Chances are you’ve heard of “Avengers: Endgame,” which premiered this past spring, but perhaps you haven’t heard of “Fast Color,” another film about superheroes in emotional distress that quietly slipped into 25 theaters nationwide around the same time.
Despite earning generally positive reviews at South by Southwest last year, “Fast Color,” a film that centers on three black female characters, a rarity for the superhero genre, struggled to find a distributor. The one it did find months later, Codeblack Films, served as an African American-focused branch of Lionsgate Entertainment — until Lionsgate severed that partnership in January. The film’s marketing budget was slashed at the last minute, adding another obstacle to the already difficult course independent films must go through to find an audience in the ever-changing industry. In the end, it grossed just over $76,000 at the box office.
As of late this summer, however, audiences might get another chance to discover the dystopian world of “Fast Color,” which received an outpouring of grass-roots support on social media after its theatrical release. Amazon Studios is in the midst of developing the property into a television series, along with original screenwriters Julia Hart, who directed the film, and Jordan Horowitz, her husband; JuVee Productions, Viola Davis’s company with her own husband, Julius Tennon; and LD Entertainment, which also produced the film. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“We loved this idea of the power of mothers, and the cliche that you could lift up a car if your kid was underneath it,” Hart recently told The Post of the inspiration behind the story. “I realized I’d never seen a story about a mother who was literally a superhero."
“Fast Color” veers away from the more extravagant elements of the superhero films we’ve come to know and instead focuses on the internal crises such characters might face. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ruth, a recovering drug addict on the run in the drought-stricken American Midwest. She experiences seizures that cause earthquake-like tremors in the terrain around her, part of why she’s being followed by government scientists who hope to harness the powers she cannot control.
Ruth’s desperation leads her to return to the farmhouse she abandoned years ago, still inhabited by her mother, Bo (Lorraine Toussaint), and Ruth’s daughter, Lila (Saniyya Sidney), both of whom have some sort of cosmic ability to see bright flashes called “the colors,” as well as the power to disintegrate and reassemble objects with their minds. They work to better Ruth’s emotional state by helping her regain control of her own powers, eventually realizing she can use them to save their decaying world.
“They reminded me of my mother and my grandmother. I knew these women. A woman’s power can be a scary thing, especially to the woman herself, yet Julia so lovingly ushers each of these women into their fullness of being.” (Mbatha-Raw declined to be interviewed.)
For Hart, who didn’t become a director until after having a child, motherhood was an enlightening experience. In writing her second feature with Horowitz, she realized she wanted to avoid simply dropping her characters into the existing tropes of a male-dominated genre.
“In thinking about what sort of powers mothers would have if they had superpowers, it was this idea that women’s power is creativity and creation,” she said. “Not just when we’re talking about the ability to grow human life inside of us, but … coming together to fix things instead of coming together to fight."
Hart and Horowitz wanted Mbatha-Raw to play Ruth from the moment they watched her dynamic performance in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights.” But in casting a woman of color as the lead, the screenwriters, who are both white, realized they’d have to tweak the script to fit a character whose life experiences would be outside of their own. In addition to doing “a ton of reading” — Hart had already sought inspiration from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” as some critics picked up on — they worked closely with the actresses to tell a more truthful story.
Horowitz, a producer best known for working on “La La Land,” noted that “Fast Color” struggled to find a distributor because of the “incorrect” notion that “there isn’t a ton of international value for women of color stories like this.” Though it still felt right to release the film in theaters so critics would be more likely to write about it, he said, the traditional model of waiting at least 90 days between a film’s theatrical release and its digital debut feels increasingly outdated for indie projects like this one.
“Theatrical is a really historical model that looks to what has come before,” he explained. “Streaming is more forward-facing, and it’s about finding new audiences and new stories to tell for audiences. It’s shifting, and we’re still figuring out what kind of movies work in the world.”
While the wide reach of streaming services bodes well for the potential “Fast Color” series, Hart described the feedback they received on the film as uniquely rewarding.
“It’s weirdly more special, in a way, because if something has millions and millions of dollars in marketing, and it’s in a hundred theaters, and everyone goes to see it, it’s like, ‘Cool, of course everyone did that, because it’s the easy thing to do,’ ” she said. “There was something incredible about the fact that [“Fast Color”] was so hard to find and so hard to see. The people who tweeted at me about driving 50 miles to go see it, I don’t know. … It’s been really special.”
The exploration of black womanhood isn’t central to “Fast Color,” but the potential for it attracted JuVee Productions, which makes a point of “finding these incredible characters and narratives with people of color, women of color,” according to Tennon, the company’s president of development and production.
“The other thing that Viola spoke about and that we’ve talked a lot about, too, is the idea of showing female superheroes in a way that a lot of the male superhero genres do,” Andrew Wang, JuVee’s head of television development, chimed in. “If you think about Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, they’re allowed to be antiheroes and complicated. Wonder Woman is not."
Davis, who was unavailable for an interview, has played an antihero in “How to Get Away With Murder” since 2014, Wang pointed out, adding that the show “made her into a global phenomenon and changed the way people perceive what a television lead looks like.” Davis won an Emmy for the role in 2015, becoming the first woman of color to win in the lead drama actress category.
Wang said JuVee, which has a first-look deal with Amazon, was brought on because, with Davis’s insight, it brings the “perspective of an authentic experience” to the characters. There’s more real estate in television, meaning if “Fast Color” receives a series order, it could expand beyond what was introduced in the film. Hart and Horowitz expressed an excitement in getting to build out other communities, some of which might have superheroes in them as well. Davis, per Wang, really connected with the idea of further exploring what it means to be a black mother with supernatural abilities.
“It needs to be culturally specific,” Wang explained. “There is no world where we could cast someone other than a black woman as the main role of this show. … That’s what we’re leaning into.”