Movies and Film: The Politics of Color: The Contemporary Scene

The Politics of Color: The Contemporary Scene

Almost as if taking their cue from those oddly Orientalizing tendencies of early Technicolor experiments, more contemporary directors have played with mixing panchromatic and color film for different kinds of effects, simultaneously aesthetic and political. They have produced terrific films in which technique is used for something more than simply enhancing audience sensory pleasure. Robert Downey Sr.'s wildly savage satire Putney Swope (1969), about an advertising firm that accidentally hires its first African American CEO, is shot in black in white, as if to suggest the absolute division between races. But the advertisements Swope makes while head of the company are startlingly shot in color, making them seem almost surreal by contrast. Woody Allen's Zelig (1983), a mock-documentary switching back and forth between a black-and-white 1920s and a color present comically documents Jewish assimilation in America.

Short Cuts

Contemporary films remain interested in eccentric uses of color. Pleasantville (1998) is a tour de force of black and white and color, also (if much more gently) making some of Downey's points about racism in America. In a traditional town where both the color scheme and the attitudes are black and white, those characters who begin developing flesh tones are treated like "colored people."

Finally, director Maurizio Nichetti's comedy The Icicle Thief (Ladri di Saponette, Italy, 1989) gently satirizes nostalgia for the past. The film contains lengthy portions of a modern black-and-white homage to Italian neorealism (especially to Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief [Ladri di Biciclette, 1948]). The poverty-ridden characters of the film, however, break out of the black-and-white movie, much preferring the colorful present in something like the same way Dorothy is at first delighted with the land of Oz.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order the e-book book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website. You can also purchase this book at