By Eden Gordon
This review contains spoilers.
At the start of Fast Color, which opened the ninth Athena Film Festival on February 28th in New York, you watch a woman arrive in a darkened motel. There’s talk, bills exchanged, but the air is thick with tension. Something thuds in the background; you think, uh oh, here comes the killer.
But instead, a little girl appears, carried in her mother’s arms. And thus begins Julia Hart’s film, which proudly subverts many gendered superhero and action film tropes, instead focusing on mothers and the heroic work they do every day—with a few CGI effects on the side.
Fast Color tells the story of Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a troubled ex-drug addict whose seizures have the ability to cause earthquakes. She is on the run; when trapped by an FBI agent, she shoots him in the film’s only overt act of violence (he lives). Soon enough, it’s revealed that she is returning to her mother’s home—to reunite with her own daughter, a budding mechanic named Lila.
Ruth, Lila, and matriarch Bo (portrayed expertly by Lorraine Toussaint), all have special powers. They can turn objects to dust, and back again. Ruth has been disconnected from her powers for a long time, but she hopes her reunion with her daughter will bring them back. It’s never quite clear what the powers symbolize, but the movie constantly shifts between literal and abstract levels of meaning. In some ways, it’s about an ordinary, troubled, loving family, trying to overcome traumas of the past; in others, it’s about magical women whose powers hold the keys to stopping the end of the world.
Fast Color plays out against a backdrop of apocalyptic ecological decline. Water is scarce, and the earth is starved and barren. Most of its scenes take place in abandoned motels, half-empty grocery stores, or hokey diners on the side of the road, sparse refuges in a landscape devoid of life and color.
But when either Bo or Lila uses their powers, they can see an array of stunning rainbow hues—a sight that eludes Ruth, until she is at last able to key into the power of her love for her daughter, or overcome some blockage in her mind, or a bit of both. Reclaiming her place in the mother-daughter dyad, at last able to begin to face her past, Ruth sees the skies fill with radiance.
Intergenerational love, and the legacy of motherhood and care, provide the film’s beating heart. This movie’s heroes are not men with guns, not sexualized women in leather; instead they are ordinary people, extraordinary in the way that so many women, especially mothers, are—performing alchemy each day, healing and creating worlds, often for little to no recognition.
Still, they are also far from stereotypically nurturing women. Instead, Ruth is complicated and damaged; and Bo has her secrets, too. But it was always Julia Hart’s intention to create a film that highlighted mothers. Speaking to the audience at a talkback after the film, Hart said, “I was tired of seeing male superheroes destroying things in order to save the world. I thought that if women were the heroes, they would be creating.”
It’s an important message, made all the more potent by the fact that the stars of Fast Color are women of color. The film’s implications are clear: if we are to save this world from ecological disaster, the revolution has to be intersectional, based on love, creation, and regeneration—not steely weapons, not violent insurgence. This revolution, whatever it takes to backpedal against all the damage we’ve done to the earth and to so many of its inhabitants, has to be one of growth and renewal, healing and connection.
It’s a hopeful message, but it also highlights how far gone and how deeply stuck in old cycles of harm our real world is. White voices are still so often elevated above the voices of people of color, who instead face constant systemic oppression; and Hart is a white woman, writing the stories of black women, which she acknowledged in the talkback after the film, saying that what we really need are stories written by people of color, for people of color.
Still, her film is doing revolutionary work by carving space for these sorts of stories, which completely reject the old traditional of what a superhero movie is supposed to be. Instead of going for a massive explosion or heroic leap, the film’s most climactic moment occurs when Bo makes the guns welded by the FBI agent turn to dust—a quiet act, but one that vibrates with symbolism, especially in light of this country’s history of racialized gun violence.
Ultimately, Fast Color is a question—a fertile territory asking what would happen if we honored the sources we came from, the secret recipes for healing that lie just beyond sight, the hidden powers inside us that connect us to all things.
At its heart it is a film about oneness. When Ruth is trying to discover her powers, Bo says, “See the connectedness of all things.” It’s a quick line, but one that packs a powerful message; for this speaks to the way that human lives are all inextricably linked to each other and to the earth, which made us and which will someday reclaim us. But unless we want that day to come sooner than expected, and if Julia Hart’s messages are to be responded to, we’d better start honoring growth and connection, instead of making more movies about white guys with firearms.
FAST COLOR releases in theatres on April 19, 2019.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. She has written for Catalyst, Lilith Magazine, and Untapped Cities, and is the founder and editor of Crossroads Zine. Follow her on Instagram at @edenariel117 and Twitter at @edenarielmusic.