As illogical as it may sound (because it is), we sometimes forget history happened in color. That’s because we’re so used to seeing early still photography, early 20th century newsreels and other old film footage in black and white.
The Smithsonian Channel has an answer for that and while not exactly a stroke of genius, it really does put history in a whole new multicolored light: “America in Color,” premiering Sunday comprises colorized images from the nation’s past from the 1920s to the 1960s. All of it, of course, was originally filmed in black and white.
Yes, it’s a gimmick, but the thing about gimmicks is that sometimes, they’re kind of cool, and this one definitely is.
The premiere episode pulls the curtain back on the 1920s, showing us dancing flappers, Charles Lindbergh taking off for Paris in 1927, and other signal events of the “Roaring” decade. But even the most familiar images become more real when a touch of color is added.
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Even more fascinating, though, are less familiar episodes from the decade. The Great Mississippi Flood, for example, and the movies of Solomon Sir Jones, an African American preacher who was an amateur filmmaker and documented black life in Oklahoma in the 1920s.
We also see colorized footage of life in the Greenwood section of Tulsa in the early 1920s. Although African Americans were afforded few opportunities elsewhere in the U.S., over time, they started new businesses in Tulsa and grew prosperous.
Then racism and hatred drove a white mob to swarm the neighborhood, killing more than 300 people and setting many buildings on fire. We see rare footage of the devastation, which would, of course, be heartbreaking even in black and white, but packs a greater wallop in color.
The decade ended with a crash, of course, on Black Tuesday in 1929.
The nation’s economy took such a hit that when the Empire State Building opened two years later, it was all but vacant, making it a towering emblem of the Depression, not the celebration of the Empire State’s prosperity that it was planned to be.
The second episode covers the ’30s, the bread lines, the Bonus Army of veterans seeking a promised bonus for having served their country, and demonstrations by Ford Motor Co. workers that resulted in several being shot by Henry Ford’s private security detail.
The colorization is relatively subtle, compared to, say, Turner’s more garish approach to classic films. The film doesn’t look as though it was shot in color, but rather, it looks like what it is: black and white film that has been gently colorized.
That decision ends up being appropriate here: Watching “America in Color” is like looking at those vintage colorized post cards from the early 20th century.
The subtlety enhances history rather than overwhelming it, making “America in Color” dazzling in a quiet way.
America in Color
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
- 7 p.m. Sunday
- The Smithsonian Channel