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In Shatara Michelle Ford’s experimental thriller Test Pattern, light and dark are intertwined. The film is a staggeringly impressive debut, blending color, sound and story to create an intricate emotional tapestry.
It begins in the moment before a sexual assault occurs. We meet our main character as she is barely conscious, the glass of water in her hands tipping toward the floor. The screen glows red, letting us know that we are in for something ominous and violent. We see the perpetrator in the mirror as he gazes at his reflection before approaching his victim. This is the setup of a horror film: a defenseless woman, a man with dead eyes, a secluded location and no dialogue.
But then, right as he pulls her down to the bed, the scene cuts. Suddenly, we’re in a lively bar and our heroine is meeting her would-be boyfriend for the first time on the dance floor. The shift unsettles us, thrusting the story from a dire situation to a joyful one. This shift sets the tone for the rest of the film; Ford intends to keep us on our toes.
Test Pattern tells the story of Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a young Black woman living in Austin, Texas. She meets her white boyfriend Evan (Will Brill) at the aforementioned club and in the beginning, they have a quick, smooth romance. Evan is a tattoo artist and Renesha has a cushy corporate job that she hates. She lives in a fancy condo, dresses professionally and straightens her hair. Evan wears t-shirts, jeans and flip-flops. He’s entranced by her intelligence and beauty and she loves his playful, honest nature.
The scene where they have sex for the first time is sweet and tender. “I never want you to leave,” she tells him. His reply is simple: “I won’t.” And he doesn’t. Soon, Renesha leaves her corporate life behind and moves into a small blue house with Evan. He runs his tattoo parlor at home while she gets a new job at The Humane Society. Renesha starts wearing her hair natural, dressing differently and gets multiple tattoos. They adopt two dogs and a cat. It’s a picturesque relationship.
But then, Renesha goes out one night with her friend Amber (Gail Bean) and they run into a pair of pushy white men. Together, they ignore Renesha’s protests and pressure her into drinking more, staying out later and taking a weed gummy. By the end of the night, she can barely stand. As she tries to leave, one of the guys (Drew Fuller) intercepts her, driving her to the glowing red hotel room we see at the beginning of the film. Renesha is barely conscious when he rapes her, too tired to protest physically or verbally. Unlike many other filmmakers, Ford doesn’t linger on the specifics of the assault. She gives us just enough information to know that it happened without leering at Renesha’s body during the act. In the morning, the man drops her off in the middle of the street near her house. Once she goes home and tells Evan what happened, his reaction changes their relationship forever.
Every sexual assault survivor’s experience is different — there is no set way to respond to trauma. Some people want accountability from the abuser. Some people want to use their experience to raise awareness with initiatives like Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement. Sometimes, as we often see in cinema, the survivor wants only revenge. But Renesha wants none of those things. All she wants to do is go home, take a bath and go to bed.
But Evan, in a dark turn, doesn’t let her do that. What follows is a harrowing journey from hospital to hospital, in pursuit of a rape kit. This tense road trip reveals the flaws in both their relationship and the American healthcare system. The hospitals they go to aren’t equipped to administer the exam, prolonging Renesha’s sadness and anxiety. The longer they search for a hospital, the more things unravel, and Renesha begins to question what kind of man she’s been living with. In one unsettling flashback, she recalls a conversation where Evan talks about tattooing her as a form of branding. This causes us to look back and consider how much Renesha has changed — her hair, her job and especially her body. At the beginning of their relationship, she has one tattoo. In the present, she has many of them, all of which were designed and placed by Evan.
Test Pattern’s quiet commentary on race is one of its biggest strengths. Ford wants us to think about white patriarchal control and the different ways that power dynamics can play out in interracial relationships. Throughout the film, Renesha keeps thinking back to her assault alongside memories of her time with Evan. She can’t help but draw parallels between her white boyfriend’s controlling behavior and the predatory white man who took control of her in a different, more violent way.
Later, in a telling exchange, Renesha asks Evan why it’s so important to him that she get a rape kit. He replies with a question: “Don’t we need to find out what happened to you?” Her response is defiant: “I told you what happened to me.” Here, Ford reveals that this is not a journey for justice; this is the single-minded quest of a man who wants to re-establish control over his girlfriend’s body. Though she repeatedly asks him to take her home, he refuses to. He even reports the rape to the police without her consent. In the painful scene, she struggles to take the phone from his hands but fails. Evan keeps getting what he wants, making Renesha feel smaller in the process.
Hall and Brill are both superb in the film, creating a relationship onscreen that feels natural and realistically flawed. Brill has the difficult task of playing a man with shades of both kindness and menace, sometimes within the same scene. Evan’s need for power over Renesha flares up like an unrefined reflex too subtle for him to detect. And being a white man, he is able to assert that power and express his anger more freely than his Black partner.
Even if Renesha wanted to behave like him — yelling in public and demanding to be heard — the fallout would be drastically different for her. Hall has the more challenging role, giving dimension and agency to a woman who has been pressured into passivity. She has an arresting screen presence, with expressive eyes that speak for Renesha when her mouth fails her. Both performances are more physical than verbal, bolstered by undeniable physical chemistry between the actors. The most telling moments are when the couple is sitting in silence, unable to articulate the temperature of their emotions.
Test Pattern subverts our expectations by taking what would normally be a straightforward relationship drama and twisting it into something far more complex. The film is also one of the few sexual assault stories to center a Black woman, with her Blackness being central to her experience and the way she is treated by the people around her. It’s a romance, a sexual assault story and a thriller all in one, as tangled and blurred to us as it is in Renesha’s mind. The film moves backward and forward in time in a dark, foreboding dream space, mimicking the intrusive thoughts of a trauma survivor. This is not a movie about sexual assault as an abstract concept; it’s a movie about the reality of a sexual assault survivor’s experience. It’s a cinematic achievement.
Production companies: 120 E Films, IT WAS WRITTEN…
Distribution: Kino Lorber
Cast: Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean, Drew Fuller
Director/Screenwriter: Statara Michelle Ford
Producers: Statara Michelle Ford, Pin-Chun Liu, Yu-Hao Su
Executive producer: Brooke Jordan, Brittany S. Hall
Director of photography: Ludovica Isidori
Production designer: Eloise Ayala
Costume designer: Brionna Rowe
Music: Robert Ouyang Rusli
Music Supervisor: Alison Rosenfeld
Editors: Matt Tassone, Katy Miller
Sound designer: Thomas Ouziel
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