Film & TV

The Slow Resurgence of Black and White Cinematography

TIMEDecember 30, 2021

Although it has never fully gone away, there was a point when black and white cinematography fell out of favor, not only with audiences, but also the studios producing and marketing feature films.

Contrary to popular belief, the advent of color didn’t show up in 1939 with “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” but rather the early 1900s. These weren’t movies shot on color stock but rather black and white images colorized in post production, kind of what Ted Turner did in the ’80s and ’90s and met with almost universal scorn.

Thanks to the German, Swedish, French, and Italian neo-realist’s of the 1940s and 1950s, black and white movies stayed relevant in Europe and among ardent American cinephiles. In 1961, color productions (which eventually became less-costly to make) permanently outnumbered those released in black and white. Monochrome was down but not completely knocked-out.

If solely left up to filmmakers, black and white movies would have never dwindled into near obscurity but they weren’t the ones footing the bills. Due to the ever-increasing popularity of TV, the studios needed something to keep theaters not only relevant but desirable to patronize. When studios figured out that TV could also be their platform for second, third, or perennial runs, that was it. Color had finally won the war.

About four years into the American New Wave (1967–1980), younger directors took the torch handed off to them by the Europeans and ran with it. They began treating black and white as de facto characters in their movies.

The Comeback in the Early ’70s

First out the gate was Orson Welles disciple Peter Bogdonovich with “The Last Picture Show” (1971) and “Paper Moon” (1973) followed by Bob Fosse’s “Lenny” and Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein” (both 1974). These movies had little if any thematic overlap but were all period pieces. With just these four films, pigment (or lack thereof), regardless of content or genre, began to suggest older time frames.

Ryan O'Neal and Tatum O'Neal, in Paper Moon (IMDb)
Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon.” (Paramount Pictures)

Subsequent efforts, particularly Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980), Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994), George Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck,” and Mary Herron’s “The Notorious Bettie Page” (both 2005), Anton Corbijn’s “Control” and Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” (both 2007), and David Fincher’s “Mank” (2020) greatly enhanced their biographical projects with sharply contrasting dark blacks and vivid whites, while generally avoiding middle-tone grays.

A major devotee of Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen is perhaps the most committed of all living directors to employ black and white. “Manhattan” (1979), “Zelig” (1983), “Shadows & Fog” (1991) were all the better because of this aesthetic choice; “Celebrity” (1998) was far less so, largely because of a weak script.

PosterManhattan (YouTube)
Movie poster for “Manhattan” (1979). (United Artists)

Turning in two genre-specific efforts each were David Lynch with “Eraserhead” (1977) and “The Elephant Man” (1980) and Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” (1995) and the surreal “Coffee & Cigarettes” (2003).

The Highest Grossing of Them All 

The most financially successful and (arguably) revered black and white film of all-time actually had bit of color at the beginning and the end with another in-between: a heartbreaking passage involving a little girl wearing a red coat. Taking in over $322 million, Steven Spielberg’s epic “Schindler’s List” (1993) went on to win seven Oscars and was the last black and white movie to win Best Picture until Michel Hazanavicius’s highly overrated “The Artist” did so 2011.

Schindler's List (Amblin Entertainment)
Child in “Schindler’s List” (1993). (Amblin Entertainment)

There are five other films set around the same time as “Schindler’s List,” which are smaller in scale but equally as impactful. Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German” (2006), Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (2009), Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” (2013), and “Cold War” (2018). “Cold War” and Tamás Yvan Topolánszky’s “Curtiz” (2018) are World War II and post-World War II efforts which deliver appropriate chill.

Most recently, five medium-profile 2021 releases opted for black and white cinematography, with all but one of them receiving high critical praise. The weakest of the lot was “Malcolm and Marie,” a romantic drama from Sam Levinson starring John David Washington and Zendaya which debuted in January and quickly sank like a stone.

Three came out in the fall and have all struck a chord with both critics and audiences. Mike Mills’s “C-mon, C-mon” stars Joaquin Phoenix who bonds with his hyperactive nephew resulting in a quirky mismatched buddy affair. Director Kenneth Branagh’s alternately throttling and heartfelt semi-autobiographical “Belfast” included carefully chosen passages of color and is a big contender going into awards season.

Arguably best of the bunch was actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut “Passing.” Adapted by Hall from the 1929 novel of the same name, by Nella Larsen, the film is presented in full frame (square rather than rectangular) and is beyond effective in juxtaposing period images with the characters’ internal and external conflicts. Hall did a masterful job of making the main point more about class than race.

Epoch Times Photo
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in “Passing.” (Netflix)

Released on Christmas, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is the first movie written and directed by one half of the Coen brothers. Joel Coen adapts the Shakespearean play with icy detachment while opting for a flat, semi-gauzy presentation. The film takes on the feel of a live 1950s TV broadcast and was shot entirely on sound stages.

Prestige Over Financial Gain

All produced by upstarts (Netflix, Amazon) or art-house umbrella subsidiaries (Focus, A24), these 2021 smaller budgeted “prestige” projects typically spend more on year-end industry and critical promotion than the total cost of production. The bloated promotional campaign for Alfonso Cuaron’s 2018 “Roma” is a perfect example. It won three Academy Awards while taking in a relative paltry $5.1 million at the box office versus a $15 million budget.

"The Tragedy of Macbeth"
Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” (A24)

One would be fooling himself by thinking that black and white cinematography will ever again compete with color on a commercial level. The genie has been out of that bottle for far too long. What is somewhat encouraging is that some artists will still value art over commerce.

Bless them, the few and far between.

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national film industry media outlets and is ranked in the top 10 of the Atlanta media marketplace. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a regular contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles.