Los Angeles Times
Motherhood powers a new superhero tale
The creators of the female-led ‘Fast Color’ craft a world far from the ‘Avengers’ model.
In the age of Marvel and DC domination, “Fast Color” is a very different and long overdue kind of superhero movie.
Just released in theaters ahead of the impending “Avengers: Endgame,” director Julia Hart’s indie darling is a revolutionary take on superpowered beings with the power to change the world: not Hulks who smash, but women who create.
“There’s no Spandex and there are no capes,” said Gugu Mbatha-Raw, smiling. She stars as Ruth, reuniting in Los Angeles with Hart and 12-year-old Saniyya Sidney, her on-screen daughter, on a recent April afternoon.
“It’s about the energy and the power that we already have inside of us, and I really appreciated that,” she said. “The world is so saturated with a certain type of superhero, and that’s great. But there was something for me about this that was really refreshing and necessary.”
Three generations of heroines seek to set their immense gifts free in “Fast Color,” scripted by Hart and her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz (“La La Land”). But first the characters must face the Herculean task of defying a world that
would seek to control them — not to mention their own selfdoubts.
Those challenges haunt Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a broken wonder woman on the run, who finds her way home to the family she left years ago as “Fast Color” unfolds across an unforgiving dystopian American West.
Opening in a crowded frame this past weekend alongside fellow female-led indies including “Little Woods” and Kenyan film “Rafiki” — which also center on heroines of color — “Fast Color” has fought an uphill battle since debuting last year at South by Southwest.
“Fast Color” was acquired last fall by Lionsgate’s Codeblack label, which had some modest successes, including the Kevin Hart concert documentary “Let Me Explain” and the Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me,” but the studio axed the division in January.
When “Fast Color” opened in 25 U.S. theaters on April 19, it did so with a limited marketing campaign. Passionate social media boosts from supporters such as Ava DuVernay, Brit Marling, April Reign and Kumail Nanjiani could only do so much in a marketplace that has become increasingly treacherous for smaller films.
With a modest per-screen average of $1,500 in its first weekend, the film’s theatrical future looks bleak. In Los Angeles it will move to the Laemmle Glendale on Friday, but Horowitz noted on Twitter that the filmmakers are already looking ahead to digital and home entertainment release, where the film may stand a stronger chance connecting with audiences.
On the heels of recordbreaking returns for femaleled superhero films including “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel,” a scrappy superheroine tale like “Fast Color” would seem to serve at least some fraction of a fandom already hungry for more inclusive heroes on screen.
“Superheroes don’t have to be a Hulk or a Thor,” said Sidney. “They don’t have to have something in their hand to make themselves feel that they are powerful . ... I think it’s going to be an eye-opener for people to see that not all superheroes need to be Shazam, or the Avengers, or Black Widow.”
Mbatha-Raw, whom Hart and Horowitz had admired in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights,” was on the set of a space-bound sci-fi movie when she read the script for “Fast Color” in under two hours.
“I loved the writing and the world,” she said. “Reading this was like a breath of fresh air. This homecoming is not the end of the story; it’s actually the beginning of her connecting to her powers and her family and her identity.”
In the parched, muted world of “Fast Color,” it hasn’t rained in years for reasons science can’t explain, but Ruth has bigger worries. Cursed with elemental powers she can’t control, she’s afflicted by seizures that rattle the earth as she returns to the rural homestead where her mother, Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), and 10-year-old daughter, Lila (Sidney), live in cautious isolation.
Inspired by the idea of motherhood as superpower, Hart (who made her directorial debut with 2016’s “Miss Stevens”) and Horowitz wrote “Fast Color” for her to helm and secured financing through LD Entertainment and embarked on a 28-day shoot in New Mexico.
Their aim was to tell a kind of superhero story antithetical to Hollywood blockbuster franchises. In “Fast Color,” there are no Spandexed warriors pummeling megalomaniacs over magical bejeweled gloves — only mothers and daughters, just trying to get by.
“Most superhero movies are about men destroying things to save them,” said Hart. “When Jordan and I decided we wanted to tell a movie about women with superpowers, we decided that their powers absolutely could not be destructive but that their powers should be creative.”
The story took on deeper layers after Mbatha-Raw signed on to play Ruth, a former punk-loving wild child written with no specific ethnicity on the page.
“In the script it was just ‘Ruth,’ ” she said. “I really respected Julia for casting in this way. It’s not about making something about race because it isn’t, and we never discussed it … we just are ourselves. But that is powerful. You’re not making it an issue. You’re just showing this potential in these three women of color.”
Veteran actress Toussaint (“Orange Is the New Black”) boarded the film as Bo, the grandmother safeguarding the legacy of the long line of extraordinary women from whom Ruth and Lila descend.
“Lorraine is just so soulful, and she has so much wisdom and gravitas that she just exudes,” said Mbatha-Raw. “She was so perfect for the matriarch.”
When the search for Ruth’s daughter landed on Sidney — who plays Lila, a bright girl with a knack for fixing things and a sense that greater purpose awaits outside her small town — the youngster came in to test with Mbatha-Raw, and the two bonded instantly.
“She strolled into the room and said, ‘Hi! I’m Saniyya,’ ” Mbatha-Raw said. “I was like, what does that mean? And she was like, ‘Brilliant and radiant.’ And she asked me what my name meant, and I said ‘Gugulethu, which means pride,’ and I thought, ‘We’re going to get along.’ ” She called Hart that day and declared: “‘That’s my daughter.’ ”
Sidney was 10 when she filmed “Fast Color.” Now 12 and starring on Fox’s sci-fi series “The Passage,” she’s seen the impact of “Fast Color” firsthand in the eyes of the little girls who come up to her after screenings, as they did last Friday when she and Hart made a surprise opening-day appearance at a Baldwin Hills theater. And she’s reflective about what she hopes “Fast Color” will mean to young viewers.
“I hope they take that their power that they might have is important, and it’s OK to go out there and show people that it’s important and that you are capable of anything,” Sidney said.
Women connecting with one another is an important element of the film to Hart, who points to inspiration she finds in the real world.
“I think about the new young women in the government right now in our country, and how what they’re doing is working together to create positive change,” she said. “... It’s about finding ways to bring ourselves up in order to make things better.”
There’s also a sense of pride that Bo, Ruth and Lila enjoy in the beauty of the superpowers they’ve inherited, an artistry that manifests on screen in dazzling, intricately detailed and VFXaided bursts of matter. To Hart, that element of “Fast Color” is also an appreciation of the legacy of women who have paved the way for her.
“On the surface it is about these women and their abilities, but it’s also about female artists and getting to tell your story and share your art — and how hard that is in a world that doesn’t necessarily want to hear that,” said Hart, whose next film, “Stargirl,” is set to premiere on Disney+ next year.
The underlying theme of daring to embrace power that’s already inside you resonates loudly with Mbatha-Raw.
“I’m reminded of that quote by Marianne Williamson: ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,’ ” she said.
“I hope people are inspired and empowered.”