The Most Hated Woman in America

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
The Most Hated Woman in America Movie Poster Image
Abrasive activist fights prayer; cursing and violence.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 90 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

People who fight for rights are not necessarily nice or exemplary, but the principles they stand for can be admirable.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Madalyn was crude, abusive, combative, insensitive, and undiplomatic. She stood up for Constitutional freedoms but seemed to relish doing so in the most offensive way possible. Madalyn is the only white person who marched with Baltimore African Americans against racism. A Christian evangelist suggests he and Madalyn debate atheism-versus-Christianity around the country in a road show designed to make them a lot of money. Madalyn illegally stashed money offshore and didn't pay taxes.


Three people are kidnapped at gunpoint, and a million-dollar ransom is demanded. Thugs wave guns at their victims. A man attacks a girl. It's implied that he assaults her sexually. Later she is found dead. Two others are murdered on screen, by violent suffocation. Bodies are later seen being cut up in the dark and buried. A man says he killed someone by beating him with a shovel and he beat his prostitute mother to a "bloody pulp." 


References made to birth control, "sucking c--k," sex in crude terms, prostitution. Speculation that Jesus's mother, Mary, was not a virgin and that she liked sex. 


"F--k," "s--t," "c--k," "c--t," "bastard," "SOB," "pecker," "damn," "hell," "crap," "ass," "faggot," and "c--ksucker." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, sometimes to drunkenness. A man loses his wife and becomes an alcoholic, then starts recovery in a 12-step program.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Most Hated Woman in America is a fictionalized biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a controversial activist for atheism and the separation between church and state in America, beginning in the 1960s. The movie bobs along, almost comically, deriving most of its life from the colorful and nonconformist ravings of its protagonist, so the violent ending may be shocking to those unfamiliar with this bit of history and it will certainly be inappropriate for kids. Murders by suffocation and body dismemberment are shown on screen. Three people are kidnapped at gunpoint, and a million-dollar ransom is demanded. Thugs wave guns at their victims. A man attacks a girl. It's implied that he assaults her sexually. Later she is found dead. This portrayal includes Murray O'Hair's penchant for crude language, including "f--k," "s--t," "c--k," and "bastard," and her gritty and sometimes derogatory references to sex, homosexuality, Jesus, and organized religion. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol.

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What's the story?

THE MOST HATED WOMAN IN AMERICA earned that name after suing to remove mandatory prayer from schools. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1963 where Madalyn Murray O'Hair (Melissa Leo) and her son won on the Constitutional merits. She defined "atheism" when she addressed the Court: "An atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now, here on earth for all men together to enjoy." Murray O'Hair prided herself in being a "nonconformist" and that included her being a Communist (not mentioned in the movie), having two children out of wedlock, and rejection of the expectations and limitations that society placed on women and minorities. She colorfully promoted atheism and freedom of speech extensively through rallies, her appearances on mainstream media TV shows, and through her organization, American Atheists, a group supported by heavy donations from a sympathetic public. Donations went beyond operating needs and Madalyn formed offshore bank accounts, illegally holding millions for her family's personal use and evading taxes. Her demand for loyalty alienated her older son, Bill (Vincent Kartheiser), who grew tired of living his mother's life. When his fed-up wife left with their daughter, he turned to alcohol and, as if for revenge, religion. Death threats from the religious were commonplace for Murray O'Hair but no harm came to her until an old associate kidnapped her in 1995, demanding a million dollars for her release. When she disappears, the police have no interest. (In real life no one reported her missing for a year.) Only a protégé (Brandon Mychal Smith) and the reporter he enlists (Adam Scott) look for her. The kidnap plot is bungled and Murray O'Hair, her younger son, and granddaughter end up dead. Their fate was not discovered until years later.

Is it any good?

This fictionalized portrait is an intriguing curiosity, compelling, and off-putting simultaneously. The Most Hated Woman in America is unvarnished in its presentation of a crude and difficult woman, who insulted and dismissed even those closest to her yet still stood up for Constitutional principles of freedom and equality. Sometimes the narrative can feel like a hammer treating the audience like a nail. The script calls for no more than a one-note performance, and the talented Melissa Leo obligingly delivers it. As Madalyn, she is over-the-top abrasive, mean to her pious father, even though he supports her into adulthood, withering to the loyal son who would rather be with his wife and child, and tactlessly dismissive of just about everyone else. What's great is the way the movie pays tribute to Murray O'Hair's historical role as disrupter and awareness-raiser, although it curiously omits her Communist Party connections. The story romps in and out of sequence, but flashbacks are sharply executed to provide clarifying information and useful histories between characters. Greed and exploitation of human foibles are themes, and they are practiced by both the villains and "heroes" here. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how it would feel to be a Buddhist student forced by law to recite a biblical prayer every morning at school. How do you think you might feel in that situation if you were a Muslim or if you didn't believe in God? Do you think that freedom of religion cited in the Constitution means that no one can force anyone to pray?

  • Some people like to shock others. Do you think Madalyn Murray O'Hair enjoyed the reaction she received from the pubic when she denounced religion? Was being shocking an effective way to get her message across? Why or why not?

  • Murray O'Hair called herself a "nonconformist." She had children without marrying and she didn't present herself in the ladylike manner that women of her time were encouraged to emulate. Today those behaviors are far more accepted in society. What role do you think such pioneers play in breaking down prejudices and social expectations, for better or for worse? 

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