Julia Hart is a director whose quiet, contemplative films seek to explore our insecurities and the way we find strength, great and small. Her 2016 venture, Miss Stevens, holds similar sentiments though it’s far less ambitious than Fast Color, a unique examination of feminine legacy and science fiction that borrows heavily from the likes of Midnight Special and Eve’s Bayou. The compelling performances by Lorraine Toussaint and Gugu Mbatha-Raw help keep afloat an ill-defined narrative.
Earth is dying. It’s been eight years since any rain has fallen and since Ruth (Mbatha-Raw) left her Texas home. Ruth has been running from government operatives who want to experiment on her because of her unique abilities. She returns to her mother, Bo’s (Toussaint) house to hide, reconnecting with the daughter she left behind.
When Fast Color debuted it was praised, predominately by women of color, for positioning Black women in a position of power. Mbatha-Raw’s Ruth is a woman running away from not just the government, but her own mother. As Bo says, she remembers the back of her daughter’s head more than her face. Fast Color is a movie about opposition. Not just about the opposing forces of good and evil, right and wrong, but history and the future. Hart and co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz craft a script that’s beautiful in its language. Lorraine Toussaint’s voice, reading the history of the women in her family’s words, is calm and expresses the ocean of time that’s been these magical women with abilities. It is in this sense of lineage that the comparisons to Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou pop up, since both features are mythical in their examination of the strength and abilities of Black women.
Mbatha-Raw has cultivated an amazing body of work and yet she’s still not starring in everything. Thankfully, Hart puts her at the center of this film. Mbatha-Raw presents Ruth as a woman with inner resilience but who’s afraid of herself. When she’s forced to return to her mother’s home and bond with her daughter Fast Color’s true passions are revealed. Watching three generations of women come into conflict – Ruth’s daughter, Lila (Saniyya Sidney), wants to escape her grandmother’s home and see the world while Ruth wants stability – is a lesson in how mothers and daughters often fall into cycles they wish they could escape. Had the script focused on this trio of characters, rather than place Ruth’s conflict as being hunted by ill-defined government entities, it would have been fantastic.
To her credit, Lorraine Toussaint is the film’s MVP, giving a bravura performance as the obstinate matriarch of this family. Her grit is on full display as she grapples with her estranged relationship with her daughter, her child who’s pain she can’t take away. For Bo, she’s mastered her powers yet has no interest in helping others understand them. She hides herself away for reasons that are never wholly clear, but are understandable. To watch this movie is to look at the experience of Black women, forced to hide who they are because of bigotry and violence.
It’s unfortunate that the landscape outside the confines of Ruth and Bo’s house is never fleshed out to match. The audience knows it’s been 8 years since the last rain; Lila herself has never even gone swimming. Yet Ruth is being hunted for completely separate reasons involving tectonic plates. The desire to experiment on her is never mentioned because there’s no set goal. What do they hope to accomplish? They’re pretty much just stock baddies, although Christopher Denham’s bland Bill says a lot about the threats, real and imagined, created by white het/cis men.
Julia Hart’s stories aren’t for everyone, but it’s rare to see such an introspective feature done in a landscape of spectacle. Mbatha-Raw and Toussaint are flawless.
Fast Color hits theaters April 19th.