How Lighting in Film is Used as a Tool for Propaganda

There are very few things in this life as relaxing as kicking your feet up and unplugging from the world as you watch a movie. It’s a mindless task for many but I’d like to discuss why more thought should be put into the media we consume. Media is a very powerful tool that affects us both consciously and subconsciously. Cinematography in movies is used to boost up the image and desirability of certain countries while simultaneously diminishing the worlds’ perception of others. Film writer Berens states that, “Ultimately cinematographers, whether realising it or not, make use of neuroscience and symbolism to affect an audience.” 

The use of colour as a tool to invoke emotions in a viewer is incredibly necessary for storytelling. This was portrayed in the movie ‘Parasite’ where the cinematographer used imagery and colour to communicate the disparities of wealth between two families. In the opening scene, the use of dull colours and minimal lighting hints at their financial status, giving viewers a visual cue as to what the underlying themes of the movie are.  This is in stark contrast to the Park family whose scenes use bright colours and an abundance of natural lighting to convey the ease that financial stability affords.  Film commentators Yan and Guo state that, “The film uses exquisite structure, color metaphors, and plot reversal to achieve the perfect unity of artistic value and commercial value” 

Parasite really catapulted Korean filmmaking to Western audiences, and though the Korean film industry has been thriving for decades, reception with Western audiences is often held as a default marker for success. These structures of “whiteness” or “Western accessibility” have framed how racialised people of colour are depicted in film. 

‘Extraction’ is a 2020 movie that was a sensation worldwide. This movie is a perfect example of how colour grading can enforce racial inequity in film using a technique called “Yellow Filter”.  Film writer Sherman states that, “American films tend to add the yellow filter when they depict countries stereotyped as impoverished, polluted, or war zones.” These visual cues convey a sense of hierarchy to viewers, where the American or European stories are held up as aspirational and the colour grading for non-Western countries adds another layer of “othering” to typically underrepresented communities. A lot of the time black people and other racialised people of colour are lit in a way that makes their characters appear unknowable, unsympathetic, or somehow lesser than their white counterparts. 

Much of Western cinematography (or any art for that matter) continually references work that was done before.  A history of Western film where white characters were acting in black face, lit in the most unflattering ways in order to perpetuate stereotypes about black people and even around depictions of non-Western countries was used as a propaganda tool to build up ideas on Whiteness as a default state, and anything else as lesser. There was never a lot of investment into lighting black people properly because the whole point was to be dehumanising.  This has persisted to this day and not just in movies but also in the news and journalistic photography as well. 

One series that gets it right is ‘Blood and Water’, a series based in South Africa. Everything from the cinematography  to the music to the lighting uplifts the actors and aims to give a true representation of youth culture in South Africa. This is what happens when a show is mostly written, directed, and shot by the people it’s trying to represent. The lack of ‘Yellow filter” is very evident in not only the scenery, but the way that dark-skinned characters are granted just as much visual prominence as white and light skinned characters.  While Extraction and Blood and Water are both Netflix produced, you can see the difference when diversity on screen is also reflected behind the scenes, including the directors, writers, sound mixers, and lighting crew. 

All this to say, you can still be woke and watch Friends, we all like to check out sometimes and that’s okay. It’s still important to take the media we consume with a grain of salt because there’s an entire history of propaganda and subconscious associations that still exists in media today and can warp our perceptions of ourselves. 

Footnotes
  1. Daniel Berens, “THE ROLE of COLOUR in FILMS: INFLUENCING the AUDIENCE’S MOOD” (, 2014).
  2. Yu YAN and Fei GUO, “The Metaphorical Analysis of Color Aesthetics in Parasite,” DEStech Transactions on Economics, Business and Management
  3. Transactions on Economics, Business and Management, no. ahem (February 10, 2021), doi:10.12783/dtem/ahem2020/35307.
  4. Elisabeth Sherman, “Why Does ‘Yellow Filter’ Keep Popping up in American Movies?,” Matador Network
  5. Network, April 27, 2020, https://matadornetwork.com/read/yellow-filter-american-movies/.