Look at Beyoncé on the cover of her new album, Homecoming: Her manicured fingers with rings on the left hand are holding on to her Afrocentric kufi. To keep it from being blown away by the winds of fashion? Or does she simply have a headache? Beyoncé’s latest career move helped me make sense of the movie Fast Color, in which a biracial woman from the Midwest, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), works through her drug addiction and psychological ordeal and is drawn home to assess her complicated feelings and mysterious, natural gifts.
A government scientist searching to dissect Ruth claims that “this woman can affect the energy of the earth.” Ruth’s superhero characteristics belong to metaphysical sci-fi: She sees colors in the atmosphere and can “rearrange” the sky, turning clouds into aurora borealis–style rainbows. These metaphors for power are comparable to the cultural effect Beyoncé stirs just by releasing new music — and her command of our cultural institutions when she confoundingly gestures toward politics in a Super Bowl tribute to Black Panther militancy or in her Lemonade album’s pandering to the idea of black female agency.
At first, it’s difficult to grasp exactly what writer-director Julia Hart is after in Fast Color’s story of a young, single mother who abandoned her child and wandered through the indifferent world, only to come back and confront her unspecified trauma. Ruth suffers disabling fits that make the space around her quake. (“She can cause tectonic plates to shift that never moved before.”) Hart’s conceit deals with recent female disorientation — some agony or dissatisfaction like what led several young black women to concoct the #MeToo and #BlackGirlMagic movements.
Ruth (whose biblical namesake stood for abiding loyalty and devotion) returns to her drought-stricken birthplace and accepts familial obligation to her steadfast mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and her pre-teen daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). Each female represents an evolution of black American experience: dark-skinned Bo, light-skinned Ruth, and frizzy-hair beige-fleshed Lila. Their shared special gifts are ominous and perplexing, but as the link between generations, Ruth is key to their self-esteem and survival.
Fast Color’s narrative of a parched world in spiritual crisis works like the extraterrestrial plot of Will Smith’s widely misunderstood After Earth. But when Ruth finds “Germfree Adolescents” on the jukebox in a Midwestern bar, the film’s weirdness finally takes emotional shape — it wells up just like the song’s opening synthesized strains. By bringing lead singer Poly Styrene’s eccentric musical and political wit into Ruth’s already mysterious saga, Hart interprets the millennial black girl’s plight in her own, fresh way — as universal.
In Fast Color, contemporary black experience — now confused by Jordan Peele–Steve McQueen political exploitation — finds clarity through British punk’s more genuine sense of alarm. Hart doesn’t need Peele’s banal cultural connection to N.W.A. when, instead, the band X-Ray Spex cheekily articulates female punk rebellion that is not merely predicated on racial dissent.
Hart’s sociopolitical empathy, her use of these racial archetypes, is ambiguous (Mother Toussaint strikes a few too many noble poses). But her fascination with the depth of family relations comes across musically more than visually. Filmgoers familiar with analog music should recognize that Ruth’s passing cultural heritage on to her daughter is a genuine all-American cultural ritual. This recalls Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi, country-western, family-movie amalgam Midnight Special, but rather than using folk music, Hart reaches out through Ruth’s idiosyncratic record collection. She introduces Lila to Nina Simone’s Silk & Soul, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and X-Ray Spex’s Germfree Adolescents album.
X-Ray Spex is a significant choice because the group produced the most hair-raising of all anti-consumerist — not anti-capitalist — pop records, an inspiration for Lesley Woods’s eroticized cultural critique in The Au Pairs. Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said to a biracial British family) broke past her day’s postracial clichés. Her background, subtly embodied by Mbatha-Raw’s Ruth, substantiates Hart’s story. This very American drama is also what academics call diasporic.
The song “Germfree Adolescence” is a dreamier-sounding record than most X-Ray Spex (“The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” might have caused audiences to jump out of their seats and dance). This tune, Ruth’s favorite, matches the contemplative quality of Simone’s eschatological “New World Coming” favored by Bo (“You gotta like Nina Simone. That’s a rule”). They are A and B sides expressing Hart’s sci-fi dystopia. Ruth’s playlist (Simone’s ethnic defiance, Hill’s hip-hop-era independence, and British punk) is more than just eclectic; it sketches a sensibility.
Sensibility is what’s missing from Beyoncé’s recent “political” act. That Homecoming portrait evokes Nina Simone’s Afro garb but without the commitment — and without Poly Styrene’s daring. Beyoncé’s affectation is based on a skewed sense of the cultural heritage that one feels in Fast Color — the self-conscious weight of Simone and Paul Robeson as commercially exploitable, “political” race totems. This heritage weighs on Beyoncé’s self-conscious art production like the moment when the heroine of David Lean’s Madeleine holds her head and complains of tension, “The pain makes me stupid.”
Beyoncé’s glamour pose shows an effortful, sullen sensuality, far different from Mbatha-Raw’s troubled innocence. I had described Mbatha-Raw’s American film debut in Larry Crowne as “a Jonathan Demme cupid — transcending politics,” which is also the way Hart casts her in Fast Color. This film’s good intentions and ultimate optimism show a white liberal attempt at empathy whereas Beyoncé fakes Afrocentric militancy as a sales tactic. On Homecoming, her rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing (the Black National Anthem)” is Vogue magazine Negritude. Fast Color’s invocation of X-Ray Spex comes out of the blue, yet it never traps ethnic experience in platitudes. The oddball storyline is a life-affirming alternative to the obtuse Get Out and Us. And after Democratic congressmen assaulted Candace Owens, a black female political dissenter who advocates black independent thinking, at a congressional hearing last week, Ruth’s fear-flight-fate scenario makes Fast Color seem more poli-sci than sci-fi.