If color has taken over from black and white for ages in the cinema, it has always been loved by directors who have often preferred it when it deals with intimate or tragic subjects such as the Shoah (Schindler’s Letter of Spielberg), and like this year Belfast by Kenneth Branagh and The Tragedy of Macbeth by Joel Coen competing for next Sunday’s Oscars.
Belfast inspired in Kenneth Branagh by his Northern Irish childhood and the adaptation of Shakespeare signed by Joel Coen are only the latest works to have decided to do without color, to accentuate the historical perspective of the story or to favor the human aspect and intimate. “Color lets you describe people beautifully, but black and white lets you feel them“, explained Kenneth Branagh about Belfastdrawn from his experience of violence in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s. The film is in the running in no less than seven Oscar categories, including the flagship award for best feature film.
Even though “a sumptuous desert or mountain range landscape“can be sensationally rendered through color,”it’s the human face that takes on an exceptional dimension with a black and white photograph, on a giant screen“, continues the director. This choice “gives a poetic dimension to things that might otherwise seem a bit mundane“, he develops with AFP.
For the director of photography of “The Tragedy of Macbeththe French Bruno Delbonnel, black and white “was meant to bring theatrics” and a timeless touch to this adaptation of a classic. The role of Macbeth is played by Denzel Washington, who is seeking the second Oscar for best actor of his long career.
Black and white films have certainly continued to be shot regularly and to be successful since color (born in 1937) took over in the 1950s. This boom had been made possible in particular by the development of less expensive technologies than those which had enchanted the spectators of the Wizard of Oz orGone with the windboth produced in 1939.
In 2012, The Artist, not only in black and white but also silent, had triumphed at the Oscars by winning the prize for best feature film. More recently, Rome and mank were also recognized by Hollywood for their photography. But this year seems like a prime vintage for all-grayscale films.
“We all got together… It was a directors’ union meeting.“, joked Mike Mills, whose family drama Our children’s souls, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is also happily colorless. He was in the running this month for the Bafta, the British film awards. “I love black and white. I’m a super snob. I watch a lot of black and white movies, those are my hero movies, right?“, said the 50-year-old to AFP.
In Chiaroscuro, whose star Ruth Negga was selected for a host of film awards and won the Spirit Awards for independent cinema, this technique is used to better highlight racist discrimination. This film by Rebecca Hall tells the story of a black woman, in 1920s New York, finding a lost childhood friend who, like her, passes herself off as white thanks to the pallor of her skin.
“It wasn’t just a stylistic choice. I felt it was a conceptual choice to make a film about colorism (discrimination based on skin tone, editor’s note) who is himself purged of all color“, explained the director during the Sundance festival. “We look at faces and then we immediately put them into categories… Categories end up having an importance, but they are also often absurd.“, continues Rebecca Hall.
Is the current proliferation of black and white film projects a coincidence? Some pundits are pointing to similar trends on Instagram and social media, which could explain why audiences – who previously associated the genre with old-fashioned, intellectual or boring films – are now ready to pay attention to it. “As we get used to color-altered images, including black and white photos and videos, they can become less closely associated with the past. (…) We begin to see them only as aesthetic choices“, writes Alissa Wilkinson, of the Vox cultural magazine.
For Mike Mills, black and white is so “abstract“that it produces an effect almost”magic on the viewer“.”We are no longer in the real world. We are propelled into a story, into art“, he confides.
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Oscars 2022: with the nominations of “Belfast” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, black and white takes back color in Hollywood