7 Oscar-Winning Movies That Are Offensive by Today's Standards

Some of these critically acclaimed films are more recent than you'd think.

Over the years, the Academy Awards have faced an onslaught of criticism about racism and representation when it comes to nominees. The Washington Post chronicled the Oscars' lack of racial diversity, which remains a topic of discussion in 2023. It's been over 20 years since Halle Berry picked up the Best Actress trophy, and she's still the only Black woman to have done so. This year, no people of color or women are up for Best Director, while no Black women are up for Best Actress. But aside from lacking representation among the nominees, the Academy has also awarded some problematic films throughout its 95-year history. And while they may not have been recognized as offensive at the time, there are several that don't live up to today's standards. Read on to discover seven Oscar winners that are now considered offensive.

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Crash (2005)

Thandiwe Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash
Lionsgate Films

One of the most notorious Best Picture winners is 2005's Crash. The movie is a depiction of race relations in Los Angeles, starring big names like Thandiwe Newton, Matt DillonDon Cheadle, and Sandra Bullock. It was originally lauded for being progressive, but the movie has aged poorly, some say. Co-written and directed by Paul Haggis, of Million Dollar Baby fame, Crash is now criticized for the stereotypes it depicts and the way it appeals to "White guilt."

"If anything, Crash is too touchy—so heavy-handed that, over the course of its near two-hour run, the story it attempts to tell hardly even matters,"  Tirhakah Love wrote for LEVEL in 2020, reflecting on the film 15 years after its release. "The ease with which Haggis stereotypes and demeans his characters speaks to Americans' most paranoid sensibilities."

While the film did have a range of "onscreen representation," which was novel for 2005, Love points out that only the white characters evolve. A key example would be Dillon's character, Officer Ryan, who can put aside his racist attitude to save Newton's character after a car accident.

"Crash places the burden of [cultural] harmony on non-White people, and—more violently—on Black women," Love wrote. "That may reflect life in the most brutal ways, but against the starkness of a White-redemption backdrop, it exposes itself as the exact opposite of the progressive 'kumbaya' it was intended to be."

The Good Earth (1938)

still from the good earth
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

We've come a long way since 1938, when this controversial film was celebrated at the 10th Academy Awards. The Good Earth was up for five Oscars, with Luise Rainer nabbing the Best Actress trophy for her leading role as O-Lan. The movie was based on Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a group of farmers in China. However, Rainer isn't Chinese, and neither was her co-star Paul Muni.

The performance is a "classic example of yellowface," Vanity Fair points out. On a sadder note, the role could have gone to Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong, who did multiple screen tests. MGM producer Albert Lewin, who was casting the film, wrote that while Wong "deserves consideration," she "does not seem beautiful enough" to play the part. Instead, she was offered the role of courtesan Lotus, which plays into yet another stereotype, per Vanity Fair.

"I'll be glad to take the test, but I won't play the part," Wong reportedly told MGM at the time. "If you let me play O-Lan, I'll be very glad. But you're asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."

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American Beauty (1999)

mena suvari in american beauty
DreamWorks Pictures

In 2000, American Beauty scored five Oscar wins, including Best Picture. The film follows middle-aged father Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, as he pines for and obsesses over his teenage daughter's (Thora Birch) friend, Angela (Mena Suvari).

While Suvari's character is seen as confident and sexually aware, there's a clear imbalance of power. Although Lester does not end up having sex with the underage Angela, Angela is completely tossed aside and ultimately serves as a "vehicle" to facilitate an epiphany in Lester's mid-life crisis, according to a critique from Screen Queens.

This situation becomes even more disconcerting given the real-life allegations against Spacey, who in 2017, was first accused of making sexual advances against actor Anthony Rapp when he was just 14 years old. As People reports, Spacey said he did not remember the encounter but offered his apology. After subsequent allegations of sexual misconduct were leveled against the actor, his representative said that he was seeking treatment, per People.

For her part, Suvari spoke out about her depiction in American Beauty during a July 2022 interview with The Guardian, emphasizing that she knew she was there to be attractive. "I identified with Angela. I knew how to play that role, because I was so schooled in it. 'Oh, you want me to be sexually attractive?' Done," she told the outlet. "I felt unavailable in a million other ways, but I knew how to play that card."

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

jared leto in dallas buyers club
Focus Features

While Dallas Buyers Club didn't take home Best Picture, Jared Leto did win Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Rayon in the 2013 film. Even at the time, Leto taking the role was considered controversial by many—as he played a transgender woman, while identifying as a cisgender man himself.

Some critics said that while Leto's performance was "Oscar-worthy" the role should have been offered to a trans actor. The issue has been the subject of multiple studies about the stereotypes and representations of gender-diverse communities in mainstream movies.

Similar discussions surfaced around 1991 Best Picture winner Silence of the Lambs, which has long been accused of transphobia due to Buffalo Bill's obsession with keeping and wearing his female victim's clothing. While the film tries to emphasize that Buffalo Bill isn't transgender—Hannibal Lecter even says so—critics have noted that the depiction and the association in audience's minds is what matters, per Vox.

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Gone With the Wind (1939)

hattie mcdaniel and vivien leigh in gone with the wind

Although it's one of the most iconic films of all time, Gone With the Wind is also often considered one of the most problematic. The 1939 film took home eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel—who became the first Black Oscar winner, per The New York Times. These days, however, the movie is heavily criticized for its romanticization of the antebellum South and for portrayals that many consider to be racist.

The film was available to stream on HBO Max in 2020, but it was pulled in June after critics voiced their opposition. John Ridley, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave in 2014, called for the removal in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, arguing that "when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, [the film] pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color."

Ridley also pointed out that there was no disclaimer for the film, which HBO Max added when it reintroduced the movie to the platform a few weeks later. The streamer also included two videos that outlined Gone With the Wind's "historical context," The Guardian reported.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

slumdog millionaire
Pathé Distribution

Rags-to-riches Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire follows a young Indian man named Jamal (Dev Patel) while he's a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. In a bit of movie magic, every question he's asked relates to his own life experiences, which are then shown in tear-jerking flashbacks. Everyone loves an underdog story, so audiences loved the film at the time—but even then, it had its fair share of detractors, and its reputation has not improved since.

In a 2018 piece for Bustle, writer Soham Gadre noted that the film was not well received in India, where it's set, and it was criticized for exploiting "impoverished neighborhoods" in the country. "Of course this movie is popular in America, they love watching poverty in other countries," Gadre recounted his father saying after watching the film.

Gadre, an Indian person who grew up in the U.S., also pointed to the fact that while the film was "loosely based" on Q&A, a novel by Indian author Vikas Swarup, the screenplay was written by white screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and directed by white filmmaker Danny Boyle. Gadre accused both men of creating a "third-world amusement park" for viewers, and playing up poverty "for dramatic effect."

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The Help (2011)

octavia spencer and viola davis in the help
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

When The Help hit theaters in 2011, lovers of Kathryn Stockett's book of the same name flocked to movie theaters to see 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, brought to life. NPR poked fun at its "heavy-handedness," thankfully buffered by performances of the ensemble cast—including Octavia Spencer, who took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as spitfire maid Minny Jackson.

In 2020, however, the movie had a resurgence, with many well-intentioned viewers streaming The Help on Netflix amid the Black Lives Matter movement, USA Today reported. While plenty of these viewers thought the film was educational, critics have pointed to the fact that the book was written by a white woman, the film was directed by a white man, and overall, the movie focuses most on the perspectives of the white characters.

"Not to say the film isn't entertaining and may have other benefits, but if I were to pick one film that helps us understand where [Black people] are today and what problems we face, that wouldn't be the one I pick," Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, told USA Today. "One of the problems with films like The Help is that they're set safely in the distant past that lets the present off the hook. It's almost as if, 'Oh gosh, look how horrible things were back then and look at how far we've come today.' Which of course, isn't true."

Viola Davis, who starred as Aibileen Clark and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, even said she regretted being a part of the film. "Have I ever done roles that I've regretted? I have, and The Help is on that list," she told The New York Times in 2018. Davis went on to explain that her feelings had nothing to do with her experience on set or the cast and crew, but with the characters in the film.

"I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn't the voices of the maids that were heard," she said. "I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They're my grandma. They're my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring children up in 1983, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie."

Abby Reinhard
Abby Reinhard is a Senior Editor at Best Life, covering daily news and keeping readers up to date on the latest style advice, travel destinations, and Hollywood happenings. Read more
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