'Roma' Won Big at the Oscars. Is Black-and-white Film Making a Comeback?

Two films shot in black and white competed for the Oscar in cinematography this year. What's behind the filmmakers' choice?

This image released by Netflix shows a scene from the film "Roma," by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron.
Carlos Somonte,AP

Two films shot in black and white (neither one in English) stood out among this year’s Oscar finalists. “Roma,” by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, which was nominated for 10 Oscars, won three – for Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. “Cold War,” directed by Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski, was nominated in the director, foreign picture and cinematography categories. 

With Cuaron (“Roma”) and Lukasz Zal (“Cold War”) going head to head for the Best Cinematography award, it was the first time in many years that two films shot in black and white competed in this category. Is black-and-white filmmaking making a cinematic comeback? And if so, will its dominance in the past be reprised?

Since 1960, only three films shot in black and white have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1960, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, won (that a comedy took the award was also a rarity). The two other Best Picture winners photographed in black and white were “Schindler’s List,” the 1993 film directed by Steven Spielberg, and, in 2011, Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist.” This trend is diametrically opposed to the situation in the decades before the win by “The Apartment,” particularly until the 1950s. In that period, most American movies were in black and white. In the 1930s and 1940s, with the exception of “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, not one color film won the Oscar for Best Picture. In the 1950s, as a result of competition with the young medium of television, color began to dominate Hollywood filmmaking. In the 1950s, only four films shot in black and white won for Best Picture, and those wins were concentrated in the first half of the decade.

There’s an explanation for this phenomenon. As an adolescent in the 1950s, I remember hearing a critic on a radio program about the cinema sum up his review of a movie (I’ve forgotten which one) by saying that even though it was a good picture, its subject matter and realistic character would have been better suited to black and white than to color. In other words, black-and-white cinematography is synonymous with realism. And it’s true: even if romantic comedies were shot in black and white, as well as many westerns, especially of the low-budget variety, the ruling conception was that black and white is appropriate for realistic movies, those dealing with “serious” subjects, whereas color is better suited for popular entertainment that has little connection with reality, such as historical spectaculars, exotic adventure stories, musicals and westerns.

What is the origin of this perception of reality as being in black and white? Its genesis lies in the fact that before the advent of television, movies were generally preceded by a newsreel which documented the latest events in black and white. And almost all the broadcasts in the first decades of television, including the news programs, were in black and white.

Imagine, if you will, the experience of moviegoers during World War II watching a black and white newsreel about developments on the various fronts, if it had been followed by a musical packed with splashy song-and-dance numbers in glossy Technicolor. And is there anyone of the right age who doesn’t have engraved in his memory the black-and-white image of Walter Cronkite choking back a tear as he announced the death of President Kennedy – whether they watched it live or in rebroadcasts? Consequently, it should come as no surprise that reality was ingrained in the public consciousness in black and white, and escape from reality in color.

Until the end of the 1960s, when the number of films made in black and white fell off, moviegoers accepted this division as natural and self-evident. Billy Wilder was once asked why he chose to shoot “Some Like it Hot” (1959) in black and white rather than color, which would seem more appropriate. He replied that his choice was in part due to his desire to reference the black-and-white gangster movies that were being made in the years in which the plot of the movie unfolds. The fact that “Some Like it Hot” was shot in black and white did not, of course, prevent it from becoming a huge hit.

I have never preferred movies made in color over those made in black and white, or vice versa. For example, I’m fond of the classic American movies that were shot in black and white by Hollywood’s finest cinematographers. Indeed, until 1967, separate Oscars were awarded for black-and-white and color cinematography. One reason for my affection for black-and-white movies is that I reached maturity during the period in which European cinema flourished, beginning in the late 1940s, when the films of the Italian neorealistic school arrived, along with the works of Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and most of the films of the French New Wave, which were shot in black and white.

However, when I heard a film critic on the radio say that a movie would have been more realistic had it been made in black and white, I was aware of the absurdity of this hypothesis. After all, reality is in color, and therefore shooting in color lends movies a realistic tenor, while black and white ostensibly distances them from reality.

Fraught with alienation

Since its inception, the art of the cinema has striven to present to us with an increasingly “true” picture of reality. Silent movies gave way to talkies, color was added as an option, the size of the screens grew apace, and all the visual and aural techniques of the cinema were constantly upgraded, to the point where that “true reality” melded with the reality depicted in the picture – perhaps we will even forget that we are watching a movie at all. The use of 3D in the past decade is another stage in this process.

The gradual disappearance of black-and-white cinema, and its occasional reappearances, have almost reversed the approach to black-and-white cinematography. Thus, in 1971, Peter Bogdanovich’s decision to shoot “The Last Picture Show” in black and white was considered a departure. Choosing to film in black and white became an aesthetic choice, as in the case of Woody Allen’s 1979 “Manhattan,” or Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” the following year. In contrast to the conception that was dominant in the cinema across most of its history, movies shot in black and white today are not seeking to draw us closer to reality, but to create a distance between us and reality, a distance that is sometimes fraught with alienation and estrangement.

It’s no accident that some of the films made in black and white since the total takeover by color are set in the past. Bogdanovich’s picture, for example, takes place in 1951 in a fading town in Texas. The last movie theater is about to close after screening Howard Hawks’ black-and-white western masterpiece, “Red River,” an exciting sequence from which is inserted in “The Last Picture Show.”

This year’s two Academy Award nominee winnder and nominee made in black and white are also memory films that unfold in the past. “Roma” is about its director’s childhood in a bourgeois home in Mexico City; and “Cold War,” which is set in the decades after World War II, tells the story of how the director’s parents fell in love. The picture is dedicated to them and Pawlikowksi gave the film’s two protagonists his parents’ names.

Like every aesthetic choice, the use of black and white in filmmaking is liable to become a mannerism – though this is not the case in the films by Cuaron and Pawlikowski, which are beautifully shot and which are suffused with artistic intelligence by the black and white. The French director Francois Truffaut, speaking about the difference between filming in black and white and filming in color, noted that there are some actresses whose distinctiveness is enhanced by black and white and blurred by color. As an example, he mentioned Lauren Bacall, whose special character was lost when she started to appear in color films. In fact, there are actresses whom we remember only in black and white, even if at a later stage of their career they also appeared in color movies. Is it possible to imagine, for example, Greta Garbo in color (she actually never appeared in a color film)? When Bette Davis and Joan Crawford started to appear in films made in color, their whole image underwent a transformation, and it’s not by chance that most of their late-career appearances were in horror movies.

The clever advertising slogan for Francois Truffaut’s 1968 color film, “The Bride Wore Black,” was “film noir in color.” The clash between “noir” and color reflects the place of black-and-white cinematography in contemporary cinema. Amid the means of expression that characterize this art, black and white, with the whole range of hues that connect between the two, carries an up-to-date artistic message at this particular cinematic moment.