Test Pattern (2021)
Writer & Director Shatara Michelle Ford
When a woman is the victim of rape, she is advised to act quickly in its aftermath, hurrying to a hospital to undergo a forensic examination. Instead of sleeping or showering, a woman who has been sexually assaulted should, ideally, go the emergency room and consult with a nurse, who will collect DNA samples from her body. Afterwards, she will meet with a police offer for questioning. It’s a psychologically harrowing experience in and of itself, and it’s easy to understand why many women choose not to report their rapes. Test Pattern tells the story one woman, Renesha, who does, and what it costs her and her boyfriend Evan, who accompanies her on her quest to obtain proper medical care. By focusing on the logistics of reporting a rape, rather than the assault itself, writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s powerful debut feature shows a healthcare system that ignores the reality of sexual violence, and in doing so, allows it to continue unchecked.
Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), is a thirtysomething corporate striver who works in development. She’s Black, and her boyfriend, Evan (Will Brill), a tattoo artist, is white. They live together in a small house in Austin, Texas. He’s definitely not part of the 9-5 world, and works from home in a tee shirt and ripped jeans, happy to play house-husband to Renesha. The two meet in a bar when Renesha is out with her friends—an event we see in flashback, early in the film. There are two timelines in Test Pattern: the present-day timeline, which takes place mostly during the 24 hours after Renesha’s sexual assault, and a series of flashbacks, which compress several months to show how Renesha and Evan fell in love and moved in together. It’s a portrait of an interracial relationship as well as a story about a traumatic experience, a narrative choice that gives context to Renesha and Evan’s relationship dynamics, which propel the present-day action.
(From here on, there are going to be a few plot spoilers.)
Test Pattern opens with a brief glimpse of Ranesha on the night of her assault. We see her sitting in a hotel room, accepting a glass of water from a white man. She can barely hold the glass of water or keep her eyes open. We don’t yet know that her name is Renesha, or that she has a boyfriend, or that her favorite meal is breakfast. She is as anonymous to us as she is to the man, who begins to kiss her in a way that is clearly not consensual. This brief scene is followed by a long flashback, a prologue that shows who Renesha is outside of the terrible context of her assault. You meet Renehsa properly, among her friends, and you see her and Evan on their first dates. You learn what she does for work, what her apartment looks like, and you see her enjoying life: food and sex and lazy mornings with Evan. Then, one morning in the house that she and Evan have come to share, she puts on a dress that seems familiar, and you realize it’s the yellow sundress you saw her wearing in the first scene, when she is sitting on a bed in a strange hotel room. The terror of what is about to happen to her hits with you with a sucker punch.
Renesha is raped on a Monday night, after her first day of work at a new job at the Humane Society, a career change that Evan has encouraged her to pursue. Ford shows the events that lead up to Renesha’s assault, including her workday and a fond chat with Evan. When Renesha decides to go out for a quick drink with her friend Amber (Gail Bean), she ends up being cajoled into hanging out with men who she doesn’t particularly like or trust. It’s a social situation that will be familiar to anyone who has ever gone along with a friend’s reckless behavior as a show of solidarity. Renesha’s loyalty to Amber has devastating consequences; she is drugged and taken back to a hotel by one of the men. Because the film is so firmly in Renesha’s point of view, we don’t see what happens to her or to Amber after they are drugged. Renesha can’t remember much, but is haunted by fragmentary flashbacks.
It’s Evan who suggests that Renesha go to the hospital. Renesha agrees, sort of, and the two head to a nearby ER, not realizing that they are embarking on an all-day search to find a hospital that has the resources to deal with sexual assault. As they drive from hospital to hospital, Evan’s frustration builds to rage while Renesha becomes more withdrawn. Ford’s cinematography and sound design capture the depressing mood of hospitals: the cold light of waiting rooms and their antiseptic hush. Although sexual violence is a common occurrence in women’s lives, the medical staff do not seem trained to deal with victims, or aware of the urgency of Renesha’s request. Their bureaucratic slowness infuriates Evan, but Ford cuts away from his angry exchanges with medical staff; they aren’t what is important. Instead she stays close to Renesha, whose endurance is being cruelly tested. In one scene, Ford drowns the intake interview in lush classical musical to show the absurdity of their situation—a moment of levity that highlights Renesha’s detachment.
A question that hangs over the movie is whether or not Renesha really wants to get this test, or if she’s just doing it to please Evan, who seems to want it for private reasons—possibly vengeance—that he hasn’t fully examined. He’s not really thinking about Renesha, who has to face countless medical workers who look at her impassively as she asks for care. From the resigned expression on her face, it’s obvious that she knew it was going to be difficult; it’s not her first time navigating a system that has little sympathy for Black women, but Evan seems taken aback. His rage is related to his sense of entitlement. Scenes in the hospital are interspersed with flashbacks to happier times in Evan and Renesha’s relationship, but there are hints in these retrospective scenes that Evan has always been a little bit clueless about the racial dynamics, even as he is a kind, supportive partner. Renesha’s assault and its aftermath exposes a lot of what has gone unsaid in their relationship, and the film ends on an ambiguous note. I really want to believe that they will weather this crisis, but Ford’s film doesn’t offer any assurances.