Why black-and-white movies are everywhere in 2021

Shortly before Bong Joon-Ho’s smash hit inequality thriller Parasite won Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, the director screened a black-and-white version of his soon-to-be history-making film. He explained why at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam, where the cut premiered. With some of his characteristic wry wit, he said: “I think it may be vanity on my part, but when I think of the classics, they’re all in black and white. So I had this idea that if I turned my films into black and white, then they’d become classics.”

Maybe his theory explains why a time traveler from 1921, plopped down into a movie theater this year, would find plenty of baffling new experiences (reclining seats! surround sound!) but also might find themselves wondering why color movies never caught on. Many of these films look like Citizen Kane or Psycho or Casablanca or Seven Samurai — indisputable classics that we’re still watching decades later. What filmmaker wouldn’t want to be in that pantheon?

Black and white — which never really went away — is huge at the movies this year. Conventional wisdom says that audiences are bored by black and white, but the 2021 offerings suggest that maybe the larger culture is finally ready to see this for what it is: an aesthetic choice, another tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.

Stumble into a theater right now, and you might catch Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s drama about his childhood during the Troubles, filmed almost entirely in black and white save for a few brightly colored movie screens, a theater performance, and footage of contemporary Belfast at the very beginning. Or you could see C’mon C’mon, Mike Mills’s family drama starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, and newcomer Woody Norman, a film that looks back at one family’s past to try to understand the future.

Wes Anderson uses black and white for long stretches of The French Dispatch to pay homage to directors and filmmaking movements (such as the French New Wave) that primarily worked in monochrome; Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming film Being the Ricardos, about Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, uses black and white at times for similar purposes. The fully black-and-white drama Passing, which hits Netflix soon, leans on its visual language to tell a story about race and perception. And Joel Coen turned The Tragedy of Macbeth (out Christmas Day) into an eerie horror-spiked drama by borrowing visual language from filmmakers who worked primarily in grayscale, especially the German expressionism of the 1910s and ’20s. (Our hypothetical time-traveler would know the reference.)

This year, documentaries like The Velvet Underground and The Sparks Brothers rely heavily on black-and-white footage to tell their stories. Malcolm & Marie, starring John David Washington and Zendaya, was shot all in black and white, aiming for a sleek and sophisticated vibe. Films like Gunda, a nearly silent documentary about a pig, or Faya Dayi, a trance-like documentary about the ritual plant khat, recast the way the audience looks at the natural world. El Planeta, a sharp debut comedy about a young woman and her mother pulling cons to survive in post-crisis Spain, has the air of a particularly bleak screwball comedy.

Working in black and white isn’t unique, of course. Plenty of filmmakers in the color-dominant era have chosen to work in black and white, from Martin Scorsese in Raging Bull (1980) to Steven Spielberg in Schindler’s List (1993) to the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). Just in the past decade, monochrome movies have been among critics’ most-lauded. The Artist was nominated for 10 Oscars in 2012 and won five of them, including Best Picture. Others followed, like Frances Ha, Ida, and Nebraska, all in 2013; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night in 2014; Embrace of the Serpent in 2015; Cold War and Roma in 2018; The Lighthouse in 2019; and Mank and Time just last year.

And in recent years, blockbuster directors have hopped on the black-and-white train as a way to encourage audiences to rewatch the film with a new set of eyes. In 2017, George Miller released Mad Max: Fury Road — Black and Chrome; James Mangold did the same for Logan Noir. This year, after his supersized (and full-color) version of Justice League, Zack Snyder also released a black-and-white version, titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Justice Is Gray.

And, of course, there’s the black-and-white cut of Parasite.

Despite all of these contemporary uses of black and white, audiences still tend to think of film history as being BC and AC — Before Color and After Color. It’s as though someone in Hollywood snapped their fingers and light flooded into the world, Wizard of Oz-style.

The Wizard of Oz indeed is notable for its early use of black and white and Technicolor to tell its story, way back in 1939. (Dorothy’s native Kansas is rendered in black and white, toned with sepia; when she gets to Oz, color floods in. Makes sense!)

In truth, color films were on the scene almost from the start. As with every aspect of film, from sound to streaming, the change happened in tandem with technological development. Early on, around the turn of the 20th century, color films were expensive, since using color in a film meant hand-tinting or stenciling every single frame.

But that doesn’t mean they weren’t made. In fact, from 1895 until the advent of sound, most people saw films in color, not black and white. However, film preservationists tended not to preserve the color, which also fades quickly. And so we tend to think of a number of classic films — like Georges Méliès’s 1902 film Voyage to the Moon or the seminal 1920 horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — as being in black and white, when in fact colorized versions were shown to most early audiences.

Naturally, companies on both sides of the Atlantic were working hard to develop ways to make full-color movies more easily. Color film was patented in 1899, and systems for projecting color films (like Kinemacolor in 1908) were invented. Technicolor developed a highly successful version, creating color images by exposing three separate film strips to develop in blue, red, and green, then combining them. The first film to use Technicolor was The Gulf Between, made in 1917. And only 11 years later, The Viking became the first feature film to be rendered entirely in color.

The introduction of sound to films in 1927 posed a problem to colorization; sound was recorded onto a strip of the film itself, and thus color processes could interfere with the sound. But in 1932, Technicolor figured out how to have sound and color, and the new color era was born, making films like The Wizard of Oz possible.

Over the next few decades, the two types of movies coexisted in Hollywood. In fact, from 1939 to 1967, the Academy gave out two Oscars for cinematography: one for color and one for black and white. But over those decades, the number of black-and-white films dropped off precipitously. Color added a sense of spectacle to films — that’s why so many of the musicals and Biblical epics from the 1930s to the 1950s are brightly colored. Black and white, which remained less expensive, was often used for more serious films or those that weren’t thought to benefit from the spectacle. By the mid-1950s, about half of Hollywood’s films were in black and white.

And in 1952, a process developed by Kodak to render films in color more inexpensively began to edge Technicolor out of the picture. Cheaper color movies meant a decline in black and white, and by the 1960s it was rare to see a black-and-white picture. The last fully black-and-white film to win Best Picture at the Oscars before The Artist in 2011 was Billy Wilder’s comedy The Apartment, in 1961. (Schindler’s List, which won in 1994, features a splash of color in the form of a little girl wearing a red coat.)

Which brings us to the recent past. The uptick in black-and-white films has been unmistakable, especially in 2021. And the Academy, at least, has responded enthusiastically, awarding two of the last three Oscars for cinematography to black-and-white films — Roma in 2019 and Mank in 2021.

Yet it hasn’t always been easy to make a black-and-white movie. For instance, when Alexander Payne insisted on releasing Nebraska in black and white, the studio lowered his budget, reasoning that a black-and-white film simply wouldn’t make as much at the box office as one in color.

But today, the difference in the cost of making the film in color or black and white isn’t significant. As opposed to the mid-century movies shot on black-and-white film, most of today’s versions, such as Roma, are shot in color and then changed to black and white during post-production. It’s not as simple as slapping on an Instagram filter; filmmakers carefully adjust the color grading in order to produce a rich array of grays in between the black and white, and to fine-tune the image so it looks good on screen.

But the reasons directors choose to make black-and-white films vary, and unlike many black-and-white films from the past, that’s not for cost reasons. (The switch from film to digital for many directors has negated the budget difference between black and white and color altogether.) These days, it’s always an aesthetic choice.

For some, it’s a decision intended to evoke the past. We’re still used to associating black-and-white images with history, which is why the colorization of old photographs to make them seem “current” is both popular and controversial. Peter Jackson colorized and restored old footage of World War I soldiers for his wildly popular 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, a move that for many contemporary viewers brought history to life, but also came with some misgivings. For others, like Anderson with The French Dispatch or David Fincher’s Mank, it’s an attempt to evoke not just the past generally but a particular era in film history. It’s a stylistic homage to an earlier era when the choice to shoot in black and white was driven by other concerns.

But there are other reasons to shoot in black and white. For one, it reminds us that we’re watching a movie, not experiencing “real life.” For the vast majority of people, the world is rendered by our eyes in color. When it’s flipped to black and white, an invisible layer of separation between us and the image arises, and we become aware of the image in new ways. Our eyes are drawn to lines, shapes, light, and even facial expression in a way we might miss in a color film. The image gains a kind of strangeness that makes us sit up and take notice. As The Tragedy of Macbeth cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel told the New York Times, “It’s meant to bring theatricality, and to lose temporality.”

That’s also why some filmmakers speak of using black and white to underline the moral universe of their film. (Snyder even subtitled the monochromatic Justice League cut “Justice Is Gray,” in case you missed it.) Coen’s use of black and white in his Macbeth does something similar, giving the feeling of evil lurking in the murky blacks and dark grays that shade every corner. The black and white in Gunda, similarly, makes us look at the film’s subjects — ordinary barnyard animals — as if they’re works of art, and also subtly hints at the moral point regarding our treatment of animals.

In the case of Passing, black and white renders the story in a manner that matches its plot. Rebecca Hall’s film concerns two light-skinned Black women (played by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) in 1920s Harlem. In the first scene, they’re both “passing” as white in a whites-only hotel restaurant. We encounter them as they encounter one another, in a brightly lit scene that, in black and white, leaves the color of their skin ambiguous to the audience. Cinematographer Eduard Grau says that was intentional: “We didn’t want to clearly show to the audience at first whether our characters were white or Black or mixed race. Everything is so bright that it’s difficult to tell.” Throughout the film, shifts in lighting illuminate their skin differently, emphasizing the complicated and constructed nature of race based on skin tone.

And sometimes, black and white is simply meant to render a stark world, sometimes with unexpected pops of color mixed in to surprise us and tell part of the story visually. In Belfast, for instance, color images on movie screens and at a live theater production the characters watch give us the sense, for the small boy who stands in for director Kenneth Branagh, of entertainment being a window onto a fantasy world in the midst of chaos.

This was Spielberg’s thinking behind Schindler’s List as well. He explained in an interview that “the Holocaust was life without light. For me the symbol of life is color. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black and white.”

And, at the end of the day, some filmmakers just like how black and white looks. It can create a lush, striking image that feels simultaneously fresh and rooted in the past, almost outside of time; that’s the case for Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon, an emotional tale of an uncle who is caring for his young nephew. As Belfast cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos told the New York Times, black and white has “a transcendental quality to be of the past and the present. It’s realistic, but it has a certain magical sense to it as well.”

Given all of these ways of thinking about the use of black and white, will future audiences think of black and white as signifying “old” or “boring”?

I doubt it. For one, if movies continue on this trajectory, then black and white may become a more viable choice once again, another tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox for creating the audience experience they wish to produce. If black-and-white films prove popular with audiences, then it becomes easier for filmmakers like Alexander Payne to convince studios to let them do it; it’s no longer a barrier to box office returns.

Furthermore, we live in an unprecedented era, when most Americans have become their own filmmakers and photographers with the ability to slap a filter onto an image and render it in grayscale or sepia or heightened color. Getting used to seeing color-adjusted images, including black-and-white videos and photos, could make us associate them with the past less. Instead of being bound by history and time, we start to see them as simply aesthetic choices.

And with a plethora of black-and-white movies at our disposal — with new releases starring living movie stars streaming alongside classic films — the feeling that there’s a before and after color may disappear. The collapse of context could actually benefit the way we view black-and-white films.

We’ll see. But filmmaking has always been pushed along by technological advances, and the rise of mobile phone cameras, easy color filtering, and streaming might help finally dispel the persistent but long-outdated notion that black and white means “old” or, worse, “dull.” We’re lucky to live in a time when our viewing choices are so extensive, and 2021’s cornucopia of black-and-white films shows just how much creativity is in our future.