Cinema lovers have long waxed poetic about the power of black-and-white films, and in recent years, movies such as Roma, The Artist, Nebraska and The Lighthouse have all garnered critical acclaim. But the trend toward contemporary black-and-white cinema may have reached its peak in the past year, with multiple examples entering the Oscar race (and one, Nightmare Alley, was released in both color and black-and-white versions). From a German Expressionist-inspired Shakespearean tragedy to a Harlem Renaissance literary adaptation to a nostalgic look at Northern Ireland in the 1960s, these 9 films all find the beauty in the grayscale, with cinematographers citing various artistic reasons for forgoing color.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
The premise: Oscar winners Denzel Washington, 67, and Frances McDormand, 64, go deliciously sinister as Scottish social climbers in this starkly beautiful adaptation by McDormand’s director husband Joel Coen, 67. The simple plot — an ambitious lord and lady vow to become king and queen by any means necessary — unfolds on a sparse and shadow-filled set that falls somewhere between a German Expressionist film, an M.C. Escher painting and a high-fashion perfume ad. British stage veteran Kathryn Hunter, 64, steals scenes as the trio of witches who set the tragedy’s action in motion with their prophecy.
The cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel, 65, who has earned Oscar nominations for such films as Amélie and Inside Llewyn Davis, got his sixth nom for The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Why it’s black and white: Delbonnel and Coen discussed the film as a cinematic haiku, and black and white allowed for both simplicity and abstraction, stripping away any unnecessary ornamentation.
Watch it: The Tragedy of Macbeth, on Apple TV+
The premise: Known for his films Beginners and 20th Century Women, Mike Mills, 55, directs this sweetly earnest film about Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a bachelor audio producer who forges a bond with his precocious nephew Jesse (played by the scene-stealing Woody Norman) when he has to step in unexpectedly as his caretaker. Scenes of the two bonding are interspersed with Johnny’s work project, in which he interviews real, nonactor kids about their hopes for the future. The indie dramedy has widely flown under the radar since it opened to rapturous reviews on the film festival circuit, though Norman’s breakout performance recently earned a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actor.
The cinematographer: Robbie Ryan, 52, who received an Oscar nomination for The Favourite and also worked on Marriage Story and The Meyerowitz Stories.
Why it’s black and white: Mills told MovieMaker that he viewed the film as a story of an adult and a child traveling through landscapes. “To me, that image is an archetypal fable-like image,” he said. “It’s an ancient image. And I wanted to kind of get into that fable, myth kind of feeling.” Black and white seemed like the perfect fit.
Malcolm & Marie
The premise: This stylish romance was the first Hollywood film to be conceived, financed, produced and released during the pandemic. Writer and director Sam Levinson, best known for the HBO teen drama Euphoria, teamed up with the show’s star, Emmy winner Zendaya, and BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington, and shot the project in secret during the summer of 2020. The two-hander follows a director and his girlfriend on the night of his big premiere as they trade barbs and deliver monologues about film criticism and Blackness in Hollywood.
The cinematographer: Marcell Rév, best known as the director of photography on Euphoria.
Why it’s black and white: Zendaya told Good Morning America that the movie gave Black actors a chance to shine in a black-and-white film, because they weren’t offered the chance to do so in the past. “We weren’t as present in the black-and-white era,” Zendaya said, later continuing, “We did want to pay tribute to that era and reclaim that beauty and that elegance with these two Black actors.”
Watch it: Malcolm & Marie, on Netflix
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The premise: Here’s what this immersive and meditative Russian documentary does have: the namesake mother pig and her brood of piglets, two cows, a one-legged chicken and an incredible animal’s-eye view of life on a farm. And here’s what it doesn’t have: narration, dialogue, music, any humans or an explicit message. Without any lecturing, it’s left up to audience members to decide if they see this story as simply an ode to agriculture or a powerful treatise on vegetarianism. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called the film “sublimely beautiful and profoundly moving,” while Carlos Aguilar of RogerEbert.com dubbed Gunda “a cinematic triumph of porcine poetry.”
The cinematographer: Director Victor Kossakovsky, 60, and Egil Håskjold Larsen.
Why it’s black and white: Kossakovsky told British Cinematographer that bright colors can be overwhelming or can make your attention wander. “I didn’t want to show cute pink piglets — and believe me, they’re really cute,” he said. “I didn’t want to seduce the audience this way. I felt that black and white would make us focus on their being instead of on their appearance.”
The premise: Writer and director Kenneth Branagh, 61, mined his own childhood for this nostalgic coming-of-age story set in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, with breakout star Jude Hill as his 9-year-old stand-in, Buddy. While sectarian violence wages outside their front door, inside there’s love, as represented by Pa (Jamie Dornan), Ma (Caitríona Balfe) and best supporting nominees Granny (Judi Dench, 87) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds, 69). The film is shot in black and white save for a few pops of color, especially when Buddy and his family are watching Technicolor films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — perhaps a nod to the reality-altering power of cinema on the young mind of a future director.
The cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos, 51, who has worked with Branagh on many of his films, including Thor, Cinderella and 2022’s Death on the Nile.
Why it’s black and white: Zambarloukos told Entertainment Weekly that black and white “amplifies the emotion that's there and it seems to be a more lucid, more direct way of feeling what the actors are feeling. It's less descriptive than color. You don't get as much information, but you gain something else.”
The premise: This surrealist-tinged dark comedy, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, follows a mother-daughter duo that turns to grifting when they face eviction in post-economic-crisis Spain. With a scrappy vibe that recalls ’80s indie films, El Planeta also stars a mother-daughter duo — writer/director/producer/actress Amalia Ulman and her first-time-actress mother Ale — and was shot in the seaside town of Gijón, where Amalia was raised.
The cinematographer: Carlos Rigo Bellver, who was inspired by Hong Sang-Soo’s Hotel by the River and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise when establishing the look of the film.
Why it’s black and white: Ulman told The Film Stage that she loves working with templates, and because this was a European film, she wanted to draw on French New Wave and neorealist influences. But there was a more pragmatic reason: The weather in this part of Spain is as rainy and overcast as the weather in the British Isles, and shooting in color would have looked gray anyway and required tons of color correction!
The French Dispatch (parts of it!)
The premise: Known for his oversaturated cinematic confections, Wes Anderson, 52, hasn’t worked in black and white since his 1992 short “Bottle Rocket.” His latest film is an episodic ode to the world of publishing, with each segment dedicated to an article in the final issue of a New Yorker–inspired magazine called The French Dispatch. Set in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, the film bounces back and forth between black and white (the past) and color (the present), with an ensemble that includes Bill Murray (71), Frances McDormand (64), Benicio del Toro (54), Tilda Swinton (61) — and in the bit part of Tip-top, The Tragedy of Macbeth cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, 65.
The cinematographer: Robert D. Yeoman, 70, who has shot all of Anderson’s live-action features, earning an Oscar nomination for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Why it’s black and white: You only have to watch a few minutes of Timothée Chalamet as student revolutionary Zeffirelli in the “Revisions to a Manifesto” segment to see how much Anderson was influenced by French New Wave filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.
The premise: For her directorial debut, British actress Rebecca Hall (whom you may know from Vicky Cristina Barcelona) adapted a woefully underrated 1929 novel by Nella Larsen that follows two light-skinned Black women in 1920s New York who have taken very different paths: One (Tessa Thompson) is married to a Black doctor in Harlem and lives as a Black woman; the other (Ruth Negga) “passes” as white. Hall was inspired to tell this story when she learned that her own Detroit-born opera singer mother, who had lived her life as a white woman, was in fact biracial.
The cinematographer: Eduard Grau, who shot A Single Man and Boy Erased.
Why it’s black and white: From a practical point of view, Hall has said that she relied on camera exposure and lighting to help her Black actresses look white-passing without relying on makeup. But more than that, the director loved the symbolic potential of black and white. She told The San Francisco Chronicle, “This is a film about categories and an obsession with fitting everyone into containers or the containers that everyone else puts you in as well. The irony of black-and-white films is they’re gray — there’s nothing black or white about it, ever.”
Watch it: Passing, on Netflix
The premise: This mesmerizing and trancelike documentary takes as its subject Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop, khat, a stimulant leaf that causes euphoria when chewed and has been used in meditation rituals by Sufi Muslims for centuries. For her first movie, Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir wove together interlocking stories about locals involved in the khat trade, from harvesters to dealers, mystics to addicts. She told The Hollywood Reporter that the film’s structure is inspired by the ancient architecture of its setting, the walled city of Harar: “Zigzagging through a labyrinth, we don’t really know what comes next. We wander into the unknown, armed with our instinct as guide.”
The cinematographer: Beshir, who also wrote, directed and produced the film.
Why it’s black and white: The interplay of light and shadow goes a long way toward creating a dreamlike experience, almost as if the viewers have taken khat themselves.
Watch it: Faya Dayi, on Criterion Channel
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.