For decades it was believed that people dream in black-and-white. Films are essentially illusions, the stuff of dreams, so this makes sense. Even now, you’re probably thinking… “do I see colour in my dreams?” Perhaps this is why Spielberg used colour to accentuate the iconic girl in a red coat in Schindler’s List, and Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez painted Roark Jr yellow in Sin City.
Whatever your thoughts on dreams or why we dream, the beauty of film is that we’re able to live through someone else’s waking dream or nightmare. Black-and-white films have a nostalgia for those who grew up with them but there’s actually good reason as to why some filmmakers still opt to shoot in black and white.
As quick and easy as it is to apply this effect to your Instagram photos on your smartphone, it’s a lot more intricate on set, especially if you’re shooting on film. It’s a bold decision, relegating your film to the ranks of a few, especially in today’s colour-saturated media world.
(Kevin Smith shot his cult indie comedy Clerks in black and white because it’s more cost-effective although he’d probably argue that the effect helped his offbeat comedy stick out like its iconic duo, Jay and Silent Bob.)
There are many reasons art photographers choose to shoot in black and white. It captures light much better than colour, just as some textures have a magical quality in this spectrum. The stark contrasts make it striking and it has a poetic or even political quality, depending on the context.
Siphoning out colour also helps create a buffer for audiences, making shocking visuals easier to watch with a bit of distance and the sense of harking back to a forgotten time.
Here are five modern films now streaming that chose black and white.
Malcolm & Marie, 2021 (Netflix)
Zendaya is on fire. Her name means “give thanks” in Shona, but it seems as though it’s us who should be thankful. The award-winning star has been making waves with spirited performances, whether she’s playing the troubled Rue in the critically acclaimed Euphoria, MJ in Spider-Man or Anne Wheeler in The Greatest Showman. Blessed with great screen presence, her strong run with Sam Levinson translated into landing a co-lead role in the two-hander romance drama, Malcolm & Marie.
The story follows a successful and life-changing premiere for up-and-coming director Malcolm and his girlfriend Marie as the two deconstruct their relationship in the aftermath of the evening’s events. Playing a girl with a similar history of drug dependency to Rue, Zendaya stars opposite John David Washington of Blackkklansman fame. Their chemistry is palpable and their nuanced performances elevate compelling dialogue. It could have been a tightly-wound stage play but glides on screen thanks to silky cinematography, artful photography and the strength of its stars.
IMDB rating: 6.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 60%
Mank, 2020 (Netflix)
Gary Oldman played Winston Churchill to an Oscar. He’s a chameleon of an actor, tending towards supporting roles and best known as iconic villains in The Professional and The Fifth Element. In more recent years, his prowess as an underdog lead have landed him bigger and better roles. Mank is one of the bigger ones, allowing him to sink into the world of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, much like Bryan Cranston did in Trumbo. Arguably, the best film of all-time… This period in Hollywood history was a golden age for the industry as legendary auteurs like Orson Welles and Frank Capra broke new ground for cinema.
Immersing us in this world is contemporary legend David Fincher, whose choice to shoot in black and white is testament to the primary medium of the era. Taking us back in time to this low-tech world of typewriters and dial-up telephones, it’s refreshing to get a modern spin on an old world much as we did in The Artist. Nostalgia is wrapped up in a neat biographical tribute to the screenwriter, a self-reflective zeitgeist mood with Fincher’s quest to write and compose the film to look like it was shot in its own time. Oldman delivers and so does Amanda Seyfried, who looks right at home.
IMDB rating: 7.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 82%
Schindler’s List, 1993 (Showmax)
Steven Spielberg’s timeless masterpiece is probably one of the first films people think of when someone talks about films shot in black and white. A juggernaut when it comes to filmmaking, the powerful producer, writer and director has a knack for delivering mainstream films that both audiences and critics adore. Schindler’s List is more personal, less mainstream but still provocative and powerful in its depiction of a German industrialist and member of the Nazi party who tries to save his Jewish employees.
Backed by a stellar cast in Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Embeth Davidtz and Ralph Fiennes, this epic historical drama conjures up the past with documentary authentic realism. Well-acted, elegantly photographed, sparing no expense in terms of production values and swathing us in the haunting music of John Williams, this is a must-see of the highest order. Heartbreaking and haunting yet soberingly important, Schindler’s List serves as a beacon so that we don’t forget past atrocities or the flicker of hope in the darkest of days.
IMDB rating: 8.9/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 97%
Roma, 2018 (Netflix)
Alfonso Cuaron is the force behind Children of Men and Gravity, a filmmaker who’s constantly pushing the limits in terms of what is achievable on celluloid. Roma is no different, serving up a slice of black-and-white life in his most personal story from the streets of Mexico City. Starting with the opening credits, as water is swished over a floor and into a drain, you know Roma is going to be something special. Settling in the realm of neo-realism, making use of naturalistic performances, dealing with the hard edges of life through the lens of a maid coming to terms with her lot, it’s one of those films that gently tugs at your soul.
A visual masterpiece, Roma is quite exquisite in its detail, turning every frame into an artwork. Set in 1971, this chronicle is addressed with sweeping brush strokes, Cuaron crafting scenes on an epic scale without losing the fly-on-the-wall feel. As an ensemble drama, the narrative is overarching, preventing us from getting too close to Cleo in an Oscar-nominated debut by Yalitza Aparicio. A leaf in the wind, she’s blown in every direction as hints of story build to some heartbreaking revelations. Much like Rome Open City, social realism is at play, which would have had more of a docudrama feel to it if it weren’t for the breathtaking cinematography. At over two hours, Roma is a decidedly long picture, but ultimately a rewarding one.
IMDB rating: 7.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 92%
What Did Jack Do?, 2020 (Netflix)
David Lynch is a curious man. An artist turned director, his work has been primarily driven by intuition, comparing the pursuit of good ideas with fishing. Preoccupied with dreams and technology, he’s crafted many memorable and critically acclaimed films over the years. Best known for the landmark Twin Peaks television series and films like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, his first streaming film is What Did Jack Do?
This odd short film is shot in black and white almost as a nod to Eraserhead, the film that put the eccentric director on the map. Taking place in a room, Lynch spends time with a talking monkey named Jack. It would be a comedy in almost anyone else’s hands but Lynch’s reputation precedes him, making it almost unclassifiable. Slowed down speech, cryptic dialogue, eerie music, this departure from reality harnesses many Lynch trademarks as everything becomes surreal, unpredictable and preoccupied with mood.
IMDB rating: 6.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 92%