Black and white cinema has never really gone away. It's certainly true that the popularity of monochrome movies has waned in the last 50 years, but there remains a rich supply of filmmakers embracing the unique style of black and white to tell their stories. Schindler's List and The Artist have both won Best Picture Oscars in the last few decades and Alfonso Cuarón's Roma amplified its time capsule quality with Oscar-winning grayscale cinematography. Just this year, Robert Eggers used nightmarish monochrome to imprison audiences within the titular structure of The Lighthouse along with Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe and a flock of impish seagulls.
But this article is not about those movies. It's about a different, and actually rather baffling trend. That is, the re-release of popular colour films, transposed into black and white. The most recent successful cinephile treat to receive this treatment is Bong Joon-ho's surprise Oscar winner Parasite. After its triumph at the Academy Awards, where it made history as the first foreign language movie to win Best Picture, the compelling satirical thriller went on a box office tear and now stands as the highest-grossing non-English language film in the history of UK cinemas.
It's set to return to screens in the near future, but this time in black and white. The re-release is currently on hold as a result of the coronavirus pandemic – it had previously been set for 3rd April – but it will eventually happen, mirroring the monochrome re-releases handed to Mad Max: Fury Road and Logan in recent years. It seems that, when a movie achieves a certain level of cineaste fan base, a black and white release is inevitable.
In the case of Parasite, director Bong has said he actually edited the black and white cut of the film before the colour version that was ultimately released. He admitted, though, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that he hadn't been thinking about shooting in monochrome during the process of production design and art direction, leaving certain scenes requiring extra attention to make them work in the grayscale format. Director Bong, ever a humble chap, confessed that there was also a certain amount of vanity involved in crafting a black and white version of Parasite, stating: “I had this idea that if I turned my films into black and white then they'd become classics.”
James Mangold made a similar point in an interview with Screen Rant around the time that Logan Noir arrived in cinemas for one night only before heading to Blu-ray. He said the black and white cut was an idea he pitched to Fox after he received a positive response on social media to monochrome photographs he took on set. The director said black and white helped to “connect the movie with movies of the past”, including many of the Westerns to which Hugh Jackman's Wolverine swansong owes a debt.
Mangold added: “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, just a chance to see and process the same song slightly differently.”
Crucially, it seems that very few of the filmmakers involved in these transfers actually think black and white improves the movie. Certainly, having seen the monochrome edit of Parasite, it does nothing to really change the experience. It was a great film in colour and it's a great film in black and white, albeit one that diminishes some of the artfully clinical look of the Park home and the mud-soaked grunge of the Kims' semi-basement. The same is true of Logan, which certainly gains a classical quality when viewed in grayscale, but sacrifices some of the admirable grit of the claw-slashing, throat-stabbing violence.
Nostalgia seems to be the key for many purveyors of black and white cinema, from Alexander Payne's desire to create the aura of a classical, old-fashioned road movie with Nebraska to Ben Wheatley attempting to evoke a woozy, drug-addled past with the brilliantly nightmarish A Field in England. As Matt Miller wrote in Esquire back in 2017, black and white “can at once make a film feel more real (like time period accurate film and photographs) while making it feel unreal (real life is in colour)”. These filmmakers long for their movies to earn the untouchable classicism of the stories that inspired them, hence director Bong's suggestion in the aforementioned THR interview that: “when I think of the classics, they're all in black and white”.
George Miller, on that note, stated to The Independent that he thinks movies automatically look more “iconic” in black and white and that this inspired the “black and chrome” cut of Mad Max: Fury Road, which arrived two years after the original film became a blockbuster hit and an awards season darling. While a certain ardent corner of the Fury Road fan base might argue that the black and white cut of the film is superior, the searing heat and potent glow of the film's arid landscapes is actually one of its greatest assets. Interestingly, Miller himself is among the devotees of the monochrome cut. “The best version of this movie is black and white,” he once told a film critic Q&A before the “black and chrome” release, adding: “but people reserve that for art movies now”.
It's interesting to see the selection of movies that have been given the black and white re-edit treatment. These are films with dedicated, vocal fan bases who have pushed their movies beyond the traditional confines of their genres or arthouse ghettos. Mad Max and Logan managed to break free of the stigma of the blockbuster action movie to receive bona fide attention from awards bodies, while Parasite has attained unprecedented success for a film that, by virtue of what its director has insightfully called the “one-inch tall barrier” presented by subtitles, didn't seem like a box office sure thing on paper. These are crossover hits, with appeal to both the mainstream multiplex crowd and those willing and able to shell out a premium price to attend their local arthouse cinema.
These re-edits are an interesting product of the intensity and potency of internet social media fandom – or “stan culture”, to use the nomenclature du jour. Without the fervent support of fans, including those who commented on Mangold's grayscale set photos, there would be no financial reason to give movies another go in black and white and, therefore, no reason for a studio to justify the expense of putting together a cinema-ready monochrome cut.
If there's one thing those fan bases desire above all else, it's for the art they love to be given a veneer of respect. Any glance through Reddit or a Twitter thread will yield dozens of screaming fans yelling – sometimes in good faith and sometimes with an infuriating tunnel vision – about how the movie they love is the greatest ever made. In the internet age, our access to classic cinema has never been wider than it is today – and many of those classics, as director Bong pointed out, are in black and white. So for these ardent fans of movies like Logan and Fury Road, the release of a monochrome version of their film puts it in line with those iconic works of the past. It's a badge of cinephile honour that's worth its weight in prestige.
For now at least, these black and white re-releases are simply enjoyable curiosities for hardcore fans to enjoy. They allow the filmmakers to flex their sizeable creative muscles and offer fans the chance to take a look at the art they love from a slightly different angle. As Mangold said, a black and white re-release is essentially an acoustic cover version – a chance to enjoy the movie unplugged and often stripped to the bare majesty of its cinematography.
Meanwhile, there are still terrific movies being made in the monochrome format every year – the last 12 months alone have yielded Mark Jenkin's Cornish-set gem Bait and the aforementioned The Lighthouse. Neither movie would be at all the same if they had been shot in colour, with the nostalgic, historic quality of black and white giving them the unique feel of being something bizarre, old and uncovered like a secret. This refreshing vein of creativity suggests, encouragingly, that for directors who really want to use it – either for their main cut, or a DVD extra feature for the diehards – black and white isn't going anywhere.