Reasons for Black-and-White in the Modern Era
By Mark Pinkert
Since 1960, only three black-and-white films have won the Academy Award for Best Picture: The Apartment (1960), Schindler’s List (1993), and The Artist (2011). This isn’t surprising considering that the form, though generally cheaper to produce, inevitably kills box office attendance and, these days, has a tough time competing with the bombastic 3D/IMAX blockbuster. Yet since The Artist took home Best Picture two years ago, there has been a small, but noticeable resurgence in black-and-white films.
In this year alone, three black-and-white films have elicited attention from Oscar voters: Nebraska, Frances Ha, and Much Ado About Nothing (Frances and Much Ado premiered at 2012 Fall festivals but opened in wide-release this summer). Each of these three films, by Alexander Payne, Noah Baumbach, and Joss Whedon respectively, most likely would have brought in more money had they been filmed in color. So why did the filmmakers go in that direction?
Make no mistake; black-and-white was the right choice for each of these films. But we haven’t seen a cluster of acclaimed black-and-white films like this in recent memory, so the better question is: what’s behind this resurgence?
When looking back at black-and-white in the modern era, filmmakers generally have had three different reasons (or some combination of the three) for opting to film in black-and-white. The first and most primitive reason is that a filmmaker simply cannot afford color film and the post-production work it necessitates. This explains the mid-1980s and early 1990s black-and-white fad as part of the emergence of underfunded, indie filmmakers. Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) is perhaps the epitome of this category: Smith, who had been working at a convenience store in New Jersey, was able to make Clerks (in black-and-white) for under $30,000. The film became a festival hit and eventually a cult classic, launching Smith into a prominent film-making career.
The indie black-and-white trend actually started ten years prior with Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984) and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986). These seminal black-and-white indies each cost only around $100,000 and set a new standard for low budget success. Regardless, none of the Whedon, Baumbach, and Payne trio are lacking money or potential investors–they’re all established filmmakers with impressive resumes. (Whedon has noted, though, that black-and-white was more convenient for Much Ado because it did not require him to repaint his house where the entire film was shot.)
Maybe it’s that low budget success is a rite of passage for some artists—a badge of courage and ingenuity that mainstream audiences deeply respect. We see this in other art forms, too, and especially in music, where a band like The Black Keys can establish a following based on a gritty, low-fi recording style. Likewise, the early indie filmmakers—Lee, Jarmusch, and Smith—made filming in black-and-white a statement in itself. With their gritty textures and guerilla attitudes, Stranger than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It, and then Clerks became models for anti-establishment sensibility. This sentiment fit well into the contemporary tenor of New York, Brooklyn, and Southern California: riots, grungy bands like Nirvana and Sublime, and a counter-culture movement amongst teens and dropouts. In that way cinematic grit became something to be desired. Eventually, films like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998)—also a low budget, debut feature—Roadkill (1989), and a hoard of other cheap 16mm indie films followed suit.
None of the three films at hand, though, are particularly “grungy.” For Frances and Much Ado, the black-and-white is smooth and metropolitan. For Nebraska, the grungiest of the three, the black-and-white is middle America drab, not anti-establishment fervor. Still, making a good black-and-white might have been just a fun challenge for these already successful auteurs, who are well-versed in the indie history.
None of the black-and-white films from 2013 are period pieces either, and that’s probably the most common reason for filming in black-and-white. The most recent and well-known films in this genre are The Artist, which took place in the liminal moments between silent and “talkies” in the late 1920s, Good Night and Good Luck (2005), a McCarthy-era period piece, and Pleasantville (1998), a 1950s quasi-satire. But there are have been many more in the modern era.
Perhaps the most famous of this type of black-and-white is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), a historical drama set in Poland in 1939. As Joseph McBride notes in his “Stephen Spielberg: an Autobiography” (1997), Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, opted to film in black-and-white in order to design a documentarian perspective. For most viewers, whose perspective of the World War II era can only be through black-and-white photographs and videos, the cinematography of Schindler’s List thus lends a sense of realism.
The use of black-and-white in Schindler’s List has another benefit, which is of course the iconic scene with the girl in the red coat. So many of Spielberg’s themes—good vs. evil, the death of innocence, the Jewish call for help to the Allied powers—are brilliantly tied into the red coat, the only colored object in the film other than the Shabbat candles. Thus we come to the next use of black-and-white, which is that it can be contrasted with color as narrative technique. Memento (2000), Pleasantville (1998), American History X (1998), Sin City (2005), and Natural Born Killers (1994) all use partial color and partial black-and-white not just a stylistic motif, but also as thematic one. In Memento, for instance, Christopher Nolan uses partial black-and-white not only as for the parallel timelines, but also to serve the themes of distorted vision, a Polaroid film motif, etc. The director of Pleasantville, Gary Ross, utilizes black-and-white/color to represent repression vs. imagination. And so on.
None of these three films from 2013 use partial color to set up a thematic dichotomy, so their stylist choices seem based more on their auteurist visions than on the necessity to explain crucial narrative elements. That is to say, these directors simply wanted to experiment with the medium and pay homage to some of their predecessors. Frances Ha has obvious roots in Woody Allen black-and-whites, specifically Manhattan (1979), and Nebraska in Peter Bogdanovich‘s The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973), which also take place in small-town, middle America. These are the most obvious references, but there are more. In a recent interview, Payne said that right before he began filming Nebraska, he and his director of photography, Phedon Papamichael, screened over ten black-and-white films, and while Frances seems most closely tied to Manhattan, Greta Gerwig, who plays Frances, has cited other influences for the film. In the recent Hollywood Reporter “Breakthrough Performer Panel,” hosted by Scott Feinberg, Gerwig cited Giulletta Masina as one of her larger influences. Masina was an Italian actress whose roles, much like that of Frances, blended slapstick, deadpan with tragic innocence.
That these directors had the freedom and willingness to experiment with black-and-white, to me, is a statement about the film industry in general, which has been flooded with endless movies and documentaries. Casual moviegoers now cannot keep up with bulk of acclaimed films and I doubt many people, other than film critics, will see all ten of the Best Picture nominations. They certainly will not see all of the films up for competitive awards. So based on this deluge of movies and the increasingly large canon, I believe a fourth and new reason these three directors (and perhaps more in the near future) shot in black-and-white is simply to stand out from the crowd. In a pool of ten Best Picture noms (with about fifteen others as serious contenders), a film really needs to distinguish itself from the field, and black-and-white, at the very least, gets people talking. The form, of course, can still serve as mode of period reference, an outlet for under-budgeted indie filmmakers, a stylistic dichotomy, or an homage to predecessors. But the industry is changing; more specifically, it’s growing rapidly. So in the modern era and moving forward, we may see filmmakers shooting in black-and-white just to be a little bit different.
photo credit; IFC Films
Tags: 16mm, Alexander Payne, American History X, Christoper Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Frances Ha, Gary Ross, Good Night and Good Luck, Greta Gerwig, Guiletta Masina, Janusz Kaminski, Jim Jarmusch, Joseph McBride, Joss Whedon, Last Picture Show, Manhattan, Mark Pinkert, Memento, Much Ado About Nothing, Natural Born Killers, Nebrasak, Noah Baumbach, Paper Moon, Peter Bogdanovich, Phedon Papamichael, Pi, Pleasantville, Roadkill, Schindler's List, Scott Feinberg, Sin City, Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, The Apartment, The Artist, The Black Keys, The Last Picture Show, Wood Allen