Just hear me. Okay?
Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) moved to Austin for grad school and stayed upon earning a lucrative job in corporate America. Money has a way of excusing many of the social inequities a state like Texas has for a Black woman because it often provides an avenue around them. And when she meets the shyly sensitive Evan (Will Brill), things seemingly get even easier. The two fall in love, buy a house together, and find themselves in the sort of happy state of living that allows for the positive kind of changes we all strive to achieve. He opens his own tattoo parlor at the house; she quits her job to take her skills to a non-profit. Being an interracial couple still provides its challenges, but life is good.
Writer/director Shatara Michelle Ford doesn’t begin her feature debut Test Pattern with that idyllic trajectory, though. The first thing we see is Renesha gradually losing consciousness on the edge of a bed, the water glass in her hand taken by a yet unknown man (Drew Fuller‘s Mike) before leaning in for a kiss. Ford teases this dark truth coming, preparing us so we aren’t tricked by the subsequent courtship’s joy. Evan is sweet but embarrassed for not calling when bumping into Renesha at the grocery store. She’s confident and strong when explaining she wouldn’t have given him her number if she wasn’t interested. This is the first example of her asking him to listen and believe, their mutual trust evolving into an unshakeable bond about to be tested.
Ford calls the film a litmus test in her director’s notes. She explains how she’s intentionally left the whole ambiguous and subtle insofar as where this couple goes from here, but “not vague in its expression or construction.” I think that’s a very crucial distinction considering how short (eighty minutes) and fast-paced the experience proves. Just because you may not think there’s enough here to necessarily care about the central relationship surviving doesn’t mean that relationship doesn’t serve its purpose to expose the injustices of the systems on display. That means a broken healthcare infrastructure as well as the patriarchal and racist upbringing we’re all intrinsically taught as Americans. Evan is carefully drawn to straddle the duality of being both “good” and an unavoidable part of the problem.
He makes her breakfast and plays cheerleader in the morning, but drinks three beers and chooses not to go with Renesha to meet her friend (Gail Bean‘s Amber) at night. It doesn’t seem too important initially, but hindsight has a way of coloring everything Ford supplies differently. What does he do while drunk? Tell her not to drink too much. What is his reason for not going? He doesn’t like the bar Amber chose. It’s not until later that we go back in time to a moment when Renesha went somewhere she didn’t want to go. But she did it for him. In many ways, she does a lot for him despite his smile and genial nature seemingly the only things he’s bringing to the table in return.
Just because it’s not overt, doesn’t mean it’s not true. Something so simple as Renesha still struggling to remember and deal with what happened to her between the time she met Amber and the time she woke up in Mike’s bed leading her to apologize to Evan is evidence of how warped our culture is. She was raped and yet she’s apologizing to her boyfriend. Is his response of “What are you apologizing for?” okay? Why doesn’t he tell her she has nothing to apologize for instead? The former is accusatory. It’s asking her to speak aloud what happened—to admit blame first—before absolving her of it. There’s a power dynamic at play the moment Renesha returns. “Why didn’t you call?” comes swiftly after “Are you okay?”
Evan is the one who says they should go to the hospital and Renesha complies. Is he wrong? No. Does he allow her the chance to collect herself and prepare for what going means? No. He takes the lead in the belief that his indignation will get things done. He’s a white man in Texas with the state’s outline tattooed on his arm. He lives a different existence than her and refuses to pause so she can explain what we must imagine she knows is coming. We hear Trump’s voice on the radio. Amber’s desire to go out the night before was to vent her frustrations about the state of her hometown during his politically and racially volatile term. Renesha getting a fair shake here is a fantasy.
If you don’t believe what occurs is an authentic description of a woman’s experience to report a rape, it doesn’t take long to Google examples. The first hospital that turns Renesha and Evan away mentioned they couldn’t administer a kit because they didn’t have a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) nurse on staff. I heard “same” and wondered if Texas had a law that white nurses couldn’t examine Black victims. So, I did a search to find the correct term. In so doing, however, I also came across a Cosmopolitan article from 2016 by Jillian Keenan which pretty much described the plot of Test Pattern beat for beat. It’s a willfully malicious system meant to dissuade, demoralize, and dehumanize women. And Ford pushes it even further.
How? By setting up Evan as a white savior. Who gets angry during the experience? Who risks making matters worse with his temper? Evan cannot fathom what’s happening because he’s never had to experience the other side of a system that places him at the top of the pyramid. What does he do in reaction to the inevitable frustration? He doubles down and calls the police against Renesha’s wishes. He makes a horrible situation worse. Regardless of what you think should have happened or if Renesha would have come to the same conclusion herself, Evan removes her autonomy just like everyone else. Suddenly she’s once again caught against her will with nowhere to go but forward through the gauntlet. Only this time it’s with the man she loves.
Brill is great in that role. Always sympathetic and well-meaning to shield his complicity in Renesha’s nightmare. Hall is revelatory at the center. The subtle ways in which she changes once she gets deeper into their relationship. The fear and confusion that comes from waking post-rape without memory of what occurred. The anger, not of the situation in which she finds herself, but towards the person who is supposed to be her partner reacting as though she’s his possession instead (with another brief flashback confirming as much through a line of dialogue that’s delivered with the air of jest despite it not being funny at all). And that look of defeat at the end speaks volumes. Because it doesn’t matter how good things appear. The system rarely loses.
courtesy of Kino Lorber