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The Black-and-White Films of the 2021 Award Season

"C'mon C'mon"

Don’t be surprised if a black-and-white film ends up being the Best Picture winner this year for the first time in a decade.

Back in 2011, French director Michel Hazanavicius decided to take a trip back in time with “The Artist.” The comedy-drama was basically a nostalgic black-and-white mash note to the end of the silent era of Hollywood, when talkies began to take over the silver screen in the ‘30s. This charming throwback was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor Jean Dujardin for his portrait of a washed-up silent-era leading man.

“The Artist” also would be the first Best Picture winner since 1953’s “From Here to Eternity” to be shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio. It also was the first mainly black-and white title to win the top prize since 1993’s “Schindler’s List,” which featured color sequences including a young girl who wore a red coat. Meanwhile, 1960’s “The Apartment,” was the last 100-percent black-and white feature to win.

Now, a decade after “The Artist” made a nostalgic splash, black-and-white photography is en vogue once more. Hints of a revival began with 2018’s “Roma,” which was written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Basing the story on his childhood in Mexico City, the filmmaker also handled the cinematography duties as well. It would receive 10 Oscar nominations and became the first Mexican film to win Best Foreign Language Film. "Roma" also marked the first time that a director won Best Cinematography for their own film.

Also landing a nod for Best Foreign Language Film that year was Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” who previously won the prize for his 2013 black-and-white drama “Ida.” Then there was David Fincher’s 2020 release “Mank,” about the making of Orson Welles’s 1941 classic “Citizen Kane.” That Netflix film earned 10 Oscar nominations and won for its production design and cinematography.

Black-and-white photography has been celebrated throughout this current award season, including Wes Anderson’s ode to journalism, “The French Dispatch,” which features certain sequences sans color. Meanwhile, the upcoming “Being the Ricardos,” written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, takes place over a trying week of filming the classic sitcom “I Love Lucy,” which aired on TV in black-and-white.

While most of these titles are set in the past, director Mike Mills (“Beginners”) chose to use a black-and-white aesthetic for his “C’mon C’mon.” It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist who decides to hit the road in order to interview an array of youngsters about the state of the world and their future. His subject hits home, however, when he is forced to bring along his precocious young nephew for the ride.

Several other awards hopefuls aiming for a monochrome look. But top of the list would be film festival fave “Belfast,” which opens in theaters this Friday. Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh presents a wistful re-creation of his childhood that was upended by the explosive violence caused by the "Troubles" in his hometown in 1969. He bookends his film with color photography at the beginning and end of his film, while in between he shares the viewpoint of his nine-year-old protagonist Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill) being enthralled with such flashy colorful films as “One Million Years B.C.” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” while lapping up such Westerns such as “High Noon” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” on TV.

As Branagh stated to Indiewire about his choice of primarily mostly eschewing color footage, “It’s visual aesthetic formed out of the intuitive sense that black and white was the way to go. Velvety Hollywood black-and-white, in Irish terms the liquid quality of the photography is swimming through Guinness, shot through with flashes of color.”

The film’s cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who has worked with Branagh for 15 years, told the New York Times, “I think we’re using strength of black and white, which is not to tell you how a person or place looks but how they feel.” He might be on to something given the ongoing pandemic—we all likely have been more in touch with our feelings than before COVID-19.

Also choosing a bleached-out, black-and-white backdrop is Joel Coen’s stripped-down “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Shakespeare’s maniacal scheming couple who create all the toil and trouble. The film eschews the wide screen for the more intimate 4:3 aspect ratio that was previously employed in “The Artist.” As cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel told the New York Times, the time and setting where events take place are an abstraction while few props are employed on screen.

Despite the stripped-down sensibility on screen, the man behind the camera chose the showiest amount of light he could summon. According to Delbonnel, “The whole movie is lit with theater light, like you would see at a Beyonce concert. In color, it would be unbearable, but in black and white, it looks amazing.”

Probably the most interesting use of white and black images this year is “Passing,” in which actress Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”) makes her directorial debut. Based on a 1929 novel, the title refers to African-Americans whose skin color is light enough to pass for white. Tessa Thompson plays Irene, a Harlem resident and wife of a doctor who is involved in her community. We see her trying to pass herself off as white as she shops and later cools off at a hotel tearoom. That’s when she reunites with Clare (Ruth Negga), an old friend who is married to a wealthy white bigoted man (Alexander Skarsgard) who believes his spouse is also white.

The film constantly contrasts skin tones presented onscreen, including the friend’s reunion. Cinematographer Eduard Grau decided to flood the scene with an abundance of light. "This is the brightest I’ve ever done a scene in my life," he told the New York Times. He explained that they didn’t want to clearly show to the audience at first whether our characters were white, Black or mixed race. “Everything is so bright it’s difficult to tell.” Like “Tragedy of Macbeth,” Grau chose to use the same boxy aspect ratio that creates an air of intimacy. The subject is also personal as well, given that Hall’s mother, Detroit-born opera singer Maria Ewing, had a father who was Black but could pass as white.

Not too long ago, Hollywood was hooked on 3-D images that required glasses to see images jump off of the screen. Now, 70mm IMAX prints offer an often thunderous and immersive experience that can overwhelm the senses of some viewers and make them cower in their seats. Perhaps it’s about time that we strip down cinema to its essence again. 

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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