Black & White Is Alright
Michael Jackson famously told us it don’t matter if you’re black or white, but for movies, full color is the rule. The release of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on Netflix provides a rare black-and-white feature from a major director that’s considered among the best movies of the year (more on that in a later post). So why did Cuaron shoot the film in black-and-white? The advantages of filming in color are obvious: it’s how most of us see the world and, if we refresh our Andre Bazin, the advantage of film as a medium is the ability to present reality as it is. Prior to digital technology, the major disadvantage had been cost for ultra-low budget productions shooting on celluloid film. So there are clearly narrative and artistic reasons directors like Cuaron still choose black-and-white when full color is easily available.
For a movie like Schindler’s List – technically not a full black-and-white production – Spielberg used the format to present a bleak period in history with brutal authenticity. The black-and-white of George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck evokes the medium of 1950’s TV news the way contemporary viewers would have experienced it; ditto for a movie like The Artist. It seems like black-and-white tends to be associated with film narratives set in the past – Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England or Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon provide two more examples of this. David Lynch used the format for a surreal natalist nightmare in Eraserhead, and then for humanist realism The Elephant Man. Somewhat paradoxically, black-and-white more often carries a sense of realism, perhaps because of an association with Italian neo-realism (for your film nerds) or indie filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch in the 1980’s (for you film geeks). Perhaps there’s also an imitative quality: if most directors are film lovers, they’ve been inspired by a black-and-white movie at some point in their lives. Whatever the cause, black-and-white hasn’t become completely obsolete in the face of technological advances.
Here are some recommendations for other black-and-white movies shot when color was the norm:
Computer Chess (2013) – Andrew Bujalski’s ode to 1980’s tech nerds actually shot on analog video. Combined with the low-key improvisational performances, the result is a movie that feels like a cinema verité documentary shot by a chess tournament’s A.V. club. At least until the last few scenes.
Clerks (1994) – Kevin Smith has found new life as a podcaster, social media celebrity and born-again vegan who occasionally makes weird horror comedies. His debut film falls into the “we didn’t have the money” category – Smith notably financed the film on credit cards – but the look suits the movie’s Jersey punk ethos. You can also check out the full-color sequel for a point of comparison.
Frances Ha (2013) – Noah Baumbach’s second collaboration with actress/muse Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay, might qualify as millennial neo-realism. The story of a young dancer dealing with an impermanent living situation, among other personal and financial setbacks, in New York serves as a spiritual prequel-that’s-actually-a-kinda-depressing-sequel to Gerwig’s Lady Bird.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) - Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian vampire western evokes classic atmospheric horror with a post-modern Lynchian flair. The film’s stylized violence and rocking “Middle East” New Wave soundtrack make this one of the more original and aggressively feminist films of the last few years.
And two classics for a bonus:
Psycho (1960) – Technically, color hadn’t been established as the norm, but Hithcock’s previous films like North by Northwest and Vertigo were shot in color. This was a lower budget production, but the black-and-white also lends itself to the viscosity of blood, particularly in the famous drain scene. Check out Gus Van Sant's full color shot-for-shot remake to see why.
Raging Bull (1980) - Martin Scorsese was undoubtedly drawing on Hitchcock’s blood for the brutal fight scenes in his account of boxer Jake LaMotta. The black-and-white film also presents the fights the way contemporary boxing fans would have seen them, in addition to enhancing the harsh realism of the story. Scorsese also opted for this format out of concern for the longevity of color film stocks, an issue that he has advocated for throughout his career.