Sexual assault is never an easy subject to approach cinematically. It’s hard to convey the anguish and violation without sensationalizing the event, and the aftermath can often be lost in dramatic embellishment for the most part. Shatara Michelle Ford attempts to change the perspective with her award-winning first feature film, Test Pattern.
Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is a vibrant young Black woman with a lot going for her. She’s beautiful, smart and meets a nerdy white guy named Evan (Will Brill). When she decides to give him a second chance after bumping into him at the grocery store, their love blossoms into a relationship. He is supportive, attentive and completely smitten by Renesha. After a girl’s night out, Renesha is sexually assaulted and unceremoniously dropped off at her friend’s house by the man who assaulted her. Evan, obviously worried and concerned, is determined to have Renesha get a rape kit performed. Little do they know that what should be a quick drive to the hospital becomes a harrowing chase for proper care in a system full of cracks that women most definitely fall through.
Test Pattern is a tough film to unpack. While it highlights the trauma and aftermath of sexual assault, it also focuses on Renesha’s relationship with Evan and the damage this act of violation does. What seems like a stable relationship with a doting boyfriend actually exhibits a similar amount of patriarchal control over her as the date rapist – control of someone confused, unsure what to do and not having the agency to make their own decisions in the moment. The emotions Evan unleashes are a privilege that many Black women, Black people, are not afforded, and ones Renesha is still processing and unable to decipher. The fact that they are two white men covering either side of the spectrum and somehow intersecting brings up the politics of interracial relationships, sex, and power dynamics, calling for much deeper reflection.
The many layers of this film are difficult to digest all at once. Survivors might find the nuances easily identifiable, but not immediately for those who don’t know the confusion and uncertainty over advice others might give to someone dealing with an assault. The failure of the healthcare and justice systems for assaulted women is clear here, and Renesha’s reluctance to rush to the police and the hospital is ignored by her well-meaning and overly-protective boyfriend. When you change the angles, so to speak, his actions are not as blatant as an assault, but it’s an extension of his lack of understanding and the patriarchal power he casually wields. Ford captures the insidious behaviours towards women of colour within relationships and the system.
The mood of the film is reflected by the stark atmosphere and cinematography by Ludovica Isodori. The colour choices for the lighting are perfect, too, from the neon red and yellow of Renesha’s assault to the cool blues of the hospital and her home after her ordeal, a visual representation of danger, numbness and isolation. Hall’s understated performance is tough to watch as she has no respite from the shock of the assault as she tries to remember details. As a viewer, you want to comfort her through a trauma that never truly leaves. Hats off to Brill too, who conveyed the turmoil of a helpless partner blindsided by an act of violence to someone he loves.
Ford’s first film was financed by loans and under her own determination because stories like these aren’t typical movie-going experiences. We need to support directors like Ford who won’t give up, who cover intense subject matter from a point of view that is seldom seen. She’s an important new voice in film and one to watch.
(I also found an interesting article on the state of rape kit processing in Texas and the woman who fought for change.)