“Ah no, not this old stuff,” a millennial whines on seeing, even for a second, a black and white film, although, you can hear the same dismay from individuals over forty. However, any photographer, regardless of the medium, will tell you that they would rather work in black and white over color. The modern day film director fantasizes about making movies in black and white, even one they would be grateful for, only no one is going to finance such a venture due to a perceived lack of commercial value. We will not go into the aesthetics of such declarations, suffice to say black and white images hold a sultry allure whose dreamy power once was king.

In the broadest sense, “classic” is anything before the recent past.   Most people think of the “classic” age of Hollywood cinema as the black and white era, but the first great color movie is a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, The Black Pirate (1924), and the most recent black and white movie is Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013). The point in time when color movies became more common than black and whites is the 60s, the decade of the most radical changes in the motion picture industry. Specifically, the end of the classic era is 1966, the last year the Academy honored black and white cinematography.

Since 1940, the Academy handed out awards for both types of cinematography, and every year through 1966, great black and white movies were made, including many from the first half of the 60s; Psycho, The Apartment, Black Sunday, Bird Man of Alcatraz, The Hustler, One Two Three, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Exterminating Angel, Hud, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Manchurian Candidate, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr Strangelove, The Best Man, Fail Safe, A Hard Day’s Night, I Am Cuba, Night of the Iguana, Seven Days in May, The Bedford Incident, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

I Am Cuba, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov from 1964 is an exemplary illustration of the visionary power of the use of black and white film making. This hauntingly sublime film was lost to the world until it was unearthed by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese in 1995 who both labeled it an unequivocal masterpiece. This study of Cuba,  co-written by the great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, captures the island just before it made the transition to a post-revolutionary society.

As late as 1966, there were still great black and white movies being released. The Oscar winner that year was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, photographed by Haskell Wexler, who went on to photograph many of John Sayles’ best films and continues to make documentaries. Seconds was also Oscar nominated in 1966, photographed by 10 time nominee James Wong Howe, who previously won for Hud and The Rose Tattoo. Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie, Georgy Girl, and Rene Clement’s Is Paris Burning? were also Oscar nominated that year for black and white cinematography. Both Wexler and Howe are among the greatest and most influential cinematographers in film history.

Not coincidentally, the Academy stopped handing out black and white Oscars in 1967, and never again were there two great black and white movies in one year. In 1967 black and whites became rarities, and there isn’t another great movie in black and white until The Last Picture Show (1971). Other great black and white films of the 70s were Young Frankenstein, Eraserhead, and Manhattan. Both David Lynch and Woody Allen continued to make occasional black and white features in the 80s, and Jim Jarmusch has made two great black and whites (Stranger Than Paradise and Dead Man) and of course Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Other rarities since the 80s are Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka, The Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Suture. Alexander Payne made the most recent black and white feature, Nebraska (2013), and today black and white photography is frequently seen on CD album covers.

When looking at the long list of classic films made in black and white one wonders why the aversion by the public to this extraordinary exploration into light and dark? Is it a lack of education in basic aesthetics, an epidemic that has fostered the modern tract home community as well as a Starbucks or MacDonald’s on every city street corner, the grand eyesores of our consciousness? Obviously, this is a complex issue that we will leave for the philosopher and/or psychology experts to grapple with. Although, it is safe to say that there will be more Mavericks to appear to push the envelope against the grain and bring forth more black and white fantasies.

Au revoir to beauty and part of dream’s imagination…we will meet again…