In a scene about mid-way through Fast Color, the protagonist, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who gives an incredible performance), stares at a wall of family photos in her mother’s (Lorraine Toussaint) house that showcases a long line of powerful Black women. Literally. Ruth, her daughter (Saniyya Sidney), and their female ancestors have the rare ability to manipulate matter, with earth-shattering consequences. It is potent to see this strong, Black matriarchy displayed so vividly — and indeed, it’s one element that makes Fast Color feel like a fresh twist on the superhero genre.
But the scene could have been very different. Director Julia Hart (Miss Stevens), a white filmmaker who co-wrote the film with her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz, realized early on in the process of crafting the character of Ruth that she had been picturing a woman who looked like herself, without realizing it.
“It’s not so much that we sat down and said, ‘This person is going to be white,’ she explains. “It's that we hadn't thought about it. I discovered in wanting to cast Gugu that we as storytellers often imagine ourselves, or people who look like ourselves without even realizing it."
“There are so many amazing storytellers of color who just haven't been given opportunities to tell the stories they want to tell and I think that's first and foremost,” Hart adds. “That needs our priority in the industry and culture. And then beneath that, I think all of the white creators, men and women, who will be given opportunities to tell whatever story they [want to tell] need to be more inquisitive in storytelling.”
In a phone interview with Refinery29, Hart talked about being conscious of that inherent bias, creating a new kind of superhero movie, and playing a pivotal role in the cult of Timothée Chalamet.
Refinery29: Inherent bias is something that often gets left out of the conversation about representation on screen. It’s not enough to just have more women behind the camera, if it’s mostly white women telling stories about white experiences. How did you get around that?
Julia Hart: “My husband and I wrote a script together, and when we were in the midst of breaking the outline and creating the character for it, we watched Beyond the Lights for the first time. I'd never seen Gugu in anything before, and her performance is extraordinary. So, we got really excited at the idea of starting to create the character around her and thankfully she wanted to do it. It was kind of a risk doing that but it paid off because I think when she read the script she felt it had been written for her, [and] what started out as something that was just about the power of women became about something far more interesting and original, which is these three women of color who have these special abilities that have been passed down in their family for generations.”
The other thing that struck me about this film is that we so rarely see stories about non-urban women — Westerns in general are a genre usually associated with men. What prompted you to set the action in a rural town?
“I grew up in Manhattan and I think that I've always been creating my own real American history within my apartment building childhood. It's a part of the country that fascinates me. I also think that even though there are obviously threats to women in urban environments, there are police and firemen and other people and other women and structures. And I think it's why women, especially women who are alone, often choose to live in those types of environments. There was something about throwing [Ruth] into this world where she's completely exposed and the places that she goes to hide are literally falling apart around her that felt even more dangerous.
“And then in terms of the genre, I always loved westerns, horror films, crime thrillers. They're some of my most favorite movies, but I feel so unrepresented by them, and people of color are also underrepresented by them. So, I love exploring those genres with different types of characters.”
This is also a new twist on the superhero movie. The idea of the mother playing such a pivotal role in the origin story is the opposite of what we usually see.
“The experience for me of sitting and watching Wonder Woman is something that I will never forget as long as I live. I literally sat in the theater weeping, and I think so many of us had an experience like that last year be it with Wonder Woman or Black Panther, where many people who have been underrepresented by the genre for so long felt seen connected in a way that they hadn't before. It's exciting that I and others are being given opportunities to bring ourselves to the movies that we love.”
Yeah, as women we definitely have this mental and emotional process of shelving a part of our brains in order to truly enjoy most films, because otherwise we’d go crazy.
“It's funny because I think we've always had to imagine ourselves into movies and I think we've gotten so used to it that we forget we're doing it. That was part of the fun of creating Fast Color and working with Gugu and Lorraine [Toussaint] and Saniyya [Sidney] — and, also with Victor Jones Moore and Shannon Thompson, our hair and makeup [department heads], who are also Black. Watching them and Gugu and Saniyya and Lorraine create these characters together, and the way these characters looked and how they felt about their hair and what they did to their hair and their makeup, was really incredible.”
That’s an important point, because so many actresses of color have shared stories about having to do their own hair and makeup on set.
“It was a non-starter for me. I told our financiers and producers that I wasn't going to make the movie unless our main characters felt like they were being taken care of, and that the characters were being created with people who knew what they were doing, Again, it's something that's so important as a white storyteller to be aware of when you are telling stories about characters of color. That doesn't just mean what's happening on camera, that's also what's happening behind the camera.”
“I have noticed that.” [Laughs]
What was it like to see him take off like that?
“He's just the best! My husband and I became very close to him with the making of that film, and it was cool because we were at the Oscars the year that Timmy got nominated. It was fun getting to watch that happen for him and celebrate with him. He's such a special person and wildly talented actor. It's nice for people to discover the movie because of him. It's the beauty of movies living on streaming services, because people can just continue to discover them.”
Your next project, Stargirl is for Disney+, and it’s also your first studio film. What’s your perspective on this week’s New York Times article about how few films directed by women are actually on major studio slates for the coming year?
“There continues to be more lip service than there is actual action, but I have to say that Disney puts their money where their mouth is. I have had the most extraordinary experience working with them, beyond my wildest dreams. They hired me at six months pregnant. They moved production because production was initially supposed to happen the month that I was having my baby, [and] they helped us out with child care because we had shoot for five days and then rehearse all the musical numbers on the sixth day,
“A lot of people want to hire women and then don't necessarily want to deal with the reality of what that means. I had what I needed. There was a crib ready and waiting and a rocking chair and a changing table at our house on location. Not every female director is a mother but I appreciated that they understood. They weren't just hiring me to check a box.
There’s been a lot of debate recently about whether movies made for a streaming service should be considered “real films.” What’s your take?
“The truth is people aren't going not the movies to see smaller movies. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping people go see Fast Color this weekend, but I think we as filmmakers will get to make better and more movies because of these streaming services. Financially it makes more sense to make smaller movies on them, and creatively, you can take more risks. These days theatrical movies have to tick certain boxes, [or] they have to be tentpoles. Disney wouldn’t have made this movie in the way they made it if it had to be released theatrically and I think the movie is better for that. I took some risks and [they] let me make a unique movie, and so I'm excited!”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.