Examples of Humanism in Film

Humanism in film generally refers to telling a story that people can relate to because it mirrors society and the human makeup. These types of movies emphasize human stories where the audience feels like the people could be anyone of them. 

They explore the themes of what it means to be human and how things play out in the real world. Humanist films may take a documentary-style approach to filmmaking. The cinematography and mise en scene are typically ordinary and steady. Everything points to creating a realistic experience that speaks to viewers. 

What does it mean to be human? 

Being human entails being compassionate, resilient, honest, and hardworking, among other values. Humanism in films brings out one or more of these traits during the course of its plot. They provoke an emotional response and uncover the weaknesses of being human. 

In many humanist films, characters often deal with internal conflict. They question their existence, their world and place in the universe.

Often, humanist films pass a message and serve more than to just entertain. Humanism covers the good and bad of man. Movies exploring such themes show us struggles we can relate to and understand.  

Humanism covers a lot of aspects. Today, we’ve rounded up three elements of humanism in film, complete with movie examples, for better understanding:

3 movies with humanist elements

Hope and the struggle to keep that fire of optimism

Life is a series of ups and downs for most people. It isn’t always a bed of roses. In your darkest moments, when nothing seems to work out for you, it’s easy to lose all hope and give up. Hope and our struggles to find it in moments of need are among the core attributes that make us human. 

For some of us, hope means an endless struggle with despair and adversity in a bid to achieve our dreams. Hope could be as simple, and strong, as the belief that we will overcome our problems. With hope on our side, the world feels like a better place to live in.

Exploring existential themes in prison

One of the greatest inspirational movies in this regard is The Shawshank Redemption. A man is convicted for a murder he didn’t commit, sentenced to a lifetime in prison. If there was any situation in life that could adequately capture what the opposite of hope looked like, this would be it. His predicament could break even the best of us. 

Andy is at first devoid of hope when cast into Shawshank. But when he thinks he has a shot at freedom by digging a tunnel out, he regains his hope and optimism for life.

The idea of hope is a matter of constant debate between Red and Andy, the two protagonists. Red thinks the concept futile for a man sentenced to two lifetimes. But ultimately, hope triumphs in the end as Andy escapes to a beautiful island. 

Like Andy Dufresne famously says in the movie, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” 

The concept of fear and human weakness

Most action movies these days have cut themselves off from reality. Killing has been painted as something as easy as turning on and off a light switch. In real life though, people feel fear. Taking a life isn’t easy, and it’s even harder to save one. 

War movies often tend to rely on external conflict, like man vs. man or man vs. society

Saving Private Ryan goes a layer deeper. It explores the humanist elements of war, and how the Second World War impacted the lives of the young men who lived and died in it.

We all can’t run into a burning building to save a dog or jump in front of a bullet for other people, and it’s understandable. Real people feel fear, and people react differently because of it as explored in Saving Private Ryan.

Spielberg’s explores themes of war

Steven Spielberg’s film explores the concept of fear and its crippling effects. Corporal Upham embodies fear, and cowardice if you like, and reacts accordingly in a world very new to him.

He is inexperienced, having only held a rifle in basic military training, and doesn’t quite understand war. 

Upham is brought on as a translator for the group of battle-hardened soldiers tasked with the movie’s title. In many ways, he translates the brutal world of war to the audience. He is a representation of the typical person caught up in it.

When his comrade Mellish tussles with a German soldier in a kill-or-be-killed scuffle, Upham is in distress in the staircase below the room. We would expect him to rush up to the aid of his friend, but he doesn’t. He is paralyzed by fear, and Mellish is killed. 

He eventually finds his courage and helps avenge his colleague and apprehend a couple of enemy soldiers. There’s been a lot of hate toward the character over the years, but Upham is an accurate portrayal of how real people react in life-threatening situations.

Man’s struggle with being happy and chasing dreams

What does happiness mean to you? That can be a whole lot of different things depending on who you ask. For most people, it probably has something to do with financial stability. Being at a point in life where you can provide a life of comfort for those you love.

For others, being happy is about much more than material things. Finding happiness can be a tough journey, filled with many obstacles along the way. The 2006 epic drama powerfully explores humanity’s constant battle to find it and the challenges involved.

Will Smith’s finest hour

Inspired by a tear-jerking true story, The Pursuit of Happyness bears many elements of humanism. Perseverance features as a central theme as the protagonist continually jumps hurdles to realize his dreams. 

The plot starts at a place of comfort but derails into utter misery as everything seemingly goes wrong for Chris Gardner. His wife abandons him and his son with the marriage strained by financial instability. 

Chris even ends up homeless sleeping in public toilets, and wherever else he can find, struggling to provide the basics for his five-year-old.

Chris Gardner and his son, even in the difficult situations they faced, were still happy. They had each other, and that kept them going. Working through unpaid internships, troubles with the IRS and the police, father and son ultimately come out the delightful end of the tunnel. The movie highlights the value of sticking by those we love even in times of scarcity. 

It illustrates how happiness, in the end, is all about the people in our lives. We get happiness by giving it to others. Chris’s greatest accomplishment wasn’t his invention. It was sticking by his son on the road to happiness when it would have been easier to jump ship.

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