."…tell our friends not to be so sure about the inferiority of the black race. Seen up close, this inferiority has less to do with the shape of the skull or the composition of the blood than with the conviction we hold of our own superiority. At the risk of shocking you, I daresay that in many respects the natives are not far from meriting the honored name of 'men.'"—Hubert Fresnoy, 6 January 1915
Produced by Arthur Cohn, Black and White in Color is director Jean-Jacques Annaud's (Quest for Fire, The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet) first feature. A huge flop in France, the film went on to win the 1977 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, gaining acclaim just about everywhere but Annaud's home country.
Facts of the Case
When a group of French colonials living in Gabon on the Ivory Coast in 1915 learn that war has broken out in Europe, they decide to wage their own battle against the three German colonials living nearby. Not satisfied duking it out themselves, the Europeans press the local Africans into service, and are dismayed when actual bloodshed ensues.
The Germans appear to have gained the upper hand until a young geographer named Hubert Fresnoy becomes the key strategist on behalf of the French merchants and priests, working with the local tribal chief and turning the old colonial social hierarchy on its head.
Black and White in Color is a deft and intelligent satire of both colonialism and war, but its true brilliance is most apparent in the swipes it takes at human nature itself. As in all great satire, none of the actors in the drama are given a free pass, be they white or black. The title's connection to racism and colonialism is clear, but it also describes the complexity of human motivations and the consequences of interpreting those motivations through an artificial and too-simple hierarchy, whether it be the colonialism of the film's setting or the oppressor-oppressed dialectics that dominated the academic scene at the time of the film's production, modes of thought effectively granting the downtrodden moral purity by virtue of their suffering.
Take for example a scene in which Fresnoy, our young hero-fool, meets with the local tribal chief in order to request men to defend the French colonists against an impending German raid. The wise old chief bemoans the fact his tribe lost nearly a hundred men in the conflict's opening skirmish (in which the French observed the fighting from a safe distance, as if on a day trip), but says the request won't be a problem. He'll just forcibly capture tribesmen from the savanna and make them fight. He sees no irony in pressing these innocent bystanders into service even after his own people were pressed into service to fight Germans with whom they have no grudge because, as he sees it, "the savanna people are savages."
In Annaud's view, simplistic hierarchical thinking isn't a product of race but a characteristic of all humanity. Yet in looking unflinchingly at the issue, he doesn't dismiss the tragedy and injustice of racism. Black and White in Color is not a guffaw-inspiring satire; its humor is more of the nod-your-head-and-smile variety, wickedly intelligent but also focused on realities difficult to laugh at. In one of the film's funniest turns, Fresnoy takes a tribeswoman as his wife, throwing the normal colonial hierarchy into disarray. The French colonists are at a loss around her: as the wife of their leader, she would customarily be treated with the deference afforded aristocratic ladies…but she's black. How can she be both a lady and not fully human? Their strained bows and curtsies, the wide-eyed rigidity of their faces as they try to behave with social grace is hilarious.
Home Vision Entertainment has brought Black and White in Color to DVD in beautiful fashion. The 1.66:1 anamorphic image looks an awful lot like you've threaded a projector and are exhibiting the film right there in your living room, the old-fashioned way. Colors are perfectly rendered, blacks are solid, flesh tones are true. Shot entirely on location on the Ivory Coast, the setting itself is as dazzling as Annaud's and cinematographer Claude Agostini's (Quest for Fire) compositions. The image is slightly soft in some places, but the source was exceedingly clean and the disc leaves little to be desired.
There is a single audio track, in French, German, and English, with optional English subtitles. Dialogue is always perfectly discernible, and background effects are surprisingly vibrant considering everything is placed in the center speaker.
The disc also contains an impressive set of extras. There are retrospective interviews with both Annaud and Arthur Cohn, recorded in 2003 specifically for this DVD release, and film historian Ronald Falzone contributes an essay in the four-page insert booklet. While appreciated, none of these extras are mind-blowing in and of themselves. What will knock your socks off is the "bonus feature" included on the disc, a documentary worthy of a DVD release all by itself: The Sky Above, the Mud Below.
Produced by Arthur Cohn, and winner of the 1961 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, The Sky Above, the Mud Below follows the seven-month trek of a group of Europeans as they bisect New Guinea. During the perilous expedition through jungle and across high altitudes, the group encounters tribes of headhunters and cannibals, observing and filming their rituals and ceremonies. By journey's end, some of the group have had to call it quits and be evacuated, those remaining are haggard and exhausted, and three Muyu bearers have been lost to malaria, dysentery, and exposure to the elements.
The Sky Above, the Mud Below absorbs with its beautiful jungle vistas, aerial photography, and the exotic appeal of tribes of primitives. It must have bowled viewers over during its release in 1961, long before National Geographic documentaries were readily available via Public Broadcasting or the Discovery Channel. As I stated before, the quality of the feature is such that it merits a DVD release of its own, but it does make a fascinating and poetic supplement to Black and White in Color. Watched sequentially with the main feature, there's an irony to the Europeans' inescapable colonial mindset as they navigate the hazards of Dutch New Guinea. Even as they disavow their preconceptions and assert the surprising humanity of the tribespeople, they're never truly detached from their own sense of superiority—but, then again, how could one reasonably expect anything different as they're confronted with people literally living in the Stone Age, naked and wearing bleached human skulls around their necks?
The film's greatest irony is the narrator's woeful complaints about the scarcity of food and necessity of dangerous parachute drops of supplies from planes flown by support teams out of Hollandia, while none of the Europeans even carries a backpack. All provisions are hauled by local Muyu, massive bundles slung on their backs and balanced on their heads. Granted, the Muyu, like Tibetan Sherpas, are acclimated to the environment and altitude but, faced with the prospect of going three days without food, I think I might have opted to carry something myself, even if I couldn't manage a burden as large as the locals. It speaks volumes that three Muyu died during the expedition, but none of the Europeans were lost.
Still, the documentary is fascinating, especially when the camera is allowed to play on tribal rituals and the simple interactions between the travelers and the locals.
At 88 minutes, The Sky Above, the Mud Below is nearly as long as the disc's main feature. HVE presents the film, shot on 35mm stock, in an anamorphic transfer at a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Also struck from a high-definition master, the picture quality is a stunner. Colors are vibrant, and black levels solid. There's a fair amount of grain in some wide shots, but its certainly acceptable considering the duress under which the film was shot. Bottom line, HVE has treated the film with enormous respect, not merely tossing it sloppily onto the disc, flaws and all. Be aware that the scores in the "Scales of Justice" section of this review are strictly for Black and White in Color, but I guarantee you won't be disappointed by the quality presentation of The Sky Above, the Mud Below.
Audio on the bonus feature is English mono, and it even has an extra of its own, a 3 1/2-minute introduction by Arthur Cohn, shot at the same time as his interview for Black and White in Color.
Black and White in Color is a smart and funny film, brought to DVD in beautiful fashion. That alone is worth the purchase price. That The Sky Above, the Mud Below is also part of the package sweetens the deal considerably. I highly recommend giving this one a spin.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Interview with the Filmmakers
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