A yellow dress, a man’s hand, a turquoise pendant dangling from a woman’s weary neck. Her long braids swing over a glass of water held between her thighs, about to spill. Red light suffuses the silent room. The man sits next to her on the edge of a bed, kissing her forehead and mouth.
The first few shots of Test Pattern, written and directed by Shatara Michelle Ford, are as blurry in context as in visual style. The woman is Black, the man is white, and it’s not clear what we are witnessing. Is the man consoling her? Making amends? Or is this something far more sinister? Ford purposefully puts us in a position of uneasy, if curious, spectatorship.
A few scenes later we meet Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) jamming with her girlfriends at a lively brewpub. She is the same woman we saw before, in a yellow halter and with straight, side-parted hair. A lanky hipster in a hemp necklace (Will Brill) joins her on the dance floor and later approaches her and her friends as they toast to another round on the terrace. “Hi, I’m Evan,” he says, hands fumbling in his pockets. “I was wondering — I know this is weird, sorry — if I could have your phone number ….” “Yeah,” Renesha shrugs and smiles, bashfully typing in her digits. The two seem an unlikely pair, but the chemistry is obvious. Is this the post-racial meet-cute for the ages — where a skinny white guy in a Henley shirt can hit it off with a luminous Black woman, and her diverse girl squad can tipsily root them on? Where, a matter of days later, the pair can bond over posh pan-Asian cuisine, and cuddle after hot sex on the proverbial third date?
Not quite, we’ll come to find out. Ford chronicles Evan and Renesha’s courtship and coupledom as a means of probing larger power asymmetries that surpass the scope of individual race, class, and gender identity. “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Renesha demurs over dinner, back-peddling from her critique of her corporate employer. “You totally know what you’re talking about,” Evan responds. “I feel like you, like, always know what you’re talking about.” She, the hyper-achiever, becomes smitten with her beta suitor, a tattoo artist who “makes enough” and clearly lacks her LinkedIn credentials. When he stops by her place for the first time — a spotless loft with sweeping views — they are both palpably excited and nervous making their way to her bedroom, an endearing mess of clothes and accessories. As he slowly undresses her, Evan gushes, “That’s neat,” at the tat on her oblique. In the next, post-coital, shot they stare into each other’s eyes. “You’re very loud, and I like that,” Evan shares with mild drawl. “You’re a freak!” laughs Renesha, to which he responds, “Yep ….”
Amid an indie film scene where every other movie seems to take place in Park Slope or Silver Lake, the Austin setting feels refreshing, as does the off-the-cuff, organic cadence of the couple’s early banter. We don’t see a lot of biracial relationships, let alone sex scenes, onscreen in this country — and when we do, it’s usually a pretty white woman with a muscular Black man. It’s thanks to both the direction and acting that Evan and Renesha seem at all plausible, their connection transcending textbook compatibility. The two shack up in a hip suburb, in a house with a sun-drenched kitchen and verdant lawn; Renesha’s world of wrap-dresses and minimalism merges with Evan’s shabby chic aesthetics. He’s the kind of guy who makes a mean French press while listening to NPR in a floral apron, who takes a Polaroid of his “boss lady” before her first day at a new (non-corporate) job. Renesha nicknames him “Snoopy.” It looks like an ad for a dating app.
If this part of the film feels a bit flat, it’s a foil to what follows. Ford builds this facade of post-racial Millennial bliss strategically to dismantle it in the second and third acts. When Renesha joins an old friend, Amber (Gail Bean), for a “girl’s night,” two men buy them round after round of drinks and enjoin them to dance. Renesha wants to go home, but her pal needs a wing woman, one who will gamely take the gummies offered even though she “doesn’t like weed.” The details of the scene become muddled as Renesha grows intoxicated. Was she roofied? Did she mix too much weed and bubbly? And what does it mean to even ask these questions? When, in the next scene, Renesha’s stumbling barefoot in a hotel hallway, trying to find her friend, we know she has been preyed upon. When she faces Evan the next morning at Amber’s place, her memory is fuzzy, and she just wants to go to sleep. “I woke up in some guy’s bed,” she says, to which he responds. “I think we should go to the hospital.”
The tagline for Test Pattern is the fairly shopworn slogan “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” But to the film’s credit it actually avoids such generalizations; Evan and Renesha enjoy what seems a satisfying, respectful sex life. Her assault is less a suggestion that all sex is coercive than a backdrop for larger systems of entitlement explored in the rest of the narrative. Evan insists that Renesha obtain a rape kit, and she is too tired to readily object. Their pursuit takes them on a wild-goose chase, Renesha sluggishly toting a plastic cup of pee from one Austin clinic to another.
Ford funded Test Pattern on a lean budget, and its strength is a testament to both their skill as a director and the acting chops of both leads, especially Hall. “White men and folks of privilege … are given much more leeway to make a movie in four days in a single room and all this lo-fi stuff,” the director told Filmmaker magazine. “But I know that people scrutinize over women and non-white filmmakers a bit harder and I didn’t want to get trapped into doing something without all of the resources I needed.” Ford clearly devoted much of their funds to realistically depicting the byzantine healthcare procedures in America — specifically the humiliating officiousness endured by women who seek to report a rape.
The film’s most brilliant, and brutally ironic, scene takes place in the waiting room of the Rogers Hill Medical Center, as Tchaikovsky’s score to the Nutcracker’s “Waltz of the Flowers” drowns out all other sound. Renesha fills out the forms with her left hand, the cup of urine clutched in her right. She and Evan sit down and stare in opposite directions; white placards behind them declare “Blue Cross” and “Blue Shield,” empty gestures toward valor and protection.
In the course an afternoon, Evan transforms from sensitive boyfriend to recalcitrant white dude — his paternalism shifting from sweet, if a bit cloying, to righteously indignant, to downright dismissive of Renesha’s desires. To what extent is his vigilantism even about her at the end? Are the rape kit, cops, and angry pleas just a way to restore his fragile ego?
Test Pattern doesn’t directly answer these questions. It offers instead, via clever framing and graphic matches between Evan and Renesha’s assailant, a more subtle indictment of whiteness and institutional power. By the end of the film, the outline of Texas inked on Evan’s skinny bicep doesn’t look so innocent anymore, nor does his act of tattooing Renesha’s entire left arm seem a sign of romantic devotion. For viewers seeking an “issues” film that didactically states who’s bad or good, this movie isn’t for you. But for those interested in going beyond the black and white, Ford’s debut proves a cogent, purposefully unsettling, viewing experience.
Test Pattern is available to stream through Kino Lorber Marquee.