By the mid-1960s, shooting your film in black and white was already becoming a stylistic choice. Fighting against the pull of the monochromatic little television boxes that were more and more frequently gluing families to their living room sofas on Saturday nights, the industry made dazzling, colorful wide-screen cinema the de-facto standard. Stalwarts of that era, Mike Nichol’s “The Graduate,” Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Jaques Demy’s “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” couldn’t be reimagined in anything other than the lyrical color they’ve come to be known for, in much the same way we wouldn’t want to see “Casablanca” on Kodachrome film. In the forty years since Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” black and white films have become more and more of a novelty, showing up sparingly, typically as art-house pieces looking to buck the studio-standard in more than one way. With the Oscars just a few days away, and with Cuarón’s heart-rending black and white feature “Roma” at the front of our minds, the state of modern black and white filmmaking is due for a checkup; a look in at how the black-and-white cinematography is being used today.
“Roma” is verbally a nostalgia piece (Cuarón told IndieWire that “90 percent of the scenes” came straight from his memory). The filmmaker leans on what he knows and what he can recall, bringing the events of his childhood to life in crisp, clean, digitally captured black and white. The distinction here between shooting black and white on film versus digitally is important, as it speaks to the role Cuarón sees the technique playing in modern cinema. Cuarón’s black and white is not a grainy, rough emulation of classic Hollywood — it’s a much sharper, higher-definition use of a color-set that, while once the norm out of necessity, can bring to a story an unconscious thematic weight when used in the right light.
Cutting away to a black and white scene in a full-color picture has been easy movie shorthand for a flashback or a memory for decades. “Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse” (The biggest best-picture snub of the year) uses sudden shifts to grey-scale in a few different contexts to indicate a jump into a character’s backstory or a reference to something that only existed in the past, and we as viewers didn’t need any notations on-screen to understand that. In general, we know without saying that the little boy watching the old car backdown the driveway in the rain is the younger version of our main character — that the unnamed boy in the hospital bed is the dying son of the presently grieving mother in our story. These types of moments in movies don’t represent the peak of creative screenwriting sometimes, but they’re producer favorites because they get the point across without too much of a hassle. The most important thing to recognize from them is how easy it is for us to notice and understand them as viewers.
I’d bet that most people’s first experience watching something in black and white is with something pretty old — rewinding a VHS of “Arsenic and Old Lace” found beneath a grandparent’s television set, slogging through re-runs of “I Love Lucy” on summer afternoons when nothing else is on — Cuarón shooting his entire feature in black and white, then, has some effect on us as viewers, impacting our first impression of the film to make it feel as if it was plucked straight out of time. The digital aspect of Cuarón’s photography fights against this a bit. Had Cuarón wanted to make a strict call-back to the Hollywood-of-old (he wouldn’t have made a film focused on an immigrant working in domestic help) he would have shot on 16 mm. Cuarón’s crisp, wide-format black-and-white suggests of a new way to use this cinematic technique in a way that makes use of our unconscious associations with black-and-white cinema to make nostalgic films, though films not trapped by the customs and expectations — by the baggage that comes with this two color range.
“Roma” could be the first of many more modern monochrome features to come, but I sort of doubt it. It works well in this case, but I struggle to see the technique breaking past the ‘niche’ area with just this one movie. “Frances Ha” was the last big, modern black and white film I can think of, and though it did well to give Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig a name, it didn’t send many directors running to their supply closets to dust off their grey hues.