Every so often, we get someone who steps forward to decide our shared, national, record of events isn’t good enough in standard black and white — and so they take the task upon themselves to “convert” the established, memed, facts of black and white history into their color-coded version of hues — to reset, in their mind, what really happened.
This modernizing filter of alleged aesthetic and absolutely craven creativity is just as disturbing to me today as it was 30 years ago when I was an undergraduate Freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln taking a film class with the great Dr. June Perry Levine.
At the time of Dr. Levine’s course, Ted Turner was in full-burst mode in his effort to “colorize” old black and white movies and television shows by adding color to give them new life on his cable channel.
Turner’s effect was horrible and gross as skin colors were orange and backgrounds were dark blue and clothing was all a shade of a mossy green: Time travel at its complete worst.
Adding new color to old black and white images is like repainting a fresco of Christ. The ultimate effect of each effort is the shared shameful same.
In Dr. Levine’s class, we had an NYU film professor visiting us from New York City. This film guy was taking classic black and white Westerns and slightly tinting those movies with pastels to “enhance the experience.”
I remember being agog at the hubris of a man who thought he could mess with historical beauty to make it more acceptable to modern eyes. I went back-and-forth with the professor for a while in class trying to understand why he felt his colorization technique was any better than what Ted Turner was doing, and the NYU professor just sat there, smiling back at me, as if I were the dumbest person in the world.
He never made a satisfactory argument for tinting old Westerns except that it was something that hadn’t been done before and that, if we didn’t like what he did, we could always go back to the original black and white reels.
I argue today, as I did three decades ago, that the historical record doesn’t need updating or modernizing with artifice and invention. Let the memory of what happened — and captured in black and white — remain alive as the recorded facts of the past.
These added colorings are not factual — they’re only best guesses — even if the saturation and “tinting” appear more sophisticated today than they did 30 years ago.
This new effort to rewrite history is still a fancy fraud on the shared memories of a nation — just as using photo filters on the original images you take today creates a phony record of what really happened.
When history leaps forward with previously unseen images that just happen to be in color — there is a jolt to the heart and mind that stuns because the authenticity actual color-in-time cannot be denied, and one is propelled back and forced to reimagine history in a new reality that is honest and not skewed by modernization for today’s eye.
There are some images that deserve to be left alone, but we cannot pick and choose what to color. We either decide to leave everything alone, or all images are fair game for fake restoration.
Preserving the power of a life captured in the hard facts of black and white must be an unassailable right — especially for the dead and dying — and to falsely colorize their living is to claim something that was that was not.