Fast Color is a 2018 film about a family of women with supernatural powers who can, potentially, save earth from a devastating drought. The film is directed by Julia Hart from a screenplay by Hart and Jordan Horowitz starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Denham, and David Strathairn.
Jane and Kimberly tease out the significance of a woman filmmaker’s fantasy projection of women possessing sufficient reconstructive superpowers to save the earth from a world-enveloping drought (timely for consideration midst a pandemic).
KC: When you first turned me onto the film Fast Color, you touted it as a sort of superhero movie with a young female protagonist named Ruth. In an opening scene, we see evidence of her “superpowers” when she’s experiencing a seizure in a hotel that turns into an earthquake and stops long enough to warn the hotel owner to take her daughter and find someplace to hunker down and hold on. I was immediately struck by the fact that Ruth was both in awe of, and frightened by, her own forces of creation and destruction in the world, and in fact, had actively been on the run hiding from them and her self. A protective measure certainly, yet we get the sense now that it is time for her to face the music she’s long been trying to flee.
JAS: I wanted us to talk about Fast Color because I think the heart of the film is about a young woman with superpowers emanating from her own body to address a terrible threat to life on earth. I became doubly interested when I realized the young woman was part of a family of women with supernatural powers. The superpowers are called ‘seeing the colors’ and, at one point in the film, we see what is meant when the primary protagonist, Ruth sees the skies open and colors like the northern lights known as aurora borealis break through and fill the sky. A woman filmmaker is attempting to capture a mythic perspective for a young woman who been thrown off track during her adolescence, abducted by external forces beyond her control – drugs, sex with men she didn’t know and an indifference from authority figures. Ruth is blamed for her errant behavior and, even though loved, loved by a mother helpless in face of the demons taking advantage of her daughter. Things began happening in Ruth’s body as an adolescent that scared her and, as we learn in the film, got her in over her head. She has no way of knowing her mother faced almost exactly the same problems because her mother chose to hide from society on an isolated farm and keep her troubles to herself. When we meet Ruth, on the run from scientists who claim they want to “study” her powers, we get a sense that she’s beginning to get a handle on the darkness that she fell into and is returning home, to try again with her mother’s help to integrate the forces she feels in her body.
KC: Returning home becomes a metaphor for returning to the self after she’s discovered a harsh alternative in a world that offers no better haven. In fact, the world is dying as a great drought spreads itself across the land and water has become a prized commodity. During her time on the run, Ruth’s powers have shown themselves enough that there are now scientists after her—people convinced that her powers might be of use in restoring water to the world. Yet, we know the feminine must participate freely for human survival. Ruth is not alone –we learn upon her return home that her mother Bo and her own daughter Lila are also recipients of the powers, as well as a grandmother who has passed down a “Book of the Grandmothers” –but she’s the discovered one.
JAS: Ruth’s dilemma brought to mind the myth of Persephone returning from the Underground having been abducted by Hades. Her mother, Bo, like Persephone’s mother Demeter, who also has “powers” is unwilling to make a deal with the authorities who have done her and her daughter so wrong. Demeter imposed a famine on earth that forced Zeus, God of the Gods, to force Hades, God of the Underworld, to release Persephone. I’ve been on the look out for modern perspectives on Persephone’s return journey. Its details are virtually missing as part of the myth as if Zeus snapped his fingers and Persephone just magically left the Underworld and appeared back home. We know, of course, a woman’s journey home is more than a blink in a man’s eye. When a woman descends into knowledge of death and renewal, her ascent is challenging and heroic. I began to think that the filmmaker, Julia Hart, was updating the old myth, filling in the steps taken by a young woman making her way back to “herself”, starting to deal with the emotions and possibilities of being one small human female on this planet. I particularly thought ‘update’ because the filmmaker gives her Persephone figure a child, a daughter who’s been left with the Demeter mother-figure to raise. And we see the mother-daughter reunion of Ruth and Lila, her daughter, along with the one of Ruth and Bo. Lila, nten, is feeling the growth of awesome powers growing within her body. But there’s a big difference for Lila. She’s being protected by her grandmother who has isolated them from societal racism and patriarchal intrusions. Lila, in fact, is experimenting and exploring her supernatural powers for her own delight and purposes.
KC: Yes, I agree, Lila, is a beacon of hope. And unlike she had done with her own daughter Ruth, the grandmother Bo has not attempted to cover the awareness of power in Lila. Lila demonstrates and practices with her powers regularly and provides a strong argument toward the enormous potential in young girls who are given free reign to claim and embody their inherent strengths from an early age.
JAS: Yes, I’m putting my money on the blossoming Lila. In particular, I liked that she challenges an old family adage handed down to her from the women in the family that states “what’s broken stays broken”. Lila seems to resist the implied helplessness and irrelevance of her powers to fix her own problems and we see her attempting to restore broken items like a window and bowl. On the outside, she accepts the edict but on the inside, privately, she keeps pushing the boundaries, even going to the extent of dissolving and rematerializing tools to help her fix the broken truck. Lila has “non-girl” mechanic skills and ends up fixing the old truck. She can fix what’s been broken. That’s a sign, promising hope to a planet humankind may have drained beyond restoration.
KC: And inspired by Lila, Ruth herself finds the courage to remember her own relationship with first discovering her powers. She realizes the turning point, the point where she gave up on herself. She recalls the specific poignant incident from one of her first run away jaunts from home in which she had gotten pregnant by a man she never knew, producing Lila. She remembers feeling real delight with her baby. Then she remembers that, while suffering one of her seizures, seizures of power too big for her small adolescent body, she caused pipes to break, water to flood the room, causing her to subsequently lose Lila in the water. Ruth had been mortified at the time, judging herself as completely incompetent to take care of a baby, and like many young mothers, she fled, leaving the baby with Bo. She’s been knocking about in the world for ten plus years and has now come home, trying to find her way back from when she fell. As she remembers the moments when she made the decision to leave, she discovers something she’d blocked out. She had bravely dived into the murky water, found and saved Lila. The discovery is her redemption. She feels heartened by her discovery and ready to try again, try to integrate the tremors that come from within.
JAS: We learn, through Ruth’s mother Bo that the supernatural power of their feminine nature has a long lineage. Yet, these powers have been largely kept underground, or private at home, like parlor tricks. What is being imagined cinematically in Fast Colors is a female source of power hiding out in domesticity, afraid of itself and exposure, unwilling to be given over into the hands of men. It reminds me of stories we’ve heard in our families, an oral history of knowledge of healing passed down from woman to woman, kept secret and safe from outside distortion. Perhaps it’s only when a male-dominated society meets its match in a force of nature like drought or a pandemic it can’t control, it turns to women and feminine qualities for help.
KC: During Ruth’s homecoming, we discover that the town sheriff is actually Ruth’s father who, because Bo is black, he could not marry. They have remained longtime friends and companions. He comes to warn the women that the scientist from earlier has discovered Ruth’s whereabouts. What did you think of this gentle male character in their midst? Not only is he protecting people in his vocational role, he is also protecting the women’s secrets.
JAS: Cohort, mythic history is full of them. Men who accompany women on their Underground journeys but in the Upperworld, the women make up their path and create a place in society. Enkidu in the Innana myth; she couldn’t have made it back without his help. Orpheus who could bring Eurydice up from Hades to the brink of the Upperworld but no further. Think of all the journeys Hermes made back and forth, carrying messages into Hades’ Underground to help free Persephone. There are always male helpers. The mythology of Fast Color seems to be saying women must develop themselves to the point of seeing the ‘fast colors’, breaking the sky (or ceiling), and then they will face the larger challenges of restoration. Bo chooses to believe in herself at the end and lend a helping hand to the scientists.
KC: But, warned by her father, Ruth follows parental advice and flees again. It’s on the road and out of gas, she feels her strength gathering within. The memory of saving her daughter has changed her faith in herself and, stretched out upon the dry ground, she hangs on to grasses in the parched desert while tremors engulf her body. The skies above her open up into a rainbow of colors and she’s able to see what her grandmothers before her have seen, the beauty that lies beyond dark clouds of despair.
JAS: All three women seem destined to play a critical role in dealing with the drought. Against her own expectations, Ruth brings rain. Lila fixes the truck and while Ruth fixes what’s broken in her (sees the colors), Bo decides it’s time to come forward and claim the power she knows she has. She whispers to herself, “yes, I probably can part the skies and bring rain”. Lila, the granddaughter who’s been captured by the police does not meet Persephone’s fate in jail. She can liberate herself. She escapes by disintegrating the heavy steel door that locks her in! She’s overturned the old edict and is well on her way to helping fix what’s broken and getting things back into balance. Ruth may have brought rain but it’s her mother who dissolves the guns wielded by the sheriff’s men, the guns men use to enforce dominance and compliance. When Bo steps forward, she makes a Demeter bargain to reverse the drought in exchange for her granddaughter Lila’s freedom. But Lila has already dissolved her doors of captivity and as she walks free, she gives a little preview of the changes coming by restoring the door behind her, shutting the door on the men out to get her.
KC: The liberated girls carry a note from Bo, telling them of a woman with powers she used to know and that they should seek her out. I think they’re now taking the importance of seeing colors referred to in the “Book of Grandmothers” seriously. Lila is refreshing her mother’s adolescent vision of somehow being able to integrate the supernatural powers and make them their own. And they are now mother-daughter together, not at odds like Ruth was with her own mother. I get the impression that the story is not over. Will the men who study Bo gain access to the powers and wield them for their own use? Will Ruth and Lila find a refuge to become more familiar with their own powers in ways that will evolve the world into one that accepts these magical gifts for what they are? Will the grandmother’s stories ever get told?
JAS: I think we can go either way, toward patriarchy misusing and losing its battle with nature, the drought threatening human extinction, or a woman getting across the line, coming up from a mythic darkness with her powers intact and bringing humankind into alignment with nature to further humanity on earth. I did wonder what Fast Colors is meant to represent. It seems as if the “Book of Grandmothers” holds an imperative for women to pursue their own development until they can see the colors and embrace them as a compatible, natural and accessible source of a woman’s power. And seeing the colors has something to do with reversing the inevitability of ‘what’s broken stays broken’ for women. Maybe the colors are a sign of enlightened consciousness gained by daughters when they come to a true reckoning with themselves? Or perhaps a healing of mother-daughter relationships is key? It all gets a bit symbolic.
KC: Yes, what about the colors! For me, it’s the magic that is clearly all around us if only we can learn to listen, to see, to respect it, and to use it wisely.
JAS: I like that. I was, and remain, taken with Julie Hart’s perception of ordinary female fixing and girls becoming knowing women as what is needed to rebalance what’s been thrown so off-balance in our world. Perhaps Julia Hart’s Fast Colors is part of a correction? A vision of feminine nature to turn men’s terror of female empowerment (for reasons related to both their awe for the way women can make them weak in the knees and their need of superiority as key to masculinity) around and toward a societal welcoming and appreciation of girls. Lila certainly has the advantage of having a protected time to grow up.