Colorized Footage Is a Vivid Reminder that History Didn’t Happen in Black and White
A new Smithsonian Channel series takes a fresh, vibrant look at five decades of historical footage
America’s longest-serving president almost missed his first day in office. On February 15, 1933, President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nearing the end of an impromptu speech in Miami when he was interrupted by six rounds of gunfire. Thanks to an unlikely hero––housewife Lillian Cross, who used her handbag to knock the gun off target––Roosevelt escaped unscathed. This little-known story is one of hundreds reimagined in the Smithsonian Channel series America in Color, which premieres July 2 at 8 p.m.
America in Color explores the nation’s history through colorized, largely unaired footage from the 1920s through ’60s. This sourcing strategy allows the show, which was produced by Arrow Media and colorized by Composite Films, to offer a unique perspective on moments both cemented in and forgotten by history: for example, Ku Klux Klan members marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, Amelia Earhart preparing for her ill-fated attempt to fly around the world and Woodstock attendees smiling at the camera in an amateur filmmaker’s home movie.
Nick Metcalfe, Arrow’s executive producer, says, “There are great stories that are in danger of being forgotten just because they’re old and black and white. … This is a chance to retell and reconnect with some of the great history that’s in the American archives, and to try and make it fresh and immediate.”
Although the Smithsonian Channel has previously aired series based on colorized footage (Apocalypse, a 2009 retelling of World War II, was one source of inspiration), America in Color is its most ambitious undertaking. Researchers spent more than 5,800 hours digging through obscure archives and home movies, and more than 27 miles of film were transferred. The team also created a methodology for ensuring historically accurate colorization. For the 1920s and ’30s episodes, researchers relied on sources including postcards, modern-day color images of recent images, and the few chromatic chromatic photographs taken during the era.
They based color tints off of photographer Charles Zoller’s work and celebrated small victories like definitively concluding that New York City buses used to be green. Stories from later decades also proved difficult to colorize. Researchers only identified the coloring of a pin owned by Roosevelt after chancing upon a painted portrait of him wearing that same pin, and they used a Google Maps tour of Sumner, Mississippi, to find houses seen in footage of the Emmett Till trial.
Even with this painstaking attempt at accuracy, however, the practice of colorizing black and white images is divisive in and of itself. Proponents, like Metcalfe, argue that colorizing photographs or films adds vibrancy to events that would otherwise seem distant; if research is conducted to ensure maximum accuracy, the images maintain historical integrity.
Dana Keller, a Boston-based photo colorizer, spoke to Gizmodo’s Matt Novak about the debate, explaining, “[Colorized photographs] are not replacements or enhancements by any means, and they should not be considered a threat or a disrespect to the originals. My position, and what I believe to be the position of most colorizers, is that colorization is done out of a respect and reverence to history, not as a means of improving upon it.”
Critics, which included among them esteemed film critic Roger Ebert, find the practice unethical regardless of historical accuracy. They cite a lack of knowledge regarding the original artist’s intent and point out that colorization can be misleading. As Ebert wrote in 1988, in reference to a contemporary debate about a colorized version of Casablanca, “You can only see a movie for the first time once. And if your first viewing is colorized, you will never be able to experience the full original impact of the real film.”
If artists do not conduct sufficient research, the images produced will not accurately reflect history. In another Gizmodo article, Novak spoke with the Atlantic’s Alan Taylor about the matter. “If a colorized image can spark interest in history, great,” said Taylor. “I'd hope people would dig deep enough to learn about the challenges of early photography, and how some came to master and take full advantage of contrast and tone to aid in storytelling.”
Ethical debates aside, colorization adds a common thread to the moments captured in America in Color: a modernizing, visceral narrative lens. Metcalfe hopes that viewers look at the individuals featured and think, “I could know these people. They could be my friends, or they could be my family.”
The show’s first episode, for instance, explores the 1920s through events including Prohibition and the mass production of Ford Model T’s. At Napa Valley vineyards, female workers press grapes into bricks and wink at the camera, explaining that buyers use the bricks to make “grape juice.” Another clip introduces a five-year-old boy playing with his family before it reveals that he was one of the first automobile accident casualties, struck by a Model T soon after the home movie was filmed.
America in Color explores moments typically associated with a decade. These familiar events are reframed through unaired footage and the addition of color. Poe highlights the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, which left television and radio audiences with differing opinions about the presidential candidates. Those who watched the debate applauded Kennedy’s vibrancy, while radio listeners found Nixon more convincing. In color, the contrast between Kennedy’s youthful tan and Nixon’s grey pallor is striking.
In addition to presenting the boldface-name version of history of national events, the series uses personal stories as an entry point, such as Japanese-American Dave Tatsuno, who filmed his family’s life at the Topaz internment camp, and Harry Mabry, a journalist so horrified by the Birmingham civil rights protests that he refused to show his children the footage he had captured.
“It was always great to be able to tell the story of the individual family as they were affected by national events,” Metcalfe says. “It makes it much more relatable.”
Another episode shows the aftermath of a 1920 Wall Street bombing that killed 38 people and injured hundreds. It remained the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
“We think of terrorism as a modern phenomenon, but the fact that it happened on Wall Street in 1920 brings it all home,” says Charles Poe, executive producer of the series. “It’s been really hard until now for people to understand that this really wasn’t ancient history. These were real moments, and they were lived in color.”
The first episode of America in Color premieres on the Smithsonian Channel July 2 at 8 p.m.