Last week, two new trailers announced the release of upcoming black and white films: Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth and Rebecca Hall’s Passing. Both films rely on stark monochromatic visuals that strip away the familiar colourful palettes found in most modern films. Considering the Shakespearean source material, Coen’s decision seems a deliberately theatrical one. However, Hall’s might be simplistic given the film’s racial themes.
What is it about black and white that make them such compelling choices when a spectrum of countless colours exists? Let’s take a look at memorable monochromatic films that made a lasting impression in modern cinema.
One of the most iconic black and white films that always comes to mind is Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). Allen opted for monochromatic tones to illustrate his magical vision of New York City. The beautiful Queensboro bridge shot lives on in our minds until today.
Fast forward to the nineties, auteurs including Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton produced stellar black and white films that defined their careers. In Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg conveyed the yin and yang of humanity during the Nazi regime through his black and white imagery. Burton, on the other hand, shared the story of an infamous filmmaker using monochromatic visuals in his double Oscar-winning cult classic Ed Wood (1994).
Many directors have tried their hand at shooting their films in black and white. Master filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky experimented with the power of monochrome early on in their careers. In 1998, both directors made their feature debuts in black and white. While Nolan’s Following garnered critical acclaim at the Slamdance Film Festival, Aronofsky’s Pi earned him the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Both debuts demonstrated how a skilled director can capture intense emotion, even obsession, using only black and white compositions.
The new millennium further popularized the use of monochromatic filmmaking in radical new ways. Filmmakers Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez utilized black and white to translate the original graphic novel to their seminal gritty action film, Sin City (2005). Similarly, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud brought Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel to life in the black and white animated feature, Persepolis (2007).
Sometimes monochrome is simply the right choice for the story being told. When Michel Hazanavicius wanted to tell a story set in Hollywood’s silent era, he resorted to black and white in his Best Picture winner The Artist (2011). So did David Fincher when he revived the untold 1930s story of Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz through glamorous sets and glimmering scenes in the monochromatic Mank (2020).
At other times, black and white imagery simply becomes a comforting sanctuary for filmmakers. For example, Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo is known for his frequent use of black and white visuals in movies such as The Day After (2017), Grass (2018), and Introduction (2021). The same applies to Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski who painted dreamy black and white portraits of the human condition in Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018).
If Allen made movies out of Manhattan, Alfonso Cuarón created cinema out of Roma (2018). The breathtaking black and white photography of Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film moved hearts around the world, even at the Academy which awarded the film three Oscars. A year later, Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin showcased the endless potential of monochromatic filmmaking in his feature debut, Bait (2019). Shot on 16mm film, Bait stood out as a textural and experimental production which pushed the boundaries of visual storytelling. Jenkin won the 2019 BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut by a British Filmmaker for his promising first feature.
Perhaps a personal favorite black and white film is Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012). The delightful yet at times disheartening tale of a young woman growing up in a big, little world is memorable not only for its poetic screenplay but also for its charming monochromatic cinematography.