Are black and white films back in style?

Image: John David Washington and Zendaya in Malcom and Marie, via Netflix

In the Disney animated short film, Paperman (2012), everything is black and white except for the love interest’s lipstick (which is, of course, red). Her lipstick marks a piece of paper, standing out against the blankness of the world. The film is only a few minutes long, and its use of black and white is clearly intended to highlight the humdrum nature of the office environment where the protagonist works. It is an effective choice, and the film is stunning – I for one could watch a feature-length film in this style. Colour is generally key for Disney’s marketing so, unfortunately, I doubt they would create black and white films unless it was for a short film or with a big-name director attached (see Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, 2012). I point out Paperman because creators can do a lot with the creative possibilities that come with telling a story with little to no colour. An absence of colour is not necessarily a limitation – it can actually be an asset, which explains why so many avant-garde filmmakers continue to deploy it decades after the advent of technicolour. 

Over the past few years, there have been quite a few black and white films – such as Roma (2018), The Lighthouse (2019), and in 2020 there was even a monochrome release of Parasite. I have recently watched Malcolm and Marie (2021)and Mank (2020). Malcolm and Marie, directed by Sam Levinson, is a film about a filmmaker (Malcolm, played by John David Washington), his muse (Marie, played by Zendaya), and their toxic relationship. One of the reasons that it was made in black and white was about “reclaiming […] the narrative of black and white Hollywood” (Zendaya, GMA interview) by casting black actors as the protagonists of a black and white film. It is interesting how this film attempts to blend the old and the new – digging back into movie history with references and commentary on other films, but also exploring contemporary issues about filmmaking. Malcolm and Marie suffered from the problem of trying to talk about too much in one go: addiction, the chaos of relationships, and the question of what makes a good film. At the same time that it brings up all of these topics, it does not visibly explore them – everything is experienced through the conversation between the two main characters and is told not shown. But it would have suffered this same issue in colour. 

It makes sense that this couple’s world – filled with emotional abuse, anger and resentment – is a colourless one.

It makes sense that this couple’s world – filled with emotional abuse, anger and resentment – is a colourless one. The relationship lacks joy. The choice of monochrome also never lets the viewer forget they are watching a movie. As Malcolm’s life and thoughts revolve around the world of film, it makes sense that the audience of Malcolm and Marie is made to think about the fact that they too are watching a film. Additionally, being in black and white adds to the minimalist feeling of the film, which was filmed during the pandemic with only two actors, as well as the intimacy of this sparseness as the relationship is explored. Most importantly: Malcolm and Marie looks good in black and white. I didn’t find myself thinking about the lack of colour in a negative way. My main issues with Malcolm and Marie are that – as I mentioned – it covers too many topics to go into many of them with enough depth, and the film ends without much of a resolution. I imagine the couple waking up the next morning and starting to argue again. To me, Malcolm and Marie is a film that should have been a limited series. 

Mank, directed by David Fincher, is starkly different. Where Malcolm and Marie has a tiny cast and everything takes place in one house, the biographical Mank has a large cast and moves around in time and space. But I think the fact that they are both black and white and both films about film is no coincidence. If you want to draw attention to your film being a commentary on film, what better way to do it than to hark back to the “Golden Age” of cinema in black and white. Of course, Mank is also black and white because of the fact that the film that Mankiewicz was writing was the black and white Citizen Kane (1941). I feel as though I should have liked this film. I certainly appreciated what it was doing, but even though the choice of black and white was justifiable, I think that Mank could have worked in colour – actually, it would have looked better. There were some moments, particularly in flashbacks, where I wanted to see the luxury of the world of the movies in technicolour, and I think that the differences in colour in different settings this would have provided a good contrast with the parts of the film where Mankiewicz is in his home working on the script. 

That being said, a switch to colour would not necessarily fix why I didn’t enjoy it despite its technical brilliance. It presumes a certain amount of background knowledge. For viewers that enjoy Citizen Kane and old Hollywood films, it would be a great film. It was well received by critics, and I believe that if I were more interested in older films and Hollywood’s history, I might have enjoyed it more.

Black and white films will probably never stop being made by some of the more adventurous filmmakers – indeed, they can be very successful. However, I also don’t think that they will ever become ‘mainstream’ again. Despite the creative potential in black and white films, films in colour are easier to market to a wider audience. After watching Mank and Malcolm and Marie, I want to explore watching black and white films more. Though I have mixed feelings on both films, I admire the risk that filmmakers are taking when they make the choice to release a film in monochrome; it is this sort of daring which can lead to films that stray from the norm and bring something new to audiences. 

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