You might not learn anything new about 20th-century American history from “America in Color,” a docu-series on the Smithsonian Channel, but the program might make you feel differently about that history. A few splashes of color will do that. The five-part series, which begins on Sunday night, is being promoted as “one of the most ambitious colorizing projects ever undertaken.” It is made up of film clips from various sources that depict events and periods we’re conditioned to think of in black and white, since they occurred before color film became commonplace.
Admit it: You have a hard time connecting to the fellow humans you see in rickety old black-and-white footage, with their ancient cars and long-out-of-fashion clothing and hairstyles. Not here, or at least not as much. Something about the color images makes clearer on an emotional level that these ancestors felt fear and uncertainty, just as we do, and were fallible and sometimes cruel, just as we are.
Each episode covers a decade, beginning with the 1920s. It is in the first two installments, especially, that you can feel the gap being bridged, whether it’s in the treatment of a much revisited event like the 1929 stock market crash, or of a less-remembered one like the catastrophic flooding along the Mississippi River in 1927. These days, it seems, there is news footage of raging water somewhere in the United States just about every week, high-definition stuff that looks and sounds terrifying. Colorizing the images of the 1927 flood helps it compete, as it were, with these present-day inundations, helps define it as what it was: one of the worst natural disasters in American history.