As the Marvel Cinematic Universe concludes its decade-long march towards total cultural hegemony with the recent release of Avengers: Endgame, a small but ambitious new film, Fast Color, from director Julia Hart, injects new life into the superhero genre by drastically reducing the stakes and scale of its characters. Instead of massive, improbable, world-ending possibilities, here is a film that brings the focus of superpowers down to the level of the family drama, and the generational power of the stories black women keep and carry through the years.
Set in the dying, drought-afflicted American Midwest where water is more precious than gold, Fast Color follows Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a wanderer and former addict whose childhood supernatural powers now manifest as powerful seizures that cause geologically impossible earthquakes. As she travels to reunite with her mother Bo (Lorainne Toussaint), she is intercepted by Bill (Christopher Denham), a government scientist who wants to obtain samples of her blood for study in the hopes of finding a solution to the ongoing environmental decay. When she escapes and rejoins her mother on their family land, she discovers that her own daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), now under Bo’s care, has also inherited their family’s powers, but unlike her can still see “the colors”: a personalized aurora borealis that manifests after she takes things apart and puts them back together again with her abilities.
With the government still on her trail and unwilling to leave without the chance to study her powers, Ruth flees once again, only to suddenly regain control over her powers when she forgives herself for a years-ago incident when Lila nearly drowned in her care because of one of her seizures, releasing herself from the guilt she has carried for years. Back in control, she returns to save her family only to have Bo sacrifice herself in exchange for Ruth and Lila’s safety. In the end, Ruth and Lila take off in search of the sanctuary Bo promises exists for women like them.
Written by Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz (of La La Land fame), Fast Color focuses not on heroics but on the concerns of the family. For Bo and Ruth, the issue of their estrangement is not their shared powers, but Ruth’s inability to control hers, and the way her nomadic lifestyle has corrupted them into something dangerous that will reveal their secret rather than a tool she can use to protect herself and her daughter. The small story hints at a much larger and longer history for their family; Bo reads to Ruth from an annotated book of family records, maintained and supplemented by each woman in their family line. In this world, “superheroes” are not lauded or praised. They’re perceived as selfish for guarding the secrets of their abilities and withholding the possibility of salvation from everyone else. It is a much more human response to attempt to exploit a resource than to leave it untapped and intact out of awe.
In fact, the conflict between Bill and Ruth is that he believes himself entitled to access to her body against her will, in service to an ill-defined greater good. Multiple times he tries to appeal to her sense of charity, and tells her that consenting to be studied could help save humanity. But when she declines, he is more than happy to take her by force. That she is a vulnerable young black woman and he is a white man with the force of institutional might in his corner brings up uncomfortable parallels to Dr. J Marion Sims who developed the field of gynecology by experimenting on enslaved black women, and the infamous “HeLa” cells stolen from Henrietta Lacks without her consent. To Bill, Ruth is merely a means to an end, and her freedom and autonomy is a necessary sacrifice for the redemption of everyone else.
But the main thrust of the film is an examination of trauma, how it leaks into our lives and manifests in unpredictable ways. Ruth’s addiction begins when she tries to medicate away her seizures, but getting clean brings them back. As she spends more time with Lila she comes to see that her powers remain inaccessible to her because she hasn’t forgiven herself for the accident that nearly claimed Lila’s life. As she comes to her abilities through love for her daughter instead of fear for her life, she releases the pent up anguish and guilt of that day, allowing her to dictate the ways in which her powers manifest and granting her access to “the colors.” By confronting her trauma head on, she is able to free herself from the burden of her own guilt and literally crack the sky open, ending the eight-year drought.
In those final moments, Ruth’s power symbolizes the ways in which the very world we live in turns on the labour of black women; we have the power to shift the axis of the world. Ruth and Lila’s renewed quest for an ancestral homeland for women like them speaks to much larger ideas about the lengths black women must go to protect themselves and ensure their safety. An ancestral homeland where they can be hidden from the world and in the company of those who don’t seek toe exploit them is a tantalizing ray of home in a world that is crumbling around them and constantly in pursuit of them.
Fast Color is deceptively small. In a fairly tight 110 minute runtime, it creates and establishes a dystopic environmental future, hints at hopeful, solitary possibilities and sets up a fictive lore that is ripe for expansion. With so much to do, the pacing is frenetic and there is little room for narrative hand-holding, but for audiences who are invested in a different kind of superhuman story, rapt attention is a minimal price to pay to go along for the ride. But with a story that expertly gestures at deconstructing so many heady ideas without getting bogged down in the details, Fast Color is an expert example of an original idea that takes well worn tropes and tweaks them ever so slightly in order to infuse them with new meaning.
Fast Color is currently in theaters.
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.