Content Warning: Depictions of sexual assault and trauma.
In its first moments, Shatara Michelle Ford’s debut feature Test Pattern gives a glimpse of the drama to come for Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a young Black woman living in Austin, Texas. She sits on a bed, appearing nearly unconscious, while a man continues to kiss her despite her lack of reciprocity. Within seconds, this is temporarily left behind as Renesha meets and falls for Evan (Will Brill), a white tattoo artist. Renesha has one tattoo when they meet, which slowly becomes an entire sleeve once they are fully in love and share a home.
To celebrate her first day at a new job, Renesha goes to a bar with her friend Amber (Gail Bean) where they discuss the ways that Texas, and the United States at large, systemically fails to protect and honour Black lives. Two men approach them, offering drinks and weed gummy bears. The night slowly becomes a blur, Renesha is sexually assaulted by a stranger and we return to the opening shot.
Test Pattern follows Renesha on the day after her assault as Evan, who is compassionate at first, drives her around Austin looking for a rape kit. However, Renesha never discloses a desire to report the assault or go to the hospital. Still deeply in shock, she sits in various waiting rooms and exam rooms numb to the situation around her. Evan becomes increasingly aggravated as each hospital or medical office refuses Renesha a rape kit for different reasons (no proper examiner, no kits, etc). The gender and racial differences are stark. Evan, a white man used to being protected by the healthcare system and law enforcement, is enraged at the experience his girlfriend faces the day after her assault. He seems unable to wrap his mind around the fact that rape kits are hard to get, yelling at nurses and office assistants. Renesha, a Black woman, is likely used to having her pain and experiences minimized by those in positions of authority. While experiencing shock, she is dragged around Austin by her boyfriend while she stays silent and unsurprised.
After trying a few different locations, Evan gets tired of waiting and makes a pivotal decision, without Renesha’s consent. It is important to note that while Evan is at some level acting out of love and concern, he strips Renesha of her agency throughout Test Pattern. For anyone, let alone a victim of sexual assault, continued disrespect of one’s will is retraumatising. This tension is what makes Ford’s debut moving and unique in the world of stories focused on victims. It is not a question of whether her partner and friends believe Renesha, but instead how they disrespect her right to choose how she moves forward.
The close ups on Hall’s face highlight her subtle changes in facial expressions as she balances portraying Renesha’s shock from the assault and her building anger with Evan. Brill’s nuanced performance stops Evan from being a cartoonishly evil partner and instead forces the viewer to reckon with him and Renesha’s conflicting notions of justice. It is understandable that he wants to report the assault, but he fails to reckon with the fact that Renesha’s experience with law enforcement and doctors is vastly different from his own.
Robert Ouyang Rusli’s haunting score helps situate the audience in the terror of Renesha’s experience and the denial of her agency. Reminiscent of classic horror films, Ford trades in traditional gore for the psychological trauma of recognising that your partner may not have your best interest at heart. Mixed with flashbacks of Evan and Renesha falling in love, it becomes clearer in retrospect that this turn is not as surprising as it is first presented. Halfway through, the viewer is brought back to a moment of Renesha and Evan relaxing on chairs in their backyard, her legs resting on his. Evan admires the tattoos he’s given Renesha since they began dating and says he can’t stop thinking about what he will design next and “brand on you cause you’re mine.” While innocent enough in the moment, this sentiment comes to fruition in his perceived ownership of Renesha’s experience.
With many films focusing solely on an assault and whether the victim is believed, Ford’s complex approach weaves in analysis of interracial relationships, gender, and the way identity impacts the support victims receive from the healthcare system and law enforcement. Ford, who both wrote and directed Test Pattern, creates a strong debut feature that is sure to spark conversation surrounding questions of agency for victims pertaining to if and how to report a sexual assault.
Test Pattern opened on February 19 2021 in Virtual Cinemas through Kino Marquee