In reading a scathing review of “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” by Stephen Hunter on the Washington Post’s website, one astute observation rang true: This film takes place during the height of the Great Depression in 1934, but it’s filmed in brilliant color. Hunter’s contention that most other movies (or the best movies, that is) about the Great Depression have been filmed in black and white provided me with an interesting thought. Is it really necessary to have to film a movie in black and white if it’s depicting a part of history that’s known for its essence of being drab and depressing? The answer to that obviously lies in how we view that particular event in our subconscious.
The comparison Hunter used was in the 1973 film “Paper Moon” that managed to give the best essence of the Great Depression in its cinematography since 1939’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The black and white in “Paper Moon” managed to remind the generations of the 1970’s the feelings of despair during the Great Depression and the prism people still viewed it through. Since that film was made, lots of films have been made about the Great Depression in color, though usually with softer colors or taking place in places where you didn’t see the bleakest signs of the country’s economic woes. The 1982 film adaptation of “Annie” is a perfect example of that–and may be a direct inspiration for “Kit Kittredge.” However, New York City during the Great Depression was obviously quite different from the Dust Bowl in the Midwest.
Even though many brains today still process the drabness and despair of the Great Depression through a filter of black and white, it doesn’t have to be just that particular time frame to be depicted with no color. Most films about the Holocaust have been done in black and white, other than a few TV miniseries that would have been too brave to broadcast in anything other than color considering the era they were made and broadcast. 1994’s “Schindler’s List” is obviously the greatest testament on film to how black and white translates one of the most harrowing events in human history. It’s also one of the last mainstream films to date that managed to get away with being in black and white without being accused of doing it for art’s sake.
Now there seems to be a fear by filmmakers to film mainstream projects in black and white, probably because there’s still such a knee-jerk psychological pull that a movie in black and white automatically translates to being boring or perhaps just too drab when people need color in a currently depressed world. No wonder then that we haven’t had many movies recently made about the Great Depression or other bleak events in world history that demand black and white cinematography. Only the remake of “King Kong” in 2005 had its story set during the original 1933 time frame–yet brought the muted color that’s so familiar with the look of “Annie” above and never showing a single soup line or the economic nightmare affecting farmers in other parts of the country.
This country still has plenty more to tell about the Great Depression in film as well as other depressive events in our history. So how do we go about making sure they get black and white treatment in the movies without alienating those who think a black and white movie is nothing short of anathema?
The evolution of how people relate to black and white movies depicting historical events…
You might as well say that the general evolution of black and white movies comes in the fact that you have to grow up with them in order to understand how great they can potentially be. Unfortunately, most kids today are growing up with movies on cable that are all movies made in recent decades and all well in living color rather than the classics of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. The only stand-alone exception is the annual black and white broadcast of “It’s a Wonderful Life” on NBC during the holidays (which gets lower ratings each year because everyone has it on DVD already)–and, of course, the outstanding Turner Classic Movies that gives a good balance between movies in b&w and color from the classic era of Hollywood. Nine kids out of ten, though, will likely leave the room exclaiming that they won’t watch a movie the minute it’s determined to be a black and white movie, no matter the era it was made.
This is where the role of history has to be put into place and how it’s taught in America’s public schools. Our perception of the world and our past frequently get placed into a certain context through a movie where we build our subconscious patterns of how we view certain events. Multiple generations have automatically felt the core of the Great Depression through black and white where they expect it in movies just because that’s the way pop culture has depicted it. Anybody of a certain age when they hear the words “Great Depression” will automatically conjure the haunting b&w image of Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad, looking off into the open air of an uncertain future, and giving his “I’ll be there” speech to Ma Joad. It’s almost impossible to think of that scene in color or the same with anything about the Dust Bowl from that era.
Yet, I can see a lot of kids going to watch “Kit Kittredge” as one of their first movies and placing the Great Depression into a completely different context in the world of color. Since they might have parents who don’t like black and white movies either, chances are they won’t ever see movies depicting the Great Depression in the proper depressive context. The perception of history through nothing but color would theoretically ruin the true essence of how people felt during particular eras and give a confused world view to the new generation who probably can’t help but process color in their subconscious as being pleasing instead of ugly.
And that’s where the role of parents would have to come in. We obviously can’t expect every dad and mom to sit down and make their child watch black and white movies depicting history. If you do, though, and prove to them that you truly believe in it, they’ll feel the same way you do in time.
It’s probably too late to switch back to depicting WWII in black and white after the profound success of 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” (and WWII movies have their own special brand of an endlessly-copied muted color cinematography now thanks to Steven Spielberg)–but the Great Depression, the Holocaust, along with dozens of other depressing events in our timeline should still be depicted in black and white whenever possible. Most likely, that won’t happen as black and white starts to enter the exclusive realms of independent film where it’s generally knocked as being pretentious–mainly because it’s used in a modern sense rather than using it to give the essence of an historical event.
“Kit Kittredge” undoubtedly had some people mention in the pre-production meetings last year that it could be filmed in black and white to give some integrity to the Great Depression. But I can hear the nays from those in charge loud and clear, even though we weren’t in on those meetings.
Someday, someone may just have to make a movie taking place in the benighted 2000’s…subsequently filmed all in black and white…