Can Black-and-White Films 'Roma' and 'Cold War' Triumph at the Oscars?

The Return of Black and White - Illustration by Brandon Loving- H 2018
Illustration by Brandon Loving

At a time when everything in society seems to be black and white — as in complete opposites, such as our major political parties' positions — it's only fitting that the film community is gushing about two new black-and-white movies.

Indeed, two of the year's most critically acclaimed films and serious contenders for the best picture and best foreign-language film Oscars are monochromatic — Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, lensed by Cuaron himself, and Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War, lensed by Lukasz Zal. The films hail from very different parts of the world — Mexico and Poland — but each tells a deeply personal story about the filmmaker's parents. And, interestingly enough, at a time when streaming services are under fire for allegedly threatening cinema as we know it, both projects — not exactly "easy sells" — are being distributed and promoted heavily by none other than Netflix and Amazon, respectively.

Cuaron and Pawlikowski are not only both perfectionist filmmakers, but also close friends. In fact, Cuaron received special thanks in the credits of three prior Pawlikowski films (2004's My Summer of Love, 2011's The Woman in the Fifth and 2014's Ida), while Pawlikowski received special thanks in the credits of 2015's Desierto, which was directed by Cuaron's son Jonas and produced by Alfonso. In 2013, they picked films out of the famous Criterion Collection closet together. Pawlikowski served on the jury of the 2015 Venice Film Festival, over which Cuaron presided. And they informally consulted on each other's 2018 films (both were shot on the same sort of Alexa camera), which they subsequently discussed in a public conversation at Mexico's Morelia Film Festival in October.

Roma, which is set in the early-1970s Mexico City of Cuaron's youth, was born out of a conversation between the filmmaker and Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremaux at the Morelia Film Festival years ago. Cuaron has said he shared an idea with Fremaux for a prehistoric drama, to which Fremaux replied, "Oh, fuck off. What you have to do is go back to Mexico and shoot the reality you are familiar with." After years of trying, Cuaron finally returned to his hometown and shot the film. He assumed the job of DP himself after Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, the thrice Oscar-winning cinematographer who had shot his earlier films, became unavailable. Cuaron assumed the job of DP himself, occasionally consulting with Lubezki remotely, but working solo. The resulting work premiered at Venice, where it was awarded the Golden Lion for best film, and has been racking up acclaim and accolades ever since.

Pawlikowski's enthusiasm for Cold War, a feature that was inspired by his parents' roller-coaster relationship during the years after World War II, was encouraged not by Fremaux, but by Cuaron. "He said, 'Cabron [Dumbass], you're going to make it. This is the best story you've ever told me,' " Pawlikowski has recounted. He chose to shoot the film not only in Academy ratio, but in black and white, because "you look at Poland in the early 1950s and there wasn't any color." He has explained, "We played with the idea of doing it in some kind of fake Soviet Technicolor, very washed-out greens and reds, but we came to the conclusion it would look too contrived." Actress Joanna Kulig says Pawlikowski would do dozens of takes of each scene, trying to get it to look exactly as he imagined. "He told me my blouse was the wrong color and made me change," she recalled. "In a black-and-white film!" The film premiered at Cannes, where Pawlikowski was awarded the best director prize.

Until the mid-1930s, virtually all feature films, of course, were black and white. 1939's Gone With the Wind was the first color film to win the best picture Oscar — released in the same year that Judy Garland's Dorothy Gale hit her head in black-and-white Kansas and woke up in Technicolor Oz. Color brought movie stars and sets to vivid life and became a major selling point for moviegoers, so the number of films in color began catching up to, and ultimately surpassed, the number in black and white. Yet, for years, the two co-existed side by side, which is why, from 1939 to 1967 (excepting 1957), there were two Oscars celebrating cinematography, one for black-and-white and the other for color.

Over the half-century since the cinematography Oscars were merged into one (the result of black-and-white films becoming the exception to the rule), a smattering of films have continued to be made in black and white, usually by film students too poor to afford color film or by well-known auteurs who carried enough weight to get them made despite the reservations of financiers (black and white has increasingly become a turnoff for many) in order to evoke the past. The filmmakers most closely associated with post-1967 black-and-white filmmaking include Woody Allen (1979's Manhattan, 1980's Stardust Memories, 1983's Zelig, 1984's Broadway Danny Rose, 1991's Shadow and Fog and 1998's Celebrity — plus, to an extent, 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo) and Jim Jarmusch (1984's Stranger Than Paradise, 1986's Down by Law, 1995's Dead Man and 2003's Coffee and Cigarettes).

Other notable examples of this sort of filmmaking post-1967 include Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973), Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974), Bob Fosse's Lenny (1974), Joan Micklin Silver's Hester Street (1975), David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1978), Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980), Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish (1983), Spike Lee's She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Steven Soderbergh's Kafka (1991), Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993, the first black-and-white film — save for a famous red coat — to win the best picture Oscar since 1960's The Apartment), Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994), Gary Ross' Pleasantville (1998, sort of an inverse Wizard of Oz), Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998), Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000), Ethan Coen and Joel Coen's The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Soderbergh's The Good German (2006), Anton Corbijn's Control (2007) and Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis (2007, possibly the first-ever black-and-white animated feature).

The past decade alone has yielded Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (2009), Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist (2011, the only black-and-white film other than Schindler's List to win the best picture Oscar in the last 50 years), Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha (2012), Tim Burton's Frankenweenie (2012, another rare black-and-white animated feature), Alexander Payne's Nebraska (2013) and Pawlikowski's own Ida (2014, which won the best foreign language film Oscar).

As for Oscars? Members of the Academy's cinematographers branch, who determine the best cinematography nominees, have continued to respond to black-and-white films, nominating The Last Picture Show, Lenny, Raging Bull, Zelig, The Man Who Wasn't There, The White Ribbon, The Artist, Nebraska and, most recently, Ida (for which Zal shared a nom with Ryszard Lenczewski). But, as far as best cinematography Oscar wins, which are determined by the full Academy (about 97 percent of whom are not cinematographers), only one post-1967 black-and-white film has won: Schindler's List.

Cold War and Roma were celebrated at November's prestigious Camerimage cinematography festival in Poland as 2018's finest examples of cinematography, with Cold War claiming the Silver Frog and Roma the Bronze Frog (2017's The Fortress won the Gold Frog), strong harbingers of best cinematography Oscar success. (The cinematographers branch has never nominated a cinematographer for a film he also directed — there haven't been many — so Cuaron would be the first.) If both films do indeed land cinematography noms, it will be the first time that multiple black-and-white films in a single year received such recognition since 1966. And if they both get picture noms, it will be the first time that multiple black-and-white films in a single year received such recognition since The Elephant Man and Raging Bull were nominated 38 years ago.

Does their success — past, and possibly future — suggest a resurgence of black-and-white cinematography? It will take a few years to know for sure. But, regardless, it is rather remarkable to note that these two contenders are now sharing some theaters with another entirely (save for the red coat) black-and-white film, Schindler's List, which is being rereleased on its 25th anniversary — while many viewers are simultaneously streaming a partially black-and-white work, The Other Side of the Wind, the final film of Orson Welles, which was unfinished when he died in 1985, but was recently completed by others.

You might even call it a colorful turn of events!


By Tara Bitran

In the past six decades, only three color-free films have taken Oscar’s top prize.

The Apartment

Billy Wilder's romantic 1960 comedy centering on Jack Lemmon's insurance clerk, who falls for Shirley MacLaine's elevator operator, was nominated for 10 Oscars, snagging awards for best picture, director, original screenplay and editing.

Schindler's List

The little girl in red may remain a standout image from 1994's best picture winner, but Spielberg's Holocaust drama, which won seven Oscars, was told primarily in black and white to depict the atrocities of life without light during this period in history.

The Artist

Hazanavicius' 21st century love letter to old Hollywood (which is also silent save for one line of dialogue) took the best picture Oscar in 2012, along with the best actor (Jean Dujardin), director and costume design prizes.