As with any technological advancement, there is plenty of debate surrounding the topic of the first colour film. The earliest colour film is often attested to have existed as early as 1902, made by an Edwardian photographer. However, coloured movies had existed before: around 1895, filmmaker Georges Méliès is reported to have filmed his shots in B&W, but meticulously hand-painted each frame with colour. Many sources will state Cupid Angling (1918) as the first film shot in colour, while both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, were the first ones to be produced using Technicolor technology.
Either way, once the transition to colour came along, it was there to stay, and quickly became the norm in filmmaking. A few years later, almost all releases could be viewed in colour, in order to keep up with the standards and not to fall behind. And yet, B&W has not been entirely forgotten – a considerable number of huge hits over the decades have been black and white films. Whether it is the cinematographic appeal, the setting of the atmosphere, or the larger historic context which B&W emanates, or a combination of the three, such films have stayed successful – we can even see this in 2019, as Roma, a black and white film, is likely to be crowded as Best Picture at the Academy Awards next week. So, let’s look at six memorable B&W films of the last couple of decades.
The story about a former neo-nazi skinhead trying to prevent his younger brother from making the same mistakes as he did was largely overlooked by the major awards of that year, only grabbing a Best Actor nomination for Edward Norton. However, it was and remained a resounding success with the public, as stated by its almost 1 million ratings on IMDb and #34 on the website’s Top Rated Movies of All Time. Although set in modern days, the B&W look sets it in the desired historic context.
If we put David Lynch and B&W in the same sentence, the likely object of discussion will be The Elephant Man, one of his many masterpieces, and one of his few films which actually had mass appeal. However, before that was Eraserhead, a dark, depressing and eerie journey into the equally wonderful and disturbed mind of the renowned filmmaker. The B&W only adds to the already pressing atmosphere, perfectly complements the masterfully crafted sound editing, and creates a world which feels part post-apocalyptic, part Soviet-style industrial, and fully unconventional.
The 70s and 80s were great years for Robert De Niro’s career, who starred in his best films back then. Now most of his choices are instantly forgettable, but among one of the classics was, for sure, Raging Bull. In this biopic, De Niro played Jake La Motta, a famous boxer – and the large red font on the film’s poster is the only colourful thing about it. Entirely black and white, Martin Scorsese’s film is remembered by many as one of the best sports flicks to date.
While this big-time Oscar winner might have raised even more eyebrows due to the fact that it was a silent film, let’s not forget that it likewise presents itself in glorious black and white. The lack of colours is justified both by the historical context – it is, after all, a movie about the history of movies – and the larger symbolism which it successful shoots for.
This Michael Haneke masterpiece, winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or, can be described as many things. For one, due to its setting just before WWI, and its focus on a number of children within a German village, it quietly and indirectly explains further developments which eventually turned into a story which is likely familiar to mostly everyone on the globe. Second, it is a mystery film, with a clever sort of whodunit plot. Both of these arcs are tremendously complemented by the film’s B&W looks – the lack of colour turns it into a technical marvel, while also suggesting a more metaphoric lack of colour of the times.
For whoever had the interest to look, Darren Aronofsky’s genius can also be found at the very beginning of his career as a successful and equally controversial filmmaker. Pi is a very good example of just that. The film’s story revolves around a troubled mathematician’s quest to find universal patterns in everyday life – and while the key element for him was pi, one of the key elements for the film with the same name was its black and white cinematography, which accentuated the spiral of madness that the main character eventually finds himself navigating.