March 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Test Pattern’ review: A potent drama about sexual assault

Grappling with the devastation of sexual assault, an interracial couple, Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill), quietly unravel in writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s haunting “Test Pattern.” Understated in its complex ruminations, Ford’s succinct debut transposes the discourse around the #MeToo movement from whiteness to a Black female lens. In line with last year’s documentary “On the Record” or the series “I May Destroy You,” it’s part of an indispensable breakthrough in media.

Ford condenses the seemingly ideal relationship in flashbacks and a first act illustrating their profound, and believable, chemistry. But when Renesha survives an attack while out with a friend, the previously unnoticed (or ignored) racial and gender blind spots between them are elucidated. As Evan drives her to multiple hospitals in search of a forensic exam — colloquially known as a “rape kit” — Renesha’s frustration mounts over the experiences and unspoken hurdles her partner can’t fully comprehend being a man and white.

Ridden with compelling ambiguity, best captured in the uncomfortable silences that communicate a concerning fracture to their dynamic, both actors convincingly channel the volatility brought on by such a distressing situation. A stellar Hall, of course, bears the most emotionally demanding part. Formally, Ford’s disruptive use of classical music over pivotal scenes is always conspicuous but varies in tonal effectiveness, while the disorienting stylization of the calamitous night superbly transmits the fright of the ordeal.

Similar to “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” or the Tunisian drama “Beauty and the Dogs,” Ford’s story portrays painfully intimate moments women endure while navigating institutions not designed to facilitate help but to burden them — almost as if to dissuade them from exercising their rights. In this case, the disregard for the gravity of the events is grossly exponential given that the victim is a young Black woman.

A trenchant conversation piece from a promising new director, “Test Pattern” provides ample room for one’s biases and privilege to shape our interpretation of what’s on screen. Men, for example, could perceive Evan’s presumably empathetic response as commendably noble, even if it’s just an expression of base level decency.

Women, however, could point to his stubbornness as imposing his patriarchal need for proof on Renesha’s trauma. Black women, on the other hand, could add that his need for justice not only undermines her autonomy as a woman, but also responds to his vision of a system designed in favor of white Americans. In those conflicting reactions of the beholder lies the movie’s virtuosity.