Warning: The conversation below includes mentions of sexual assault.
In “Test Pattern,” an interracial couple’s seemingly perfect relationship is put to the test after the woman, who is Black, is drugged and sexually assaulted. Disoriented and emotionally raw, Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) just wants to go home and rest, but her white boyfriend Evan (Will Brill) is determined to go to a hospital where she can obtain a rape kit test. What transpires is a painful and only further traumatizing ordeal.
The couple drives from hospital to hospital, only to be turned away — in some cases, a rape kit isn’t available, in others, the proper specialist isn’t on site to administer the test. Part neoclassical drama, part psychological thriller, “Test Pattern” deftly plays with perspective and memory, exploring race, gender and the ways the system fails Black women survivors of sexual assault on every level, from health care to the so-called criminal justice system.
The movie is a stunning feature debut from director Shatara Michelle Ford, who also wrote and produced it. While in conversation with Ford about the film via phone earlier this month, I found myself especially struck by two things: First, their obvious passion and enthusiasm for storytelling, particularly in regards to telling marginalized stories. Second, how incredibly rare (emphasis on rare) and rewarding it was for me as a Black femme culture writer to have an in-depth, hourlong conversation with a Black woman filmmaker about their work.
In this interview, Ford speaks to navigating a white and male-dominated movie industry, the dearth of films centered on the inner lives of Black women and femmes, the power of perspective in filmmaking, the challenges and rewards of making “Test Pattern,” and why we need to change the way we think about sexual assault.
I’ve seen the word timely used to describe this movie, which is certainly true, but I think in a larger sense, it’s also timeless. Meaning the issues that you’re exploring existed long before the Me Too movement and recent conversations we’ve been collectively having about sexual abuse and consent. What is the history behind developing this movie from script to screen, and why did you choose this story for your first feature?
I have been trying to make a movie since 2015. In 2015 in particular, there was a great call after #OscarsSoWhite, where the business was so desperate to find more Black filmmakers and was asking, “Oh, where are they?! How do we find them?” And we were all like, “Hi, we’re here!” I had written a script [“Queen Elizabeth”] that ended up on The Blacklist a couple of years later, it was a coming-of-age story about a Black girl. Very “Lady Bird”-y. As in it was something that could be easily received and make-able and all of that. But I went around and tried to get it made and everyone liked the script and then would be surprised when I said I wanted to direct it. They said, “Well, you’ve never done anything.” And I’d say, well, I’ve done a short and I know I can do it. I have a really great team behind me. We’re really ready to go. But I couldn’t get a financier to finance the movie. I just couldn’t. I raised about $100,000, which came from a financier who just believed in me, but I couldn’t get the rest of the money. I needed about a million to make the movie properly.
And so I thought, well, I have this other project that I’m thinking about and it requires a lot of special effects makeup and a lot of technical work. I would need to shoot underwater.
I thought maybe I should do a proof of concept with the money that I was able to raise. I was working on that around September 2017, right around the time the Harvey Weinstein story broke. Me Too hadn’t really exploded, but it was about a year into us talking about Bill Cosby. We were starting to talk a lot more about consent and we had just elected an accused sexual predator. And I think we were talking about the protection of women’s bodies and body autonomy in general. There was a lot of talk about rape kits and the backlog.
There were a couple of things that kind of sat with me for a while. The first was, I was pretty frustrated with the ways in which we spoke about assault. Again, it’s a spectrum right? It’s the basic violation, the very low-level boundary violation, with somebody touching you or making advances that you don’t want, all the way to rape — and all of it is bad.
And I think the other thing that really sat with me in this time was around the rape kit conversation. Before I learned about the backlog in early 2017, I didn’t know rape kits were a thing.
I just didn’t. I’ve been in situations. I’ve taken friends. And I’ve never been offered or heard of it being offered. And that surprised me. I was like, “Why is this all of a sudden a thing that seems to be very common and yet I’d never had access to?” Or heard of. It wasn’t taught to me. You know, you think about in college, the conversations that you have usually with your RAs the first few days of being there and the orientations, and they say something about the classic “No means no!” And like, “This is the sexual assault hotline.” No one is like, “Also, there’s a forensic test, if you find yourself in this situation, that could be useful.” That sat with me and I did more and more research about it.
What did you find out in your research?
I kept reading all of these stories about people all over the country. Stories from New York, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Portland. I was reading the stories of people who were experiencing the type of rape where they didn’t remember anything and didn’t know who the assaulter was. They would go to the hospital and many of them would ask for a rape kit and would get it and would have uncomfortable situations with it. Or they’d be charged for it, which you can’t do. Or they would go and they wouldn’t have access to one because the hospital didn’t stock them or they didn’t have the right forensic examiner to administer the procedure. And I thought again about myself.
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I think, as we know, Missouri is not a forward-thinking state, especially when it comes to the bodies of Black folks and women and queer people. And the policy reflects that. I thought about if this was something that were happening to me and I lived in Missouri or a state similar to that — which I would argue Texas is — would I trust the institution? Would I trust that I could talk to somebody and get the justice that I needed or the resolution that I was looking for? I was like, “No. If this happened to me, I probably would want to go home, take a shower, have a cup of tea and maybe rest a little in silence.”
And I’d probably also beat myself up and think that I did something wrong. Which, again, happens all of the time. And then I thought about the other thing, which is, I’m married to a white British guy and we’ve been together for 16 years. And something that I know about him is that, because he’s not from here, he takes stuff at face value. Like he doesn’t have skin in the game to protect himself because he’s not from here. However, one thing that he is definitely guilty of, which I think, all white people are guilty of, is believing that the system works for you. Because it does! And so when you put a Black body in there, they kind of short-circuit a little bit. I felt that in the times where my partner has put me into positions that made me feel more distressed because he trusted that the system worked.
And so immediately I wrote a script that kind of distilled all of that stuff that I’ve been kind of ingesting for a year or so.
It ended up being a 35-page script. I gave it to my producer and said, “Hey, it’s 35 pages, but it’s a feature, obviously. Can you read it and tell me what you think?” And she did. And she said, “Oh, actually I think we should stop what we’re doing right now and try to make this because I think we can with the money that we have.” So I used that $100,000 to translate into pre-production on “Test Pattern,” which we started in around November of 2017. We just went for it.
But what that meant also is that I was running around trying to ask for more money. The odds were always stacked against me. If they weren’t going to let me make “Queen Elizabeth,” nothing had changed. I still hadn’t made anything. And so there was still a lot of mistrust. Also, I was asking to do something that I think isn’t necessarily what comes across as commercial. I was approaching it from a way that people didn’t know how to evaluate.
I tanked my credit in 2018 to make this movie. I took out, like, nine credit cards. My partner took out credit cards. We drained our savings. We wanted to buy a house. And I also went to many friends who were more successful than I was at the time and asked for a thousand dollars investment from them, which quite a few of them did. Others invested a little bit more than that. And many people gave me, you know, $50, $100, $500 here and there and helped me get through the 20 days that I needed to shoot the film. We shot most of it in April 2018, and the movie was done and ready to go by November of 2018. But as you and I are talking, it’s 2021.
So what happened during those three years?
I was doing something that people weren’t used to seeing and the point of view that I had, I think, makes it slightly uncomfortable?
It’s not an easy film.
No, it’s not. And I think if you’re making business decisions, that’s something you’re not going to back. And that’s kind of what happened. I went back to financiers, because trust me, those credit cards that I had taken out? I needed help. I spoke to financiers in the summer of 2018 and showed them cuts. Most of the people were enthusiastic, but they weren’t going to put money in it because there was no guarantee that the film would get into a top-tier festival. And without that, they can’t ensure that someone will buy it and therefore they don’t know how they can get a return on their investment. Which creates, by the way, a conundrum. Right? Rewind back to 2015 when everyone was complaining about not having diverse filmmakers. But at the same time, they’re not willing to change their business model to incorporate that, which was disappointing, but not surprising.
So you put everything on the line to make this movie. Went into debt, called on friends, spoke to investors. You really made this happen. And then you look over across the aisle and you see filmmakers who everything is just so easy for. Does that frustrate you? How are you able to keep your head in the game and stay motivated with all of these obstacles?
First of all, I’m honestly very glad that it didn’t happen the other way. Because I think what also helps good art is a separation from commerce. I didn’t have any extra voices in the room telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. And I got to fully and completely trust myself. Which meant that whatever came out of it was going to be at least, you know, exactly what I was trying to express. And folks can resonate with that or not. They can want to get behind it or not, but at least it’s what I wanted to say. Related to that, what kept me motivated is that I had something to say.
I mentioned earlier that this is not an easy film, but I love that it’s not an easy film. The story you’re telling could be told in a way that that would be very easily digestible. But I think the thing that stuck out to me the most about the film was the — I don’t know if ambiguity is the right word, but there are a lot of perspectives at play. I watched the film three times and each time I watched it, I thought, “Oh wait, wait, actually, this is what’s happening. No, this is what’s happening.”
Oh, my god. I’m so glad. I’m so glad you said that. [Laughs]
One part that I was, like, gagging at was the flashback to when Kenesha and Evan are chilling in the backyard and he’s staring at her and she’s like, “What are you thinking?” And he says he’s thinking about the next tattoo he wants to give her, he says, “I want to brand you. Because I own you.” And it didn’t hit me until like the second watch, where I was like, “Wait, actually? Evan is the worst.”
Yeah, girl. [Laughs] Yes.
Suddenly, the perspective is shifted. He’s not this kind, supportive boyfriend who is just trying to help his girlfriend. Actually, he’s not respecting her boundaries. He’s not respecting her autonomy. He’s making her go on this wild goose chase that’s only further traumatizing her. And, as you said earlier, it all comes down to perspective. From his perspective as a white man, of course, getting her a rape kit is what he needs to do because that is going to make him feel like he has control of the situation, of her. Can you talk a little bit about that?
First of all, I’m just really glad, like I said, that you got something from it with each viewing and there was stuff that you noticed the second time that was just as shocking. That’s all I ever want from art. That’s what I want from a movie. I love when I can leave a theater and need to sit with something and break it down and debate it with other people. I also love when art grows with me. I think some of it is just experiential, right? It’s like I’ve been presented a point of view or an experience that I’m not fully exposed to or used to, but I see it. I’ve lived it with these characters and now I’m going to go through my life and something’s going to happen that’s going to make me think about it.
I think for me personally, as an artist, my job is to be having a conversation with work that’s come before me and my audience. And what I’m trying to express to them ultimately, most of the time, is that how they see the world and how they interact with others is completely informed by their experiences and the context. And so I’m just holding up a mirror to you. That’s the goal of this movie, in particular. I’m holding up a mirror and what you’re doing is looking at yourself, looking at a situation through your own ideology, your own judgment, and your own experience. That’s what’s being reflected back to you.
Having said that, to be able to hold up a mirror I have to be as objective as I possibly can be. I don’t like being too prescriptive and I really err on the side of subtlety. I like to avoid obvious dialogue if I can, at any point. And that opens itself up to how I worked with Will and Brittany in this film in particular. I had written words down, but for the most part I was always open to them kind of changing it and ingesting it, as it made sense to them for their character. The only time I would call it out was if it just didn’t feel emotionally correct with their character or if it was like a really important piece of information that I absolutely thought needed to be expressed.
Was it important for you for your lead to be a Black woman?
The most important thing that I prioritize, and this is very much in conversation with other work, is that we very rarely center the internal life and experience of Black women. I made a deliberate choice for us to go on that internal journey with Renesha. Renesha is fully and completely centered in this film. I’m not interested in serving the experience or point-of-view of white people. I just don’t care.
I just don’t care! I love that. When watching I could sense that the filmmaker behind this movie was not making it specifically with the white gaze in mind. I never felt that with Renesha’s journey, which was really interesting because she has a white boyfriend who is present throughout. One of your main characters is this white man who, at least in the beginning, we’re led to sort of root for, but his presence in the movie does not ever trump or overshadow the journey that Renesha is on. How were you able to find that balance?
I mean, some people would disagree. [Laughs] I’ve heard it a lot that there’s too much of him. But even that is intentional, right? Because white people always center themselves. I mean, if movies are about wish fulfillment, yeah, he would not be in it at all. But like, it’s not. The whole point is, yeah, there’s too much of him, a little bit, because there’s always too much of them. So as I’m trying to set that balance those are the things that I’m thinking about. I’m not here trying to make a documentary. I’m not only in the world of verité realism but also I do find it important because one of the things that I am saying is that, “This is real shit, guys. You white people center yourself way too much in our stuff. Men, you center yourself way too much in our stuff. You do not think about us.” In my own movie, you’re still way too present.
His constant presence and his constant attempts to take control of the situation, for me, only heightened what she was going through. And actually that’s another thing. I mean, I mentioned memory, but I myself am a survivor and I’ve really grappled a lot with the shakiness of memory and how memory is often used to either legitimize or delegitimize an experience. In the film, I could sense and understand Renesha’s sort of ambivalence — “I feel violated, but I also feel like I don’t really know what happened.”
Absolutely. Like you, I have my own experiences and trauma does a doozy on the memory. One of the things that I have such an issue with is the way in which we talk about the spectrum of assault and rape. In particular, the way that we prosecute, the way that we confront it. Trauma across the board is deeply internal and non-linear. And our memory — whether we are intoxicated or not, drugged or not — our memory is affected because it’s partially how our body is set up to help us navigate and cope from something deeply horrible. And so it’s really, really, really unfair when we’re required to prove something when inherently, like, I mean, it’s just, I don’t know, the odds are always stacked against you because of the way in which the experience alters your perception of reality and yourself.
As someone who lives with PTSD, I know that I can think about a situation over and over and over and over again and it will feel and look different each time. Just slightly. And then there are moments where I see things very clearly and it’s been 20 years. And that might be the time that I’m ready to talk about it, but then there’s like a statute of limitations and all of these other things that make it irrelevant. It’s so unfair. Something I was really trying to express in this movie is that the assault itself and the journey to find the rape kit, in some ways it’s completely arbitrary because Renesha has her own journey to go on and that is on her own timeline. And that might not be right now. It likely isn’t right now. And what other damage have we just given her? Because it compounds trauma.
What choices did you make in conveying that, especially the effects trauma has on memory?
Memory is something that’s really important to me as a filmmaker in general, as a tool that I use. I feel like as we’re navigating the world, we’re feeling compound trauma constantly. Therefore we’re not fully in touch with the things that we are experiencing and seeing most of the time. And when I think about Renesha and I think about the non-linear reflection of her relationship with Evan, which is what we’re seeing, we see these things out of context. She’s asking herself what the fuck is wrong with him and why is he, why is he acting like this right now? And what she’s doing is, all the little things that she wasn’t paying attention to before, she’s now seeing differently. Like the branding.
It’s like, “Oh! Oh, that’s sweet. He loves me so much. I’m his, isn’t that so romantic?” And again, some people really find possession an expression of love. I personally do not, but I get how that is a thing. And maybe Renesha at the time thought, “He really loves me. I’m his.” And now she’s like, “Oh my God. That is what that was. That doesn’t feel good.” What I was trying to express is that she’s trying to ask herself, “Well, if I knew this about him, what made me want to be with him? What was going on?”
It almost makes you wonder if he was just manipulating her the whole time.
I think it’s worse than that. I wish Evan was nefarious, just like a terrible, evil, mustache-twirling white man that wants possession of a woman. But I think Evan feels deeply insecure in this moment. He’s not capable of thinking about anyone but himself in that moment. And Renesha’s entire being is a casualty.
I read that all of your department heads were women, your crew was like 60% BIPOC and much of the cast and crew identify as queer and I think that’s really amazing. What was it like to be able to share the experience of making your first feature with such a — I hate the word diverse, but I can’t think of another word — diverse cast and crew?
For me, it wasn’t hard [to have a diverse crew] because I already knew most of these people and if I didn’t know them, the people who I hired hired them! The reason why there’s so many sets full of just white dudes is because they’re also hiring people that they know they’ll feel comfortable with.
It’s actually harder to go out of your way to find people outside of your circle. And trust me, that is a struggle, even for me. My circle just happens to be diverse, you know what I’m saying? But it’s hard. So it’s something that I tell myself I need to get better at too. I like my friends. I trust my friends. The same people that I worked on “Test Pattern” with I’ll want to work on anything with, for the rest of time. However, I recognize that by doing that, I take opportunities away from other people.
Why do you think that it’s such an issue currently in the industry?
It goes back to what I was saying about how I got this movie made to begin with. If you’re not willing to change the business model, the industry can’t change. I think what we forget about in our industry is that you have to be incredibly privileged to be there. You have to know somebody. You have to be willing to be paid nothing. Not even willing. You have to have the ability to be paid nothing. That means somebody has got to be paying your bills. I mean, someone must have a free bit of accommodation for you. That is not something that is easy for marginalized folks. I think also it’s like a culture, right? It’s about who you center and I think too much of our business centers straight cishet white men. And sometimes we [marginalized people] just don’t want to be in those environments. There’s so many reasons that are institutional that we have not reconciled.
If I think about it in the context of this film, I probably could have hired less white men than I did [Laughs]. I could’ve probably done with less, but that’s really hard.
But I will continue to hold myself accountable for that. And I will be honest when I’m not doing it enough. Because that’s another thing about our business — most people don’t like to be called out. There’s no way we can do better if we’re not willing to admit our own flaws in that respect.
What was your biggest takeaway as a filmmaker in making this movie?
The biggest takeaway that I had is that although I will probably produce again and I will produce my own work in some capacity, the level of producing that I had taken on with this film I will never do again if I’m directing because it’s too much.
Finally, can you talk a little bit about your emotional journey while making the movie?
I cried all the time. That was partially because I felt a lot of pressure. Maybe I was feeling a bit of imposter syndrome too. Like, “Oh my God, I convinced 40 people to go on a plane and come to Texas.” [Laughs] And I didn’t really tell a lot of people that I was funding this off of credit cards and scraping and begging for money all the time. I really tried to give the set a sense of financial stability. So that’s hard too, to not be vulnerable and honest in some moments when financially we’re feeling incredibly strapped and it’s taking a toll on me.
I remember there was this moment where I had a really stressful day of just kind of picking locations and committing money to people. And my line producer came up to me and told me about another problem. And the reason why I’m being vague is because I don’t remember it. And I don’t remember it because I fainted. [Laughs] I felt like I owed people a lot. All of my heads of department who are so incredible were also taking a risk by doing this film and I wanted to make sure it was good. And I wanted to make sure that I gave people things that could help them with their careers too. That was a lot of responsibility.
On top of the fact that I’d say our crew was majority female, and many of us were processing our own stuff. I think something good that happened with the Me Too movement is that once one person starts talking about their own assault, things start clicking for you. Stuff that maybe you’ve never even considered, all of a sudden you’re thinking about and there’s a ripple effect. And I found on our set, especially me and my heads of departments, we were all talking, and going through our own kind of internal evaluations. All of it was really hard, but super satisfying, necessary, and completely worthwhile.
“Test Pattern” opens Friday in virtual theaters via Kino Lorber.
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