Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across several film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a common theme across various films changes when utilised by different artists.

Reflecting back on the cinematic landscape that was 2012, one recurring theme that becomes apparent is individuals fight against the prevailing views of society. It was year where characters were openly defiant to the social and political standard of the world they lived in. One needs to look no further than Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge fantasy Django Unchained. Though Tarantino’s film plays like a gleefully high brow blaxploitation film, there are several levels of social rebellion occurring throughout the film. On the surface level Django represents the black slave who finally gets a chance to literally whip the white oppressors who have treated his people like filthy animals for so long. However, when you dig deeper, the most engaging aspect of the film comes when Django and his partner Dr. King Shultz are each forced to pretend to represent everything they detest about the world they live in.

The unique thing about this is that Dr. Shultz, off all people, is the one who has the most trouble maintaining the lie. His face wears his internal disgust with a society that treats blacks worst than dogs. Dr. Shultz can only stand by for so long before he decides to stand up to the pompous arrogance of the villainous Calvin Candie; even though this ultimate puts Django in greater jeopardy. Django has a far tougher task than Dr. Shultz as he must pretend to be a black Mandingo trader. This strikes the ire of other slaves as it is viewed as being more despicable than being a head house slave. This results in Django having to essentially fight against the stigma that both the slave owners and the slaves themselves have towards him. He learns that the only way to defeat the ruling hand is to play their game just as callously as they have been playing.

The notion of having to play the game, and get ones hand dirty along the way, is also a prominent aspect of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Considered to be the more traditional of the two major slavery inspired films in 2012, Lincoln is more concerned with the process that abolished slavery rather than the plight of the slaves themselves. By focusing on the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, Spielberg is able to portray the former president as an intelligent man who had to fight tooth and nail to get the 13th Amendment passed. Spielberg shows that Lincoln was willing to stoop to buying votes because he believed strongly that slavery was immoral. Lincoln employed chief negotiators who used dirty tactics to swing votes and he even offered jobs, and promotions, to those willing to cross party lines. It was a ruthless, but necessary approach, to battling against the bureaucracy that dominated the House.

Lincoln was not the only one who had to wrestle political bureaucracy on the big screen this past year. Fellow Best Picture nominees Argo and Zero Dark Thirty both featured lead characters who were ultimately frustrated by the political landscape that frequently hindered them from doing the jobs they were hired to do. There is a key moment in Argo in which CIA “extractor” Tony Mendez must decide whether the lives of the six Americans trapped in Tehran are more important than a government who is more concerned with how the United States is viewed on the world stage. Mendez’s defiance against the government is displayed in a far more conventional cinematic trope in comparison to Maya’s in Zero Dark Thirty. While Tony and Maya are both CIA agents who are clearly the most intelligent people in the room, Maya openly flies in the face of her bosses on a continuous basis. She boldly reminds her superiors of how their political posturing allows Osama Bin Laden to roam free for another day. Though Maya’s actions would normally get most people fired, it was refreshing to see a female character with a no nonsense approach to getting the job done.

In fact it could be argued that strong female characters provided some of the biggest acts of social defiance on screen the past year. Filmmakers themselves seem to finally be standing up to typical Hollywood conventions that often relegates female leads to romantic comedies or family dramas. 2012 featured a number of strong female characters which will serve as a wake-up call to Hollywood in regards to females being big box-office draws. In Pixar’s Brave, a princess, Merida, is willing to do anything to change her mother’s mind about forcing her to marry. Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire saw Mallory systematically taken down the government organization that had tried to use and discard her. Of course there was also one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, The Hunger Games. The film featured a lead character, Katniss, who not only defied the rules of the vicious game, but unknowingly was the catalyst for a district wide rebellion.

If there is one thing to be learned from all of these films, it is that rising up against prevailing social and political views comes at a great price. While the notion that “one person can make a difference” is alive and well on screen, the truth is that one’s hand often need to get dirty in the process. Sometimes this means perpetuating a lie until you can change the game, incorporating less than ethical tactics, and even openly disobeying direct orders. Though many of these films tackle different subject matters, they all serve as a rallying cry for audiences to no longer stand idly by and follow the status quo.

This post is a part of a yearly event called “Motifs in Cinema”, organized by Andrew Kendall at Encore’s World of Film & TV. Links to all of the other Motifs in Cinema posts will be featured on Andrew’s site in the coming days.


  1. Good call on the main thrust of your article you touch on something important about men fighting against society – oftentimes the only way to come out victorious is by getting your hands bloody. You can't win in a fight against society unless you become submerged in the filth of that society.It's one of the ways where even in "happier" films the worldview of 2012 cinema seemed so bleak.

  2. Great post CS! I immediately thought of The Hunger Games when I saw the topic but these films you presented here definitely are great examples of Man vs Society. "While the notion that “one person can make a difference” is alive and well on screen, the truth is that one’s hand often need to get dirty in the process." Very well said, taking on 'society' or 'masses' definitely takes courage and that means taking an unpopular decision and risk being hated for it.

  3. Like you I'm really happy about the increasing number of strong femala characters in movies. If there's anything I'd hope for it's that they'll also include some older tough women. So often it's girls or very young women, like in Brave, Hunger Games or Hanna last year. Maya is at least a grown-up, but I'd love to see a bad-ass woman in her 40s or 50s. One day…

  4. Gone are the days of the 70s and 80s when a character would struggle a bit but ultimately stick to their values in order to rise against the system. In fact, those same characters would be eaten alive by society in 2012 films.

  5. I completely agree with you on The Hunger Games. I still do not fully understand the backlash towards the film.As for Lincoln, while I enjoyed the film it did not really speak to me on a personal level. As odd as it may seem, I found myself thinking more about the plight of slaves while watching Django Unchained. Which is odd considering that Django is not a film that strives for historical accuracy at all.

  6. I could have easily written a whole article on The Hunger Games alone. I opted to not delve too deep into that film though as I feel the sequel, Catching Fire, will provide even greater examples of man vs society when it comes out later this year.

  7. You raise an excellent point about the lack of bad-ass women in their 40s or 50s on the big screen. I remember when those roles were being given to the likes of Ellen Barkin and Faye Dunaway. They were complex characters who you did not want to cross. Nowadays, if they are not being played by either Angelina Jolie or Kate Beckinsale, they do not make it to screen at all. Even some of the characters that Jolie and Beckinsale play are extremely dumbed down in comparison to their male counterparts.

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