Black and White and in Color
Distributed by: Allied Artists
Released: September 1976
Country: Ivory Coast
If you think back to your world history class in high school or college, the idea of World War One will conjure up thoughts of entangling alliances, trench warfare, the first aircraft fighting and submarines. WWI, which the U.S. entered 100 years ago this week, was the “War to End All Wars,” resulting in 9 million military and 7 million civilian deaths, one of the bloodiest wars in world history. When the powder keg that was the Balkans exploded in 1914, the war sucked in Austria-Hungary and Germany on one side, and France, Great Britain, and eventually, the United States on the other.
Colonialism was still sort of hip and happening in the early 20th century, so naturally this left the territories owned by the main players of WWI to get sucked in as well. One of those parts of the world, in West-Central Africa, is the setting for Black and White and in Color, the dark comedy that won the Best Foreign Film in 1977.
The film opens mildly enough, with a tiny village “run” by the French receiving a visit from their friend from a nearby German-run village. The French and the Germans peacefully co-exist, bound together by the concept of bringing “civilization” to the Africans who live in those villages. As a satire, the movie pokes fun at the superiority the colonists display in bringing culture and religion to the black folks who really seem more amused by it all than anything else. There is one comical scene when the French awkwardly introduce the villagers to a bicycle, something they had never seen before. The scene reminded me of the basketball scene in Airplane, when Ted shows the Africans what a basketball is and the villagers take to it with jumpers and slam dunks.
|Jean Carnet as Sergeant Bosselet|
Into this lazy isolation of the French colony, a package arrives. Mail is slow in the recesses of Africa, and this correspondence was sent months and months ago. The French learn that World War I has started and that they were now the sworn enemies of their German neighbors. “I would have thought it would be with England,” of them of them cracks. The French must plot their next move. They plan a minor attack, to be watched by the French few ladies living with them while picnicking (not unlike the First Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War). They get the Africans organized with some marching in place drills and go on the offensive. They’re not even sure the Germans are aware of the war. When the skirmish starts, they find out quickly that not only are they aware, but they have a machine gun. The fun part’s over.
|Getting ready for the Battle of Bull Run, 1861|
Black and White and in Color is an anti-war satire in the spirit of Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 or Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, both from 1970. It casts a bit of a wider net than those movies do, commenting on the French, colonialism, war, and race-relations. It’s also less funny than those films are. But that’s not a bad thing, necessarily—there’s no subtlety in the “zaniness” of Yossarian or Hawkeye and Trapper, which I suppose have put those films into near-classic status but have also made me annoyed enough to change the channel if they ever show up on my TV (in the case of M*A*S*H, I emphasize I mean the movie and not the TV show, which was great in the early years before it got too preachy).
Jean Carmet, who plays a French sergeant satisfied with doing as little as possible, did make me laugh just by standing there a couple of times, sporting a pipe, an open shirt, and a cartoonish tall helmet. The movie is amusing, with enough substance to invest in the story without taking the whole thing too seriously.
You can watch this one on YouTube here.
|The zany madcaps of M*A*S*H|
The Title: Originally titled La Victoire en chantant, or Victory by Singing.
The Culture: A look at the views of the French colonies in Africa in the early 1900’s, and a reminder of the paternalism of imposing European culture upon Africa.
Agenda danger: Preachiness is a pet peeve of mine, and anti-war movies are often the biggest offenders. But this film has enough humor to soften the blows, and enough gravity to not dismiss the message altogether. I normally don’t find much funny in racial humor, but late in the film I laughed as one African, watching the French celebrate/lament the end of the war, sums up the stupidity of the colonists, shaking his head: “White people . . . really!”
Best Picture that year: Rocky
Rating: I found there to be a good mix of absurdity and realism, and while I never really latched onto any of the characters, the story was unique enough to keep me interested. A worthwhile 90-minute film.