I was flipping through the channels the other night when I saw that EPIX was showing Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” It was one of my favorite movies from last year, and I was excited to catch a little bit of it again for the first time since I saw it in theaters. But to my horror, when it popped up on my screen it was not the same film I saw last November – it was in color. “Nebraska” was released in theaters as a black and white film, but as recent articles revealed, a color version had been made for some foreign markets and for possible TV runs, despite Alexander Payne’s hopes that this other version would never be seen.
This is a disappointing example of the bias there is against black and white films. Color films have been the predominant form for the last 50 years or so and as a result there are large numbers of people who have little to no exposure to black and white films, and therefore believe the style of filmmaking to be inherently boring. Of course, that is ridiculous. One example against that off the top of my head is the brilliant closing act from John Ford’s 1939 film “Stagecoach.” Watch that and try to not be enthralled despite the lack of yellows and greens.
Another misguided sentiment is that people that film in black and white are doing it just to be different than for any particular reason. Yes, there are definite examples of that being the case, but a majority of filmmakers who make the decision to forgo color have a very good reason for it. There’s a reason Alexander Payne didn’t want the color version of “Nebraska” to ever be shown, because the lack of color adds to the tone and environment of the film. Just from the few moments of the color version that I saw it seemed off putting; it’s simply not the same movie.
Believe it or not, there are a couple of high profile black and white movies that are set to release in the coming weeks that have many people excited. They are “The Giver” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” Though both films use color – in the case of “The Giver,” it will fully switch to a color film at some point – black and white is a purposeful stylistic choice and one that hasn’t stopped audiences from looking forward to them. In fact, when the first trailer for “The Giver” came out, I had to smile as fans of the book lashed out on social media that it wasn’t in black and white.
People need to get over the notion that black and white is a relic of the past; there are a number of films that have been in black and white in the last twenty years that were critical and commercial successes. Check out the list of films that would not be the same if they were in color and why it is still and will always be a vital part of the film industry.
No better place to start than with the film that spurred this article. Alexander Payne’s choice to shoot “Nebraska” in black and white may seem pointless at first, but when you see the film it’s relevance becomes extremely clear. It is used to paint the simple life and frame of mind of Bruce Dern’s lead character, but also the environment of the Midwest. From the few seconds I saw of it in color, that quality was immediately drained. Payne would be nominated for Best Director, and the film’s cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, also scored a nomination.
Michel Hazanavicius’ choice to shoot in black and white was obvious for his Oscar winning ode to the silent film era. Any attempt to combat the fact all but one scene in the film is silent by switching to color would have made the film a joke. The gamble ended up paying off, as the film won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, and made $133 million worldwide.
Good Night, and Good Luck
Period pieces use black and white more often than films set in modern day, and George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a great example of why that is. Taking place during the onset of Senator McCarthy’s Red Scare, the black and white helps to amplify the gravitas and paranoia of that time. The film would be nominated for six Oscars, including Picture, Director and Cinematography.
Though color is used in certain instances in the “Sin City” franchise, the films are still predominantly black and white. This choice by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller helps give a real comic book like feeling to the film, more than any other comic book adaptation to date. The contrast is also essential for the setting; as this is a dark world, devoid of color, save for the most brutal or innocent of its inhabitants.
This one is a bit of a stretch to be fair. “Pleasantville” starts off in color but switches to black and white when Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon’s characters get sucked into the world of a 50s sitcom. As the film progresses, color starts to reemerge as the characters realize that there is more to life than what they originally believed. Gary Ross beautifully managed to show the progression by mixing scenes to have both color and black and white.
Much like “Nebraska,” Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” doesn’t scream a need to be in black and white. It’s a simple story about a guy stuck at his job on his day off and his conversations with the people who come in and out of the store. But by shooting it in black and white Smith expressed the boring nature and blandness of Dante’s job beyond just his whiny complaints. The store is a trap where nothing good happens, and no color can be found.
Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the Holocaust is a brutal and harrowing thing to watch, and it would likely still be so in color. But, because it is in black and white, the harshness and reality of it are magnified. There is nothing distracting the audience from the horrors on screen, just the injustice and murder of a race of people.
Spielberg does use color, but only in a couple of circumstances; at both the beginning and the end of the film, in the present day, when the atrocities are over and Schindler’s Jews have survived and began their new lives. He also uses it for the girl in the red jacket. By singling her out we form a connection with her without even knowing her name. When we see the red jacket once again in a pile of dead bodies, it hits us deeper.
Color would not have masked what happened, but it would have lessened the blow ever so slightly, preventing “Schindler’s List” to be the same masterpiece that it is.