It took a long time for Test Pattern to get made, and much longer to get it in front of audiences. Available now in virtual cinemas, Shatara Michelle Ford’s debut narrative feature is a sensational film that we almost didn’t see. After their script for a coming-of-age story titled Queen Elizabeth showed up on the 2017 Black List for Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays, Ford still struggled to raise the money to make their first film. Despite winning awards at several film festivals, it took two years before Test Pattern was able to finally see a public release.
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Ford about that struggle to get the film off the ground, and how it reinforced questions from earlier in their life about whether or not she would be able to make a living as a filmmaker.
With glowing reviews for their debut, including our own, one hopes that the doors will be opening up now for Ford’s next project to be a little easier to get to the screen. If nothing else, she can rest assured that this powerful mix of realist drama and psychological horror is out there now for everyone to see.
Test Pattern tells the story of an interracial couple, Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill), whose seemingly steady relationship faces some challenges after Renesha is sexually assaulted. The two go on a labyrinthine journey through clinics and hospitals in an attempt to acquire a rape kit, and they’re confronted with the ways that the medical industry fails women, particularly women of color, and how their own relationship has been informed by the differences in their lived experiences.
This is a truly tremendous work from an exciting new voice in cinema, and I’m very pleased to be able to share my conversation with writer/director Shatara Michelle Ford below:
Mitchell Beaupre: I wanted to start by talking about a scene in the movie where Renesha is telling Evan what she does for a living. She has this struggle because she’s making good money, but she says that she isn’t helping anybody. I was wondering if that’s something that you struggle with as a filmmaker, particularly in an industry where the stuff that makes the most money is typically big disposable entertainment, whereas the movies made with and for marginalized communities are often underfunded and under distributed.
Shatara Michelle Ford: Yeah I do, although it’s a little more disparate than that. I grew up in a first generation middle class family who had left the rural and suburban poor, and made their way to the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. My parents more than anything wanted me to get a good job so I could buy a house. It didn’t matter if I cared about it, it didn’t matter if it was doing something greater, because that’s not the point. I understand where that comes from when you come from poverty, but I can only say that in hindsight as a 33-year-old. I think that’s more of where it came from for me. The reason why I’m a filmmaker is because my dad watched movies every day. They were just on all the time, and we went to the movies every Friday night, and then to some chain restaurant afterwards. I had a very extensive and deep relationship with cinema, yet it was never something that I was allowed to consider as a job.
I wrote screenplays and I was into movies, but in the back of my mind I knew it was never a viable path. So, I kind of gravitated towards journalism, and political science, and went to college thinking that I was probably going to be a lawyer. Further into college I thought that public policy seemed to be a thing that I was going to do. Then I thought that maybe I should be in academia and that I should teach, and that’s when I started to pull together the intersections of all of these different disciplines I was very interested in; politics and sociology, with policy kind of underneath, and cultural studies, media studies, ethnic studies kind of stuff.
I took a screenwriting class in my senior year of college, and my professor was like, “You know, you should probably be doing this for real for real”, and I was like, “That’s a thing?!”. So that kind of changed my trajectory, and I got my MFA. However, I was still committed to having a “real job” because I didn’t think that this was a “real job”. So, for me that struggle is more related to not following your passion, and not following the thing that speaks to you, as opposed to not helping.
MB: It’s a very complex mixture of ideas, and sometimes you have to struggle to follow your passion, but if you can do it, then it’s worth it. Back in 2017, you had written a script called Queen Elizabeth that had gotten on the Black List, which one imagines would have opened a lot of doors for you. However, you still had to put In so much of your own money to make this movie, taking out loans, getting credit cards, and more. When the movie started playing, it won awards in places like the New Orleans Film Festival, and later Kino Lorber came on board to distribute it. Did that feel like a validation that this is something you could be able to make a career out of?
SMF: Yes and no. The first festival the movie played at was BlackStar in August 2019. New Orleans happened two months after that, and it was really great, and then nothing happened. A whole year went by before the consideration of distribution came up again. By the way, that wasn’t because someone reached out to me saying they’d like to play the movie. It was my producer and I deciding that we should try to get distribution. By the time that Kino came in I had kind of given up and thought that I wasn’t going to be making movies.
I really struggled in Hollywood, and this goes back to your earlier question. I’ve never been someone who wanted to be in L.A. or Hollywood just to be there. I love movies, but I don’t have to be on set. I’ve done that before, I was an assistant, I did the whole thing, and it was great and I learned a lot, but I don’t ever want this to be the thing that I do because it makes me money. It’s unfortunate that it’s the medium in which I express my artistic endeavors because it’s so expensive, there’s so many moving parts, and you have to get other stakeholders who have varying degrees of interest and input in your work. When I figured out that Hollywood wasn’t going to be a place where I could just pitch up, say “here are my ideas, this is what I like to do, and it looks like this and I’m very confident I can get it done”, but more as like a give and take of, “well we have this box that we’re trying to take, and these spaces that we’re trying to fill, and we need this thing to make this kind of money so we can do this other thing”, I knew that doesn’t work with how my brain works.
I moved to Philly partially because I couldn’t afford to live in L.A. anymore, but also because I didn’t need to be there anymore, if that’s not what my career was about. I had moved to Philly, and I started working at Planned Parenthood, so I did the weird kind of u-turn that Renesha does in the movie career-wise. That was great and illuminating, but while I was working there, I was sad, wishing that I could make movies, so it never ended for me, this idea of trying to navigate and find a wedge for myself. I went back to kind of hoping and praying that somehow this movie will resonate, and it will give me enough space for people to allow me to do what it is that I like to do. That remains to be seen.
MB: I think it’s an amazing movie, and I’ve been seeing a lot of huge praise for it, so I’m hopeful that it’ll open up those doors for you to get people to start reaching out to you now. Was wanting to work at Planned Parenthood something that was inspired by you telling this story?
SMF: Yeah, I think it influenced me to do that. I had been an advocate for Planned Parenthood already. I care about women’s bodily autonomies, and sexual health of all people, and bodily autonomy of all people. I have always straddled the world of nonprofits purely by the nature of what I care about, and the degrees that I have. I needed a job, and I wanted to do something that was invested in the things that I was invested in, so there I was. It did help me kind of contextualize the film more. The film was the thing that put me there, and I was happy to be there, for as long as I could kind of bury the desire to be making another movie.
MB: Someone going into a place like Planned Parenthood would hope that they would have someone like you who was there to support them. That’s something you don’t see a lot of in this movie, where we’re more seeing people in the medical field being there to make money. Something that really stands out about the movie is the procedural way that you follow Renesha and Evan when they’re on the search for this rape kit. A lot of movies that portray sexual assault will use that assault as a storytelling device, something to propel the narrative of the characters, but then never address the assault again. Was your aim more about focusing on us following Renesha’s path, showing how the world treats her as someone who has gone through this, and drawing out these ideas about toxic relationships, and the sexism and racism within the medical industry, from us observing her lived experience?
SMF: Yes. The thing I’m most interested in is power, and I think that if we’re analyzing any situation or any grouping of people, any couple, with that lens then the kind of things that we’re so used to seeing in movies – the tropes, that structure, the development of a story – don’t really apply. I think also that we can get to the nuance and the emotional authenticity, which is that humans are hella complex, and there’s never just one thing, there’s never just one motivation for why they do what they do. (laughing) My therapist likes to remind me all the time, “it’s not usually about you, it’s about them”, so that was the thing that I kept reminding myself in every interaction with Renesha and Evan. It’s not about you, it’s about them, it’s not about you, it’s about them, and vice versa. That really destroys and warps interactions between humans, people who do like each other and care about each other. If you’re going through one thing, and this person says one specific thing that triggers a whole history of stuff that you don’t know about, then that becomes exposed, right? That’s what I was looking at.
In terms of the cold and uncaring nature of bureaucracy, you know, I am a fan of Kafka, I am a fan of Dostoyevsky. I think those two points of views in particular I relate to so much as a person who has not been considered when these structures were erected. I’m just constantly falling through cracks, so I can kind of see the absurdity, and I can see very, very clearly the ways in which someone who may have decided to work at a hospital, or at an urgent care, because they need a job and capitalism has also strapped them, and this job doesn’t mean anything more than the money it gives them, and they’re stressed out all the time because they’re understaffed and busy, I can see how that bureaucratic worker can be cold and uncaring when somebody is upset about not getting what they need. I’m trying to get across that we’re all part of a much larger system that’s pulling at us constantly. There’s no nefarious mustache twirler in the movie, besides maybe the structures themselves.
MB: Something that I think is very well observed is how we see that while Renesha is silent, essentially shutting down as she’s trying to process what happened, Evan is much more direct. He’s dragging her around from place to place, and when they’re meeting these blockages from medical personnel he lashes out, shouting in lobbies about rape kits. It really stands out that as a white man he is able to cause a scene like this, and not face any fear of repercussions. Did you want the audience to see those differences in how the world was responding to the two of them, and how his privilege affords him the ability to behave like that?
SMF: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. It’s something that Will and I talked about a lot. He definitely got that, but Will as a person is quite considerate, and I could see in moments that he was always holding back a little bit. I had to tell him that I really wanted him to let go and be angry, which he was very worried about doing. Then when he did I really felt sick because it was so scary, it was so tense in that room.
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. It’s something that I experience all of the time, right? I find that as a Black person, as a queer person, as a woman who also identifies as nonbinary, who spends a lot of time in cis hetero adjacent spaces, white adjacent spaces, with people who come from way more privileged backgrounds than I ever did, I’m constantly checking myself. I can’t believe it sometimes. Especially this summer, in light of the next iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement, there were a lot of non-Black people who were like, “Black folx, just be honest, tell us how you feel, we’re here to listen, we want to listen”, and even in those moments I’d still check myself. It’s just innate, it’s like this is the extra layer of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “double-consciousness” theory. It’s like, it’s crazy that I’m doing this, but I don’t know to stop.
I would get notes about Renesha sort of regressing into herself, where people would say that she’s not doing anything, she’s the protagonist and she’s not doing anything. I’d tell them that she’s doing a shit ton, and they’re like that’s not what protagonists do, they drive the story, and I’m like, “Well, then you have clearly never been a marginalized person”, because your story’s getting hijacked all damn day. That’s the most agency Renesha can have in that moment, and those are her coping skills effectively. I don’t think Renesha even considered being indigent, but had she I think she still would choose not to be because she knows what happens when that happens.
MB: I imagine that for different audiences it’s going to be a very different experience seeing the movie. Watching Evan really made me consider the ways that my privilege allows me to behave in situations without even having to consider how I’m being perceived. Whereas Black audiences might see themselves more in Renesha’s experience and how she’s responding to the world and how it’s responding to her. It’s funny that those were the notes you got, because I think one of the things most crucial to the impact of the movie is how Renesha retreats into herself because it’s so real, and so honest. Brittany S. Hall’s performance is amazing. You see everything that is going on with her internally without her having to externalize it at all.
SMF: She did such a brilliant job. We talk about real and honest, and we put it in the context of commercial cinema, and I think first of all that audiences are very smart, and I think real and honest – when it’s about emotional honesty, and not like historical accuracy – I think that audiences are hungry for it, and open to it, but have been fed a diet of wish fulfillment so they don’t know, and they’re not trained to be prepared for it. I do think that for some folx who feel like they have little agency within the system, and would rather not acknowledge that, watching Renesha is very hard and frustrating for them. I think that they would prefer me to have made choices that are very out of character, which is for her to take this into her own hands, but I truly think that misses the point.
I know it’s a hard watch in that respect, although it’s weird for me because it’s a hard watch but there’s also some beautiful catharsis to being seen. What I’m also saying to everyone that feels like that is that I see you. Not only do I see you, but like, “Isn’t this fucked up?”. It’s a call for affirmation and recognition in that sense, that like this is fucked up, and honestly we shouldn’t have to do this, and look at how all this other stuff works and how annoying it all is. I find that it’s always nice to have reference points, so that when I find myself in a place where I have no agency, or I’m backed into a corner, if I’ve got a reference point it kind of helps me, you know.
MB: Being able to see yourself in art can be such a vital thing, and white audiences can’t understand what it feels like to have that absence of not seeing ourselves. There’s one moment in the movie that really stood out to me, where Renesha and Evan are leaving one of the hospitals, and there’s this Black woman in the waiting room watching them. She’s right in the center of the frame, so our eyes are drawn to her, and she doesn’t speak, but she observes them, watching them go by. Is that a moment of recognition, like you’re saying, where she sees Renesha, and sees what she is going through?
SMF: Mhmm, absolutely, absolutely. Marginalized folx who identify the same, we always see each other, do you know what I mean? You can be in a massive group of people, and as you’re navigating through you clock the person that you know. Black folx definitely do that with each other purely because we see one another. I think Renesha in that particular scene is in a precarious place, right? This dude is acting a fucking fool, he’s like high level white right now. It’s all in a space that doesn’t necessarily have other people that could recognize that or feel that, and this woman clocks her. It’s almost like she’s looking and looking and looking, like just wanting Renesha to register that she’s looking at her, and that she sees her. It’s definitely a moment for the audience, for anyone else who looks like us, of “oh this is happening, like that is happening right now”. I think there are so many times where, especially when you’re in spaces that aren’t designed for you, that you’re not really able to fully express yourself. You don’t even realize that and it’s slightly traumatic. You tend to bury it, and swallow it, because you’re like “that wasn’t a thing”, so it’s always nice to have somebody to be like, “no, that’s a thing”, in passing.
MB: Especially when your voice is being buried in a space that hasn’t been designed with you in mind, having that validation from somebody outside of yourself can really help you to validate yourself and your own experience.
SMF: Something else that I think is important is that I know these conversations about diversity and representation are so prevalent within film and television right now, but I’m not really somebody who believes that a room full of people who look just like me, or identify like me, are therefore going to make it fair and equitable. If we’re not the ones designing it, if the room isn’t centering us, if the space isn’t starting with us, and us kind of moving through it together, and instead we’re just occupying it, then that’s very little to no progress. I don’t necessarily find those spaces any more comforting or encouraging. Sometimes it feels like you’re in a herd of cows being corralled. You’re all together, but it’s very constraining, and not really natural.
Test Pattern is available now in virtual cinemas courtesy of Kino Lorber
[This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity]