Denzel Washington strides down a castle corridor ominously carrying a knife. A boy brandishes a wooden sword in 1960’s Ireland. Two women exchange furtive looks in an upscale New York City tearoom. Joaquin Phoenix gets upstaged by a precocious boy playing his nephew. All of these scenes and stories gain another level of meaning or resonance for having been filmed in black and white.
This has been a banner year for films released in this artistic approach with “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, “Belfast”, “Passing” and “C’mon, C’mon”. We had one prestige project last year, “Mank” but I don’t recall any other big BnW films in 2020. The directors of these four films had to fight hard to realize their stories outside the norm of our standard color films. Why was the effort so important to them and was it a worthwhile endeavor?
Joel Coen shot his Shakespeare adaptation almost as a horror film. The witches are featured prominently in the trailer and Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington look ominous in the footage. The cinematography fits the macabre mood and setting perfectly. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will be released at Christmas.
Kenneth Branagh opens his film with modern, color scenes of his hometown, Belfast. The movie transitions to black and white as we travel back in time to when he was a boy. “Belfast” gives life to Branagh’s memories of the late 60’s when he was living in an integrated neighborhood. The film’s cinematography brings us in close to these characters. In their world, there’s no religious segregation; not a clear-cut black and white of Protestant and Catholic. The story may not be a rosy one, but this is not a polemic about the Troubles. The focus is kept on the family life and how the escalating violence forces them to abandon their home. The story is richer for not trying to offer a history lesson.
Mike Mills has made another film exploring family dynamics. He focused on his relationship with his father thru his film, “Beginners”. His film, “20th Century Woman” is a tribute to his mother. Now that he’s a father, we get the film “C’mon, C’mon” which features a son. Writer-director, Mills sheperds a story that travels across three cities, with flashbacks and video calls from additional locations and still maintains his central concept of three people exploring how to be in the world. The black and white cinematography bridges all the spaces to create the intimate space between these three characters.
Rebecca Hall, in her directorial debut, wrote the screenplay for her film, “Passing”. Hall was adament that her vision of the book, Passing (Nella Larson, 1929), must be shot in monochrome. It’s a story of two women, both of them African American, who’ve chosen to present themselves to the world in very different ways. One woman, Clare (a luminous Ruth Negga) “passing” for white and even marrying a racist man in Chicago. She’s a childhood friend of our central character, Irene, played by Tessa Thompson, living a seemingly more authentic life in Harlem in 1920’s New York City.
As the film, “Passing” progresses, we see that Irene is suffering from headaches and is increasingly needing time to rest. Clare has insinuated herself into Irene’s life but she’s living a lie. Irene warns her that she’s playing a risky game. Yet Irene’s idyllic life of marriage to a doctor, two lovely boys and a maid does not satisfy her. Even her social work; her crusade for a racial justice organization, leaves her judging others and their intentions. Much of the inner life of these women is told through long looks exchanged between them; lingering glances that are heavy with tension. Here are two women navigating race and their own authenticity. This is a time when a wrong word or glance could get a person lynched–making a statement that sadly echoes our present day.
Joel Coen, Kenneth Branagh, and Mike Mills shot in black and white to achieve an artistic goal or to enhance the storytelling. For my money, the light and shadows in “Passing” are essential to the story. Rebecca Hall, as a first time director, created a film of naunce. She fought to tell this story centered on how the color of your skin can change your live and to tell it in black and white. Kudos to Rebecca Hall.
Drinks With Films Ratings
“Passing” 3 martinis at a Harlem jazz club (out of 5)
“C’mon, C’mon” 3 ½ Slurpies with lots of burping and shooting paper straw liners across the diner (out of 5)
“Belfast” 4 shots of Irish whiskey w/a beer chaser in a working-class bar in Belfast (out of 5)