The History of Black-and-White Cinematography: From Its Death to Latest Oscar Trend

With a monochromatic slate of Oscar contenders and a new version of “Nightmare Alley,” what does history tell us about this current trend?
“Nightmare Alley: Vision and Darkness and Light"
“Nightmare Alley: Vision and Darkness and Light"
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The abundance of black-and-white films is perhaps this year’s most obvious Hollywood trend, with major awards contenders “Belfast,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “C’mon C’mon,” and “Passing” all choosing to drain their worlds of color. Even filmmakers working in a full palette feel the need to engage with monochrome, whether through selected scenes (“The French Dispatch” and “Being the Ricardos”) or special releases of black and white versions like “Nightmare Alley: Vision and Darkness and Light,” which is giving the Searchlight film a second life.

In the digital age, the transition between the color and monochrome seems like a flick of a switch, one viewers can imitate on televisions and monitors or with a social media filter. But black-and-white cinematography is not just color desaturated. It’s an art of light, shadow, lines, and shapes. Color cinematography is about, well…. color.

On Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” whose monochrome theatrical run began last weekend, they attempted to combine the two strategies. As cinematographer Dan Laustsen stated, “When we designed and shot we were always thinking color and black and white,” with Del Toro adding, “We lit it as if it were black and white. You can see exactly the same level of design.” These statements are acknowledgements of the fact that you cannot just toggle between the two modes haphazardly.

Filmmakers’ reasons for going gray are sometimes vague or contradictory. They point to various justifications (and it always seems to need to be justified): its timelessness and its evocation of the past; its magic and its realism — and that’s just this year’s films.

Bong Joon Ho was more upfront about his motivations for making a black-and-white version of “Parasite” saying, “I think it may be vanity on my part, but when I think of the classics, they’re all in black and white. So I had this idea that if I turned my films into black and white then they’d become classics.” This logic is obviously inverted; those classic films were generally not made black-and-white as an aesthetic choice. However, it is a choice now — one loaded with meaning, sometimes artistic, sometimes technological, and sometimes purely emotional.

C'mon C'mon
C’mon C’monTobin Yelland

2021 can be seen as a climax to a grayscale renaissance that’s been happening for well over a decade. Nine black-and-white films have been nominated for Best Cinematography by the Academy in the last 20 years. That’s more than half of the 16 total since the Academy eliminated separate categories for black-and-white and color cinematography in 1967.

While it is unlikely that the overall number of black-and-white films made each year has changed much (such data is hard to collate), the number of major Hollywood and international art films without color has clearly increased. To better understand both why this trend is happening and what it means for the future of cinematic color, let’s look back at black-and-white’s history since it was supposedly deemed a relic 55 years ago.

Black-and-White as Default

Color always existed in the cinema. But it wasn’t until Technicolor in the early 1930s that all the colors seen before the camera could be captured. Because the process was so difficult and expensive, color became the realm of fantasy, while the real world of the screen existed in shades of gray.

The Academy saw this divide, refusing to consider color and black-and-white cinematography alongside each other. After a couple of special achievement awards, color cinematography became its own competitive category for 1939, giving “Gone With the Wind” one of its many wins. This split would remain for 30 years (a failed one-year experiment combining them in 1957 was deemed preemptive).

In the mid-1960s, color television sales skyrocketed, and the networks switched to color broadcast. They urged the studios to make more color films, which would have a longer life in rebroadcast. It was with this economic incentive that black-and-white production rapidly declined. The Academy recognized this and eliminated the separate categories in 1967. That year, only one of the five nominees was black-and-white – Conrad Hall’s stark photography on “In Cold Blood”. Then black-and-white virtually disappeared.

Black-and-White as Nostalgia

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, 1971
“The Last Picture Show”Courtesy Everett Collection

Monochrome became seen as the absence of color, where previously color had been seen as an addition. The next time a black-and-white film was nominated for a cinematography Oscar, it was a nostalgia piece, 1971’s “The Last Picture Show.” Likewise, “Lenny” (1974), “Raging Bull” (1980), and “Zelig” (1983) (the only monochrome films nominated for 25 years) all took place when monochrome had reined in the cinema.

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut “Passing” also takes place in the age of black-and-white cinema. From “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” to “The Artist,” films set in the first half of the 20th century are the most commonly desaturated. Since this is how we see the vast majority of the images of this period, our imagination renders the past itself in black-and-white. In “Passing,” we can more readily believe we’re in 1920s Harlem if the world looks not like it did, but like we’ve seen it in photographs.

This association with the past allowed memory itself to become encoded as monochrome. A more personal nostalgia permeates Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical “Belfast,” which opens with a color present before fading into a monochrome past. The film also invokes the previous era’s split, in which the real world is drained and expressionistic, while the world of the screen and stage is fantastical color. Relatedly, Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” does not take place in any historic past, but invokes a nostalgic note we often associate with family and childhood.

Black-and-White as Camouflage

SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, Tracy Camilla Johns, Spike Lee, 1986
“She’s Gotta Have It”©Island Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

The rise of independent cinema in the mid-1980s made for more shades of gray at film festivals across the globe. From Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” to Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” these films had little to do with nostalgia. Rather, it was just what they could afford. Even if film stock was the same price, it was (and is) a lot more expensive to make color cinematography (and production design) look good.

Black-and-white hides flaws and shortcomings in a way color never has. Billy Wilder recognized this way back in 1959 when he and Charles Lang shot “Some Like it Hot” in black-and-white, defying genre expectations for comedy. He reasoned that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis could only plausibly pass for women in the forgiving shades of gray.

Likewise, “Passing” cinematographer Eduard Grau used this effect to emphasis the racial ambiguity at the center of the film’s story. As he told the New York Times, “We didn’t want to clearly show to the audience at first whether our characters were white or Black or mixed race. Everything is so bright that it’s difficult to tell.”

Black-and-White as an Elite Aesthetic

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1604565a)Schindler's List, Liam NeesonFilm and Television
Liam Neeson in “Schindler’s List”Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

By the 1990s, the previous association of color with fantasy and black-and-white with realism had completely reversed. Its rarity brought out monochrome’s inherent aesthetic. It renders faces beautiful, violence palatable (see “Kill Bill Vol. 1”), and atrocities more digestible. Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993) was the first black-and-white film to win the Oscar for cinematography since they’d collapsed the category 26 years earlier. At the time, it looked like a fluke, a gamble only the industry’s top-grossing director could make.

In spite of deep-seated financial resistance, in the 2000s, desaturated films began popping up in the prestige art house world from major filmmakers such as Joel and Ethan Coen (“The Man Who Wasn’t There,” 2001), George Clooney (“Good Night and Good Luck,” 2005), and Michael Haneke (“The White Ribbon,” 2009). The crisp elegance of these films — all Oscar-nominated and, of course, set in the past — made them stand out in a new era of color manipulation.

Digital color grading had been introduced to Hollywood in the 1990s and was first used to alter an entire film in 2000 (the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). The technology soon replaced the existing lab techniques and became a standard practice on all films, often used to create unique color palettes or to hide the shortcomings of digital visual effects. It could also be used to render the world in shades of gray.

The ease with which the decision to make a film in black-and-white can, in theory, be made (and unmade) is clearly a factor in the current trend — and likely serves to help convince producers to go along with the decision. With all films undergoing post-production color manipulation, including extensive desaturation in many blockbusters, experimenting with a monochrome palette carries a much lower risk. “Nebraska” (2013), “Ida” (2014), “Roma” (2018), and “Cold War” (2018) all took this path. Even actioners such as “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Logan,” and “Justice League” have offered post-theatrical monochrome editions.

the lighthouse robert pattinson willem dafoe
“The Lighthouse”A24

In 2018, for the first time since black-and-white cinematography lost its own category, two films were nominated and one of them won (“Roma” was the first monochrome winner since “Schindler”). This increasing normalization likely allowed Robert Eggers and Jarin Blaschke to be able to shoot “The Lighthouse” on actual black-and-white film stock (meaning no color record of the film even exists). No awards contending film had been shot on black-and-white stock since Spielberg fought for it in 1993, and yet it happened again this year on the monochrome section of “The French Dispatch.”

The Future in Black-and-White

The glut of films this year begs us to look beyond the beauty of monochrome and contemplate how the technique is being used. The five films currently in awards contention (though there are many more) are using it in different ways to express their directors’ desired aesthetic.

While that aesthetic tends to the historical for most, Bruno Delbonnel’s work on Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” stands apart in many ways. The cinematographer invokes the timelessness and aestheticization of the style saying, “It’s meant to bring theatricality, and to lose temporality.” The photography emphasizes the abstraction of the setting, rather than hiding it. The world isn’t real, but it is cohesive, melded together by its shades of gray, much like the film Coen most frequently invoked in discussing it, Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

The Tragedy of Macbeth
“The Tragedy of Macbeth”Courtesy of Apple

The timelessness of black-and-white is not just about the setting of the film, but the experience of the filmmaking itself. Color dates a film, from the Technicolor look of the mid-century to the muted, gauziness of the 1970s or the steely gray-blues of the late ‘90s. But if you didn’t know the ages of the performers, could you really say when “Raging Bull” or “Good Night and Good Luck” were made? The stylization of black-and-white unmoors it from time and space in ways that Bong saw as key to making his films “classic.”

After this year’s glut of black-and-white films, the trend will likely subside. New fads will emerge (I vote for vivid Technicolor or Godardian primaries!). But black-and-white has proven over the last 50 years that it will never go away. Its cultural associations — with nostalgia, pastness, realism, aestheticization — may shift over time, but one thing will never change: It’s just beautiful.

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