The Front Row
“Test Pattern,” Reviewed: A Brilliant Début Examines the Aftermath of Sexual Assault
February 22, 2021
Shatara Michelle Ford’s first feature powerfully captures the disgrace of the American health-care system.Photograph courtesy Kino Lorber
hatara Michelle Ford’s brilliant first feature, “Test Pattern” (which is now in virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee), follows a young woman in Austin, Texas, named Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), who meets a young man named Evan (Will Brill) at a club. A romantic relationship develops rapidly between them, and soon they’re living together. She’s a corporate-development executive; he’s a tattoo artist. She’s Black; he’s white, though they never discuss their racial identities within the film. As I watched, I found myself absorbed in their story, albeit in an unusual way. It was obvious from the start that things between the two were too good to be true, that there was unexpressed trouble in paradise. When the trouble arose, though, it felt born not of the complex idiosyncrasies of a real-life romance but of a set of systemic forces. The characters are carefully thought-out and sharply observed, and made of the discernible stuff of life, with altogether plausible intentions, interests, and emotional responses. Yet their story in “Test Pattern” feels conceived not for the purpose of revealing their inner lives alone but to put society at large to the test. The movie is, in effect, a cinematic laboratory—not an experimental film but a film that is an experiment in action. The film’s apparent realism is in the service of bold analytical abstraction.
Ford, working with the editors Katy Miller and Matt Tassone, realizes this concept with a jolting sense of form whose intellectual impact feels almost physical in its intensity. The movie’s audacious way with time and memory is evident from the very start; it begins with a scene that sets a tone, although its timing, until midway through, remains unclear—an isolated and decontextualized scene of a Black woman and a white man in an ambiguous sexual encounter. (It’s impossible to get at the ideas in “Test Pattern” in any meaningful way without discussing its major plot points, so spoilers ahead.) After entering a relationship with Evan and moving in with him, Renesha also fulfills her long-standing ambition of leaving the corporate world: she takes a job as the development director at a nonprofit. Home from her first day at work, she hears from a friend named Amber (Gail Bean), who invites her to an evening at a club, and she goes on what Evan calls a “girls’ night,” planning to keep it restrained and to avoid drinking.
At the club, Amber (who’s also Black) and Renesha discuss the politics of their daily lives. Both of their workplaces are predominantly white. Amber says that she hears her colleagues praise Donald Trump; Renesha says that she avoids discussing politics at work because, as she puts it, the nonprofit world isn’t completely liberal. They cite the death of Sandra Bland as exemplary of the benighted politics of Texas, and Amber yearns to get away, to New York or San Diego, “because Texas is going to get me killed.” As they’re talking, two white men (Drew Fuller and Ben Levin) approach the women by agreeing enthusiastically with these political views—it’s the only moment in the film in which men and women, Black people and white ones, discuss political matters together, and it’s a sickening ruse.
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What follows is a sexual assault: the men coax and flirt with the women, then drug them, and one of them takes Renesha—woozy, then unconscious—to a hotel room and rapes her. “Test Pattern” shows, with an agonized precision, how the predators maneuver Renesha and Amber into making clearly unwise decisions, and shows this without in any way mitigating the criminal and moral horror of the assailants’ actions or blaming the victims. There is a conceptual framework behind Ford’s decision to foreground the details of the crime. By highlighting the steps, both practical and psychological, that it involves, the film—like an X-ray—reveals society’s hidden fractures, the cracks in the system that put body and mind, private life and civic responsibility, severely at risk.
The next morning, Renesha’s attacker dumps her at Amber’s house, and Evan meets her there. She vaguely recalls what happened and apologizes to Evan, who says that she has nothing to apologize for. Here, the film introduces another matter of consent, one that displays a male prerogative of a different sort—and which the film subtly and conceptually links to other abuses, whether criminal or altogether legal ones. Renesha wants to go home, but Evan insists that they go to a hospital—so that she can be examined forensically, by way of a so-called rape kit. What follows is a complex, exhausting, and disturbing odyssey, as Renesha and Evan are forced to go from hospital to hospital in search of a facility that has both a rape kit and staff members who are authorized to use it. Along the way, another form of depredation, a political and administrative one, is dramatized: even to see a practitioner, Renesha has to leave her I.D. with a receptionist—and to sign a form accepting any and all charges, in order to get her I.D. back. This moment of horror, pregnant with the prospect of onerous bills and unconscionable debts, captures briefly but powerfully the disgrace of the American health-care system.
The absurd burdens inflicted by the system have a physical side—Evan tells Renesha that she must hold off on peeing so that she can provide a urine sample for the rape kit when they find one. This gives Renesha’s trip from hospital to hospital an added agony, frustration, and indignity. What remains unstated, though, and undiscussed is Evan’s motive for urging Renesha to submit to a forensic examination. Is he displacing his own anger—even at Renesha—onto the desire to seek legal revenge against her assailant? Does she herself want to pursue the exam, or is she doing so to satisfy, placate, or in some way compensate Evan? A set of flashbacks, incisively conceived and placed with a razor-sharp sense of timing, indicate fault lines in the couple’s relationship even in good times—not necessarily grievous or insurmountable ones but ones that, like weak points in a medical system, a legal establishment (or, one can’t help but think in light of recent events in Texas, a power grid), make it harder to absorb the stress. What’s more, the film implies, when a systemic breakdown comes, it will be most catastrophic for Black people, especially for Black women. The silence that surrounds Renesha and Evan—the silence regarding their identities, the silence regarding the hectic pursuit of a rape test, the silence regarding the failures of the medical and legal systems—is a silence that echoes through the halls of power, and through history. “Test Pattern,” in that sense, is an echo of an echo, a convergence of social-scientific cinema and stifled screams of pain that appears designed, urgently and precisely, to break the silence.
Racial Injustice in America
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