies, series, and stand-up specials that have either sparked calls for mass cancellations of Netflix, caused controversy among specific groups, or generally divided viewers.
If we’ve missed any big titles – let us know in the comments below.
6. Queen Cleopatra
Netflix docudramas have a bit of a reputation. Known for stretching the truth or changing some key details, criticism is often leveled that referring to these in any way as a documentary is misleading. Perhaps the most pertinent example of this is the 2023 limited series Queen Cleopatra.
Outrage came following the trailer’s release for the 4-part series that saw Queen Cleopatra portrayed by a Black woman. We covered the controversy in more detail here. Still, the simple reason it’s controversial is because the ethnicity and color of the historical figure are often a subject of debate.
The controversy was primarily among conservative circles but it remains one of Netflix’s most disliked YouTube trailers of all time and has a score of 1.1 out of 10 on IMDb.
It should also be noted that Jada Pinkett Smith was one of the people behind the docudrama who had been embroiled leading up to the release of Queen Cleopatra with the “Chris Rock–Will Smith slapping incident.”
5. 13 Reasons Why
One of Netflix’s earliest Netflix Original drama series was the teen show 13 Reasons Why, which adapted the 2007 novel of the same name. The show itself has themes of suicide and mental health conditions throughout, and some complained about the execution of how it dealt with these sensitive issues. In contrast, others said it glorified it and was unsuitable for consumption.
Ultimately, the show went on to run for three seasons, and Netflix issued a guide with resources for those impacted by the show’s contents.
A recently released scientific study from Chris Felton said the impact of the show was that it “probably” caused a temporary increase in visits for self-harm among teenage girls in the United States. Per the abstract of the report:
“The findings indicate that fictional portrayals of suicide can influence real-life self-harm behavior, providing support for contagion-based explanations of suicide. Methodologically, the study showcases how to make credible causal claims when effect estimates are likely biased.”
4. Ricky Gervais: Supernature
Where comedians can and can’t go is a topic that’s been relevant for decades, with comics often pushing the boundaries in more ways than one. In recent years, one territory that most comics have stayed away from is the LGBTQ community, but that hasn’t and didn’t stop Ricky Gervais.
In his 2022 special, Supernature, Ricky Gervais talked about “New women,” referring to the trans community.
The jokes led to outrage on Twitter, with activist and journalist Erin Reed saying on Twitter alongside a picture of a Netflix cancelation page:
“So on the same month that we’ve seen anti-trans legislation, parents of trans kids investigated for child abuse, and Don’t Say Gay/Trans bills…
Netflix releases its most transphobic show yet where Ricky Gervais jokes about trans women raping women in restrooms.”
Arguably, Gervais was even more on the nose than the other comic that would similarly land himself in hot water against LGBTQ+ activists and feature further up this list.
3. The First Temptation of Christ
One of two international movies that feature on this list is the satirical comedy The First Temptation of Christ, which was released on Netflix back in December 2019.
The satirical comedy was put together by the comedy troupe Porta dos Fundos. It depicted Jesus as a gay man, leading the movie to face significant backlash around the globe, including over two million people signing a petition for its removal from Netflix.
If you search for either of these movies on Netflix, you’ll come up short, as they both were removed from the streaming service. That said, it wasn’t because of the controversy but rather licensing agreements that only kept the movies on Netflix for several years.
Another controversial show for depicting historical religious figures was the short-lived Messiah series, which portrayed a figure similar to the Islamic Antichrist.
2. Dave Chappelle Specials Specifically The Closer
Dave Chappelle has always been a controversial figure, but his 2021 special, “The Closer,” landed both him and Netflix in serious hot water due to his remarks about trans people.
In this special, as well as in his previous one, Chappelle discussed the trans community. Critics accused the comedian of making jokes at the expense of trans people, perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and potentially contributing to violence against this marginalized group.
Chappelle’s response to the controversy saw him remain unapologetic about his content, emphasizing his right to freedom of speech and artistic expression.
As you may recall, the controversy led to protests by some Netflix staff and transgender activists outside Netflix’s Los Angeles offices. While Netflix expressed support for the activists, the company’s co-CEO, Ted Sarandos, remained steadfast in his support for Dave Chappelle. However, Sarandos did apologize to his communications staff for leaked internal memos. The controversy also resulted in sensitive viewership data being leaked to Bloomberg. Despite these issues, Netflix continued its collaboration with Chappelle.
You guessed it. Cuties, a French indie movie, tops this list.
It should come as no surprise, given that it’s one of the rare instances in history when Netflix has issued a public apology and is one of the few times when you can observe a rise in Netflix cancellations beyond just normal service churn. In fact, if you look at Google Trends for the last five years globally for the term “Cancel Netflix,” the spike continues to stick out like a sore thumb.
For those unfamiliar, the film is about an eleven-year-old girl starting to rebel against her conservative family by becoming involved with a dance crew.
The controversy arose when artwork for the movie was first released across social media. This artwork featured adolescent girls in provocative outfits in poses that could be perceived as sexual.
The controversy was swift, with people and news networks calling out the artwork. That artwork was subsequently removed, and an apology was issued on August 20th, 2020, which said the following:
“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties. It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.”
Frankly, even after the movie’s release, the damage had already been done regardless of the movie’s intention or nuance. Execution of the film itself is still called into question irrespective of intention, and as a result, it is one of the lowest-rated Netflix Originals on IMDb, sitting at 3.6/10.
On the flip side, the viewing stats for a small movie like this, just like some of the other titles we’ve mentioned on this list, were likely inflated because of the controversy.
The long-term damage seems minimal, and Netflix isn’t constantly embroiled in the culture wars like Disney has become, but there has been some lasting change. In recent years, Netflix has become more risk-prone regarding acquiring or developing more risqué awards fare, it has been reported.
We imagine this time is likely one most marketing and PR people at Netflix would like to keep firmly in history.
Those are our five picks, but there are, frankly, many more titles that qualify for this list.
- The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj and Cooking on High were controversial enough to be removed by respective governments because they violated specific laws.
- Atypical and Insatiable were lambasted for how they portrayed specific disabilities. The former was accused of its portrayal of autism, while the latter was accused of trivializing eating disorders and was fatphobic.
- DAHMER from Ryan Murphy notably got lots of backlash, saying that the dramatized series led to sympathy for the killer and
- During the pandemic, the movie 365 Days caused controversy due to its explicit nature. Despite this, it spawned a trilogy of films.
- the goop lab with Gwyneth Paltrow attracted controversy because it promoted unverified health claims, extortionate product prices, and misleading marketing.
- Ancient Apocalypse, presented by Graham Hancock, was controversial when it was released in 2022 because of some of its unfounded claims about lost civilizations.
What do you think the most controversial Netflix release was? Let us know in the comments below.