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‘America in Color’ review: Colorized film makes for vivid history

Flamboyant actress

Flamboyant actress "Texas" Guinan, who ran the 300 Club speakeasy in Manhattan in the 1920s, is seen in a colorized photo. Photo Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy

THE DOCUSERIES “America in Color”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Smithsonian

THE GRADE B+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT “Colorizing” black-and-white movies remains controversial, some 30 years after initial attempts to make old films peacock-palatable in a color TV world. The original computer process was pretty bad: “It’s a Wonderful Life” as pastel smudge. But now it’s pretty good. CBS’ recent colorized airings of “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” could fool the unsuspecting.

Acceptance did greet TV’s 21st century push to make history seem more vivid by adding modern color tones to vintage black-and-white news footage. Look at online reviews of docu-epics such as “World War II in Color” to find that most quibbles arise over historical perspective, not added flesh tones.

Color simply makes the past more immediate. And now “America in Color” moves beyond history’s broad strokes, closer in, to more obscure events and even daily life. This five-week series is less “you are there” than “you are here.”

MY SAY Sunday’s premiere puts us inside a 1920s speak-easy, for the thrill of illegal imbibing during Prohibition. It plunges us into the chaos of the 1921 Tulsa race riot, amid fires and violence taking about 300 lives. New blood pulses through aviator Amelia Earhart, magnate Howard Hughes, even famously stoic President Calvin Coolidge.

Color isn’t the only reason. Vintage footage that’s being colorized first has to have years of damage repaired. It’s made more sharp, well-lighted and, in the case of silent footage, shown at a proper frame rate, so people move at a natural pace. Age also fades when widescreen cropping subtly suggests current-day perspective.

As does the scene-setting context of reliable narrator Liev Schreiber (“America: The Story of Us,” “Secrets of the Dead”). His words imbue a sense of modernity by framing historical issues in contemporary terms. Prohibition delivers unintended consequence, when the legislating of “morals” instead spurs crime and corruption. In next week’s 1930s hour, President Franklin Roosevelt’s federal response to the Depression — quickly funding projects and jobs to build dams, parks and other public improvements. — demonstrates what government programs can accomplish.

BOTTOM LINE Even vintage home movies from unexpected sources — Oakland’s black community, a Kentucky small-town newspaper — conjure a relatable sense of life being lived, in a continuity that clearly flows through us today.

Other TV projects have also featured colorized history footage. Here are four others, some of which are also posted on YouTube.

Blood and Glory: The Civil War in Color (Lionsgate DVD; Amazon Video rental) — Moving pictures didn’t exist in the 1860s, so hundreds of still photographs were tinted for History’s 2015 docuseries.

The Great War in Color (Amazon Video stream) — This hourlong digest colorized footage that was shot before the availability of color film.

World War I in Color (Athena DVD) — This 2003 BBC docuseries is narrated by Kenneth Branagh.

World War II in Color (Shout/Timeless DVD) — From 2008, the BBC series uses colorized black-and-white film alongside early color footage. (The 2009 History channel series “WWII in HD” focused on 1940s film originally shot in color.)

— Diane Werts

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