Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Shatara Michelle Ford’s film Test Pattern has a message for the powers that be: wake up and do better.
Ford’s film about an interracial couple, Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill), facing the lunacy of the healthcare system and police department after Renesha experiences a sexual assault, will make you angry. Indeed, that’s what’s supposed to happen as you watch the couple drive from hospital to hospital in Austin, TX, to try to find someone who will help. The systems meant to help victims don’t do much except bark bureaucracy and throw around red tape.
“I think for, for me as an artist, I spend a lot of time, analyzing systems of oppression and power,” they said. “Any character any character that I write is going to be one that is navigating some version of that bullshit, you know, and I think that I was particularly frustrated about three, four years ago with how we all talk about sexual assault and the spectrum that it is, you know, I think it’s, these things are not…really well articulated. And I think And I think people really lack the tools to understand. And I think when you don’t have the tools and you don’t know what you’re actually talking about, there’s a big opening for exploitation and abuse.”
“…I think a lot of times people only want to pay attention to the very obvious, very extreme, very dramatic, but very real experiences, you know, being raped, you know, in a dark corner where someone snatches you, which happens all the time, and it’s equally as fucked up, but there’s a whole spectrum before that, that also is just as bad,” they continued. ” I think that we, [particularly] people who are not white and not men, are taught that our body is not fully our own, and we have a lot of systems and policies and people policing it all the time.”
Ford said confronting the policies that police non-white, non-male bodies is what they have to do all the time as a marginalized person in society.
“I’m a short, Black, queer, dark skin. Non-binary woman, and those things affect how I move through the world all the time,” they said. “[I]t’s never pleasant, you know, [but] it doesn’t mean that I don’t have elements and moments of joy and happiness and brightness. But for the most part, things don’t work as they should just for me, and they don’t feel good. And I wanted to make a movie that centered the experience of a Black woman in a state where Black women often get caught between the cracks [of] public policy and the larger governing trends. I never really forgot Sandra Bland. I never did. Not only did I never forget it, but I’m very sad about it and I still don’t understand it. As someone who moves through the world with that feeling an that connection, it definitely influences how I feel about institutions, and obviously I don’t trust them, and I think there’s a reason for that.”
While the Black women represented by Renesha often face the brunt of society’s failings regarding consent and specialized help, Black women are routinely left out of the conversation about sexual health and sexual care. As we’ve seen with the Me Too movement, the mainstream came to identify it with actress Alyssa Milano. But the campaign had been started several years before by activist and sexual assault survivor Tarana Burke, a Black woman. Me Too’s authorship has since been rectified and acknowledged, but the macroaggression is just one example of how Black women go decentered in the movements they spearhead.
“All of this is ironic, right? Which makes me so sad, you know, but again, I think that white people have a habit, man. Or otherwise centering themselves and pushing, pushing out,” said Ford. “We’re always an afterthought. So, you know, with the Me Too movement in this current iteration that it’s in, as in the one that’s been kind of gaining steam over the last five years, it kind of oversteps all of the work that a Black woman has done prior. Some white women have done the job of correcting it, but I still think overwhelmingly it feels like it centers the white experience.”
Ford brought up their experiences with white people after the racial awakening white America experienced after George Floyd’s death.
“A whole bunch of white people, all of a sudden, got very interested in my life and try very hard to learn what they’re doing wrong,” they said. “I say the majority of them still have not figured out that it’s not about them. Their role in this is to have it not be about them. And that’s really, really hard for white people to understand, even when they care. I think I express that idea through Evan, who I think is a man who absolutely adores Renesha, loves her, sees her. However, when the going gets tough his allyship kind of falters and he defaults back into his conditioning, which is, ‘I am a man, I am more important.’ It’s not even intentional; it’s just how it happens because that’s how he’s been raised.”
“I think that people of color, especially, absolutely Black people, have been taught to empathize with everyone else. Very few others have been taught to empathize with us. Very few actually see us a full human beings,” they said. “I think that’s absolutely the task that any ally of our [Black liberation] movement [must undertake]. …Male allies must also do that work of decentering themsleves, as it pertains to the Me Too movement.”
So how can allies start working on their relationships with people of color and women as a whole? Ford said it’s about learning about America’s power structures and how they intertwine in marginalized people’s lives.
“To fully engage with consent, we have to understand power. And we don’t like talking about power in this country because power is the foundation for the way in which our country is run. Right? We’re a capitalist system that is held by white supremacy,” they said. “And we know that because, you know, when white folks came over to America to, you know, grow tobacco and establish a new land, they took a whole bunch of stuff from other people who were not white and they did not value the work and the stuff that they regulated. And then they brought a bunch of African slaves over and told them that they are going to do this work because they also are not the superior race. Therefore, they now get to uphold their capitalist endeavors.”
“We’re upheld in the countries of held by white supremacy, but also patriarchy, because the women are also doing the work while the men take the benefits,” they continued. “…There’s an obvious power differential. And we had systems that are built around supporting that power differential that we’ve been taught is just normal and just how things are. And as long as we accept that this stuff is normal and is just how things are, it’s really, really hard to negotiate. It’s really hard to push back. It’s really hard to criticize.”
Ford said it’s easier to have conversations about consent when everyone fully understands the definition of consent.
“I’m 33; when I went to college 14 years ago or whatever, I remember in our orientation with our RAs having that ‘no means no’ conversation. That’s actually the wrong way to understand consent,” they said. “‘No means no’ is dangerous because people can pretend they didn’t hear the ‘no.’ You can say ‘no’ and then ‘yes,’ which is allowed, you can say ‘yes’ and then ‘no,’ which is also allowed. There’s no nuance in [‘no’ means ‘no’]. So there’s a whole generation of people who will have a really misinformed understanding of what consent is and that needs to be pushed in and fully defined.”
“I think the acceptable movement towards consent–there being an enthusiastic yes that is constantly checked in on–is the kind of thing that needs to land that we’re still struggling to land because we have generation differences for what the meaning of the word is,” they continued. “So, I think there’s a lot of cultural work that needs to be done. And that’s the important thing, I think, for filmmakers [and content makers] like myself. We have a responsibility…to question what we’re saying adn make sure that it’s in line with the world that we want to see and need to live in….It would have been irresponsible for me not to put in a real and true version of consent, and I also don’t think the movie would work without it.”
As for what Ford hopes America will do regarding fixing how it treats sexual assault victims, they hope more empathy and centering is used in policymaking.
“Again, it goes back to actually centering the most vulnerable. All people can experience these things, but it’s the most vulnerable who bear the brunt of the pain. We’re the ones who fall through the cracks,” they said. “And so when you know, policy makers are designing stuff, they’re thinking about people in their image, [which] tends to be people from privilege, white people, cis-hetero people, able-bodied people. They construct [policies] in their image and then they forget that everyone else exists and if we’re lucky, we don’t fall through the cracks. But there are so many of us that do.”
“It’s really an act of analyzing and evaluating your own power and your own privilege, and then recognizing that there are people who are more vulnerable than you. I think in all systems and in all environments, we would do much better to think about the people who are more vulnerable than us, then design and program and center their experiences, because if we’eer holding them up, everybody gets held up. If we’re thinking about them, then you know all the cracks are sealed,” they continued. “There’s a really good line from the Combahee River Collective. They have this idea of if Black women were free that would mean that everyone else would have to be free because our freedom would necessitate the disruptions of all systems of oppression. I do absolutely believe that and I would add that if Black trans women are free and if Black trans women are protected, then we’ll be covering all of our bases. Until we do that, we’re always going to mess up.”