Are Black and White Movies Making a Comeback?
Two recent major films focus uniquely on story and character, receive popular and colorless releases
“Something about black and white, the way it distills it — makes it a little bit more abstract. Something about losing some of the information of color make it somehow more iconic.” Those are the words of director George Miller in a video introduction telling fans why he was re-releasing the $150 million “Mad Max: Fury Road” in black and white.
The 2015 Tom Hardy-starring franchise picture was a major hit with both fans and critics. It brought in over $370 million worldwide and won six Academy Awards. Even after that success, Miller was not completely satisfied.
Black and white was the “best version” of the flick, according to Miller. He’d wanted to release a “Mad Max” movie without color ever since 1981’s “The Road Warrior.” Miller’s longing for the mystique of black and white imagery on the big screen is not unique. Director James Mangold just spearheaded the re-release of one of 2017’s biggest hits, the R-rated comic book movie, “Logan.”
The film was recently re-released in black and white at Alamo Drafthouse theaters and on home video. It was dubbed, “Logan: Noir.”
Some filmmakers have carried the banner for black and white movies over the years, but those films were arthouse creations that caught little fire with big audiences. “The Artist” and “Good Night and Good Luck,” for example, are mostly forgotten endeavors.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Logan" are movies with production budgets of $150 million and $97 million, respectively. Major studios are bringing black and white movies to a younger and wider audience than other filmmakers have in perhaps decades.
"I think black and white focuses you on character. In a way, it reduces the amount of eye candy, of color and distraction, but I think what it really is for most of us is a chance to connect the movie with movies of the past," said Mangold to Screen Rant about his love for black and white films. "It suddenly feels connected to Westerns and noir films that I wish people would watch more of. I think it's an exercise for real film fans to just enjoy — no different if I were a musician and I rested the band and played something with solo guitar."
Comparing black and white films to acoustic music is an intriguing concept — playing solo with a guitar is far more accepted than saying, "Hey, let's watch this black and white movie." But that's where releases like "Max" and "Logan" could be making a difference.
Many teens would balk at the idea of watching "Casablanca," an old monster movie, or anything else without splashy color and wall-to-wall visual effects. But they may be more open to it if stars like Hugh Jackman and Tom Hardy headline the pictures and the stories contain beloved characters like Wolverine and Mad Max.
A far more widespread appreciation for black and white movies seems to be on the horizon. Just like records have made a big comeback in sales in the last few years, many film fans may be discovering an appreciation for something that most thought died out long ago.
Black and white films have a sharpness, a mystery to their visual flavor.
"It's not unlike stereo versus mono or 3D versus regular. People are interested in the medium," said Mangold. "There have been many different times when people tune in and tune out of filmmaking. I think this is a tune-in moment where a lot of fans are very interested. They make movies with their own phones and cameras and GoPros, and they're very interested in the choices we all make as directors and filmmakers as we make our bigger-scale movies. One way to explore those choices and share them with the audience is to show them alternatives or to try different things."
Who knows what could be next within the film world? Major re-releases of movies that have lost the audience's appreciation because of their lack of color? A black and white version of a Batman story? Superman?
Color, special effects, and digital photography are all great, but it's nice to experience a hyper-focus once again on character and story. Black and white films have a sharpness, a mystery to their visual flavor — and a distinct movie quality that could have been lost to time if not for filmmakers like Miller and Mangold, who are fighting to keep such things alive.