Why can’t black-and-white films win Cinematography Oscar?

Why can’t black-and-white movies manage to win Best Cinematography at the Oscars?

Since the academy merged its color and black-and-white categories in 1967, only one of the latter has won: “Schindler’s List” 20 years ago.

Usually the most conspicuous achievement in below-the-line Oscar categories prevails. The biggest period gowns tend to win Costume Design, the most elaborate sets win Production Design, the loudest movies win Sound, and so on. And if any kind of cinematography stands out in the modern era, it’s black-and-white. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

In recent years, the Best Cinematography Oscar has gone to the director of photography who points the camera at the most CGI (“Avatar,” “Inception,” “Hugo,” “Life of Pi“). This year that tradition is likely to continue, with Emmanuel Lubezki far out front for his work on “Gravity.”

And if I were an academy member, I’d be hard-pressed to vote against Lubezki – “Gravity” is such a visual marvel I think Visual Effects and Cinematography Oscars are equally warranted and he is long overdue – but I’d quibble with previous results. “Inception” over “True Grit”? “Hugo” over “The Tree of Life“? Those awards felt like the academy not paying enough attention.

This year another black-and-white film is in the running: “Nebraska,” shot by Phedon Papamichael. Discussing his decision to go monochromatic, Alexander Payne said at the New York Film Festival last fall, “It’s just so darn beautiful,” and he’s right. Full of associations with classic Hollywood, it has a nostalgic quality that enhances “Nebraska’s” stroll through old Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) hometown. (Watch our interview with Papamichael here.)

But it’s not the only black-and-white film from the last year, and maybe not even my favorite. There was also “Frances Ha,” but I’m partial to Joss Whedon‘s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which used its cinematography to bridge the gap between Shakespeare’s dialogue and its present-day setting and feels very much timeless, with a visual style that might have been at home during the French New Wave.

Plenty of directors have worked in black-and-white, and the results often speak for themselves (“The Artist,” “The White Ribbon,” “Persepolis,” “Good Night, and Good Luck”), but even when they’re nominated for Oscars, they almost invariably lose. I’m still smarting over “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” the Coen brothers’ homage to film noir, which lost Best Cinematography in 2001 to, you guessed it, a visual effects spectacle (“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellwship of the Ring”).

Filmmakers by and large admire black-and-white. As “Frances Ha” director Noah Baumbach told Variety last year, “Most filmmakers, if you ask them, at some point would like to make a black-and-white movie. It’s such a specific and whole other way to photograph a story.”

So why don’t they put their money where their mouths are when it comes to the Oscars? This may not be the year for a black-and-white film to prevail, but if directors keep making them hopefully the academy will get around to honoring one again.

Do you think “Nebraska” will win Best Cinematography? Make your predictions below:

5 thoughts on “Why can’t black-and-white films win Cinematography Oscar?

  1. The one of the first major movies I saw as a teenager in black and white was “The Last Picture Show” in 1971 one of the first movies I saw was”The Last Picture Show”.I don’t think it was nominated for cinematography, but I know a way a movie is shot tells like the setting was the 1950’s and in “Nebraska” shows the movie it was almost shot the same way.It’s the polar opposite of “Gravity”.”Nebraska” was more like “Marty”,no visual effects and was small and simple and inquired one thing…….great acting and nothing else.

  2. Great article, Daniel. I may be wrong, but I believe the last time we saw a mostly black-and-white film win for Best Cinematography was for 1993 when Janusz Kaminski won for Schindler’s List.

  3. Hugo richly deserved the Oscar for best cinematography because it is one of the most beautifully filmed ever made. To imply that The
    Tree of Life
    (a terrible movie that deserved NO nominations) was more deserving is just plain stupid.

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