By Clarisse Tenreiro
This year, Alfonso Cuarón brought the monochrome screen back on the stage of the Academy Awards with his drama Roma (2018), proving once more that the absence of colour can be as strong as the millions of shades and hues that today’s technology offers to paint a picture with. By winning the award for Best Cinematography, it became the second black and white film in history to gain such recognition since the year 1967. In this day and age, it is difficult for a movie with this visual characteristic to gain commercial success and there is a common collective feeling among the younger generation that deems this style as one connected to the past, giving it no place in the present among all the new spectacular technological advancements.
However, while the monochrome format was strongly prevalent in the first decades since the birth of cinema due to financial reasons, colour actually came as early as cinema itself and has been present for longer than most might think. Although in the earlier days Technicolour was expensive and thus inaccessible to most filmmakers, this was not the only reason why artists dived into the artistry of the unsaturated picture. Black and white brought to life pivotal film movements such as German Expressionism in the 1920’s that could not have emerged without it, and the iconic cinematographic style of Film Noir, classically associated to the 1940’s, that is still today repeatedly a topic of homage.
This aesthetic gave, and still does, the opportunity to work with artistic tools on a different dimension. One can play differently with tone and texture, with the power of lighting and the depth it can propel. The duality and contrast between light and shadow enhances within the monochromatic field, and a deeper focus on the story line and its content rises from the lack of distracting colour. Black and white changes all aspects of a film, affecting not only the visual style of it but also, and sometimes even most importantly, the themes, conflicts and atmosphere of the settings and situations surrounding the characters.
After a gradual transition, the 1960’s marked the period in which coloured screens reigned over the industry. From then on, fewer and fewer films were released in black and white. From 1939 up until 1967, the Oscars actually held separate awards for colour and for black and white cinematography. Now, as mentioned before, only two have been granted the prize since.
Nevertheless, there are still plenty of reasons to shoot in this visual style and many individuals out there know just how to embrace them. While it remains for some a choice for economic purposes and practical reasons (such as using shadows and tones of blacks to simplify special effects), black and white continues to be a powerful tool to create a unique view of the world. Whether it be to take the audience back into a nostalgic time period and make the story feel more historically realistic, or distance the viewer from reality into a dreamy intangible world : the possibilities are endless. As cliché as it might be, less can definitely be more.
So, in this modern world that sometimes seems to be set in an over-saturated and over-complicated flux of colours, the simple yet infinite tones of grey are a soothing gift to the eyes and an opportunity to see beyond the palette that’s easily given to us to perceive. Having that said, I deem it now time to pay tribute to this art of film making by looking back on films that put colours aside and welcomed the darkest and lightest shades of the wheel, with a list of the 10 best modern movies in black and white.
10. Dead Man (1995)
Black and white isn’t a foreign playground for one of independent cinema’s favourite American directors Jim Jarmush. With Johnny Depp as the lead, Dead Man (1995) takes the Western genre and twists it around, diving into a realm known as “psychedelic western”. It narrates the journey of accountant William Blake, who gets shot upon arriving to a new town and manages to save himself by shooting his aggressor dead. From there on he becomes a fugitive with a bounty on his head, who takes a journey alongside a philosopher and healer Native American man named Nobody. Strange and dipped into surrealistic undertones, its monochrome aesthetic works towards Jarmush’s aim at revisiting the genre, presenting a shift from the classic colour palette of the 19th century American Old West, an unfamiliarity that is not only experienced by the viewer but also by the main character when he finds himself in this unplanned situation.
9. Pi (1998)
Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut is the one and only psychological thriller Pi (1998). In it, we are faced with questions involving religion, psychological paranoia, mathematics and the nature of the universe. Heavy subjects illustrated through a heavy contrast between black and white. In an interview with IndieWire in the year of the film’s release, Aronofsky explained that his inspiration for the visual look came from Frank Miller’s comic Sin City where the writer “just does white scratches into black ink”. The story of an obsessed mathematician who seeks to find the meaning of the universe from the perspective of numbers and patterns is then powerfully translated in this picture through the sharp monochromatic look that enhances the madness of the character’s point of view and leads the viewer into an absolute gripping experience.
8. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is a splendidly-shot black and white film by the famous Coen brothers. Cinematographer Roger Deakins captured the essence of the film noir genre into this picture and gave every shot a simple yet perfectly framed equilibrium between shadow and light, and between all the different tones and levels of grey that are given to explore. Through an outstanding performance by Billie Bob Thornton, it narrates the story of a barber, a chain-smoking man of few words, who decides to blackmail his wife’s boss and lover for a big sum of money. However, things don’t go as planned and that’s when the Coen neo-noir crime madness begins. It additionally includes regulars of the Coen brothers such as the amazing Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco and Richard Jenkins.
7. Raging Bull (1980)
Robert DeNiro’s bruised and swollen face revealing drops of sweat and blood dripping over his bare skin as he stands inside the boxing ring is an iconic image Scorsese has imprinted onto movie history with his classic Raging Bull (1980). This biographical drama, based on the memoir of Jake LaMotta, is a punch to the guts as it follows the life of an Italian-American boxer in the 1940’s who’s violent behaviour works in favour of his career but not of his personal life. Like other movies that have used it for such purpose, its gorgeous black and white cinematography gives the viewer a feel of the period in which it is set and plays with the possibilities of contrast when it comes to the lighting of brilliant scenes such as the ones in the boxing arena. Nevertheless, among other reasons (such as to differentiate it from other films being made at the time such as Rocky (1976)), Scorsese also wished to point out the issue of fading colour film stock, which has caused many films to vanish forever due to the decomposition of prints. Coincidentally enough, after this sparked awareness upon the issue, leading to developments in film conservation techniques, Raging Bull ended up being selected for preservation at the National Film Registry upon being considered a culturally significant film – and rightfully so.
6. Frances Ha (2012)
NoahBaumbach and Greta Gerwig merge their creativity together in this comedy drama entitled Frances Ha (2012). With a Woody Allen-like feel, it brings the viewer into a jumping trail following the improvised and unpredictable daily life of Frances, a 27-year old dancer living with her best friend in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of New York. Soon enough, she finds herself apartment-less and job-less. Lost and disappointed with her present state, we see her drift through the city streets, on a (semi-subconscious) metropolitan voyage to self reinvention. As it heavily focuses on character development and dialogue, the black and white aesthetic fits into the scheme with utter harmony. It allows the viewer to truly engage with the story with immediacy and follow the characters from a closer perspective, away from the distractions that colour carries along. A beautifully shot movie, where the visual contrast is sharp, clean and fluid and a real pleasure to watch.
5. The White Ribbon (2009)
The White Ribbon (2009) illustrates a dark depiction of society and the oppressive ideologies that are tied to it, through the disturbing portrait of a fictional small northern village in Germany, in the year before the start of World War I. Michael Haneke knows how to shock his moviegoers while delivering thoughtful profundity at the same time. Director of the famous psychological thriller Funny Games (1997) on the one hand and of the Award-winning romantic tragedy Amour (2012) on the other, his name entails promises of great movie making time after time. This Palme d’Or-awarded German drama explores the nature of human evil, through a plot where unexplained events of violence occur between the villagers, leaving the inhabitants submerged in a dark setting with no way out. It’s as dark in terms of the plot as it is visually on the screen. The idea is clear : black and white in this picture is not only a tool that allows resemblance to the old period monochrome photographs but especially one that mirrors the psychology of the story.
4. Ed Wood (1994)
Here is a brilliant biographical comedy-drama that serves as an example to illustrate the past (and present) difficulties of filming in black and white in Hollywood. Directed by Tim Burton and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who thought of the concept as film students in Los Angeles, it follows the life of filmmaker Ed Wood (once elected worst director of all times) and his relationship with the legendary actor Bela Lugosi, at the time in which he conceived his most famous movies. With the incredible performance of Johnny Depp as Wood and Martin James Landau as Lugosi, it uses the monochrome style in order to go back in time and portray a reality one only visually remembers from the black and white photographs. Tim Burton explained in an interview that in the process of preparing the make-up for Landau, he found himself questioning “what was the colour of Bela Lugosi’s eyes? I never saw him and no one’s ever seen colour images of Lugosi”. And so black and white came into the picture. When the studio, Columbia Pictures, objected to this decision, Burton stayed faithful to his choice and the project was luckily taken by Touchstone Productions instead – in the beautiful simple colours of black and white.
3. The Artist (2011)
Michel Hazanavicius’s film The Artist (2011) erupted into the world and conquered audiences and critics in a magical burst of surprise. It found massive success at the most prestigious award shows in the industry, winning Best Film at the Academy Awards, the BAFTA and the César Awards, amongst numerous other prizes at other incredibly high-ranking festivals and ceremonies. In fact, it is the most awarded French film of all times, according to The Hollywood Reporter. As an homage to the dreamy world of silent cinema, that’s exactly what this French comedy-drama is : a black and white silent film, created with the same technicalities as the ones used in that period (such as the 1.33:1 aspect ratio) and made with the incredible talent and care of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, as the main characters of this soundless plot. Set in Hollywood’s late 1920’s, The Artist follows the encounter and relationship between an older film star and a younger actress on the rise, against the backdrop of the emergence of sound in film, that is, the so-called “talkies”. Brilliantly orchestrated, it is a clever, sweet and delightful time-travel into the past.
2. Schindler’s List (1993)
Spielberg’s masterpiece about the Holocaust uses its tones of black, white and grey in a beautiful and heartbreaking manner, causing the events on the screen to come to life with a painful realness and honesty. The choice to use this type of aesthetic came from the director’s intention to shoot the film in a documentary style and thus evoke the kind of footage that was shot in the era of the real events that the story is based on. Seeing this narration unfold in a monochromatic dimension makes sense, as it brings the viewer closer to the harsh reality of the past while simultaneously experiencing a sort of “impression of timelessness”, as cinematographer Janusz Kamiński once explained. Shot this way over the course of 72 days in Kraków, Poland, Schindler’s List (1993) recounts the true story of Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson), a German businessman and member of the Nazi party, who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factories during the dark years of the Second World War.
1. La Haine (1995)
La Haine (1995) is a French drama written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz that follows the struggles of three young men with immigrant backgrounds living in the impoverished suburbs of Paris. Inspired and based on real events regarding police brutality, it depicts the 24 hours of Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), after a friend of theirs is put in a coma upon having been beaten up by police during a riot. Together with the use of real footage from riots happening at the time of shooting and performances of non-professional actors, this drama evokes the feeling of a documentary and thus presents the real-life issues pointed at throughout its story line in an incredibly powerful way. Note that the actors carry the same names as their characters – a production diving into the story to make the fictional as close to the real as possible. However, what contributes the most towards its strength and intensity is precisely its monochromatic aesthetic. The black and white, and the heavy contrast it produces, reinforces the sharp thematic divisions at play: society’s separation of class and race, as well as the characters’ own perspective in regards to themselves in opposition to the police. Moreover, the lack of colours sets the dramatic and serious tone of the film in motion and allows the city of Paris to show its real struggles in a more raw and blunt manner. One can undoubtedly say that it wouldn’t be the same, were it in colour.
Clarisse is a Portuguese and German film enthusiast currently living in the Netherlands.
Fascinated by the art of cinema from an early age on, she undertook Filmmaking Studies
in Amsterdam in order to experience how the magic of the moving picture comes about in
practice. Having worked on several minor projects such as music videos, short films and
impression videos, she has also written for The Cinemaholic and undertaken a research
on auteur cinema for her Bachelor Thesis, where her interest in film criticism and history
was put to work. Psychological thrillers and biographical dramas are among her favourite
genres of the big screen.