Movies

The anti-‘Avengers’: In indie gem ‘Fast Color,’ a powerful new superhero story is born

LOS ANGELES, CA --APRIL 03, 2019 --Actresses Saniyya Sidney, left and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, are photograp
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, right, and Saniyya Sidney play an estranged mother and daughter with superhuman abilities in indie superhero drama “Fast Color,” directed by Julia Hart.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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 among us 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 self doubts.

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.

REVIEW: ‘Fast Color’ is a nifty little superhero movie done a little differently »

GuGu Mbatha-Raw in a scene from “FAST COLOR.” Credit: Jacob Yakob/Codeblack Films
Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman on the run, comes home to face her past in "Fast Color."
(Jacob Yakob / Codeblack Films)

Opening ahead of “Avengers” in a crowded frame this past weekend alongside fellow female-led indies including “Little Woods” and Kenyan film “Rafiki” — which both 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 like 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 record-breaking returns for female-led 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.

LOS ANGELES, CA --APRIL 03, 2019 --Film director Julia Hart, center is photographed with actresses S
Director Julia Hart, center, with stars Saniyya Sidney, left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Two years ago they filmed "Fast Color" in New Mexico before premiering the film last year at SXSW.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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.

Filming outside Albuquerque two years ago amid the occasional lightning storm, production designer Gae S. Buckley transformed found locations into the evocative expanse of run-down motels, gas stations and dive bars Ruth passes through as a government scientist (Christopher Denham) and a local sheriff (David Straitharn) close in on her trail.

Their aim was to tell a kind of superhero story antithetical to Hollywood blockbuster franchises. In “Fast Color” there are no spandexed warriors pummeling finger-snapping 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,’” the actress 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 Ruth and Lila descend from.

SXSW: ‘Fast Color’ turns the superhero genre upside down, with a woman of color — and a mother — in the lead »

(L-R)- Lorraine Toussaint and Saniyya Sidney in a scene from “Fast Color.” Credit: Jacob Yakob/Codeb
Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and her granddaughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) share an extraordinary family gift but must hide their powers in "Fast Color."
(Jacob Yakob / Codeblack Films)

“Lorraine is just so soulful, and she has so much wisdom and gravitas that she just exudes,” said Mbatha-Raw. “She has that power; it’s grounded within her. 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 the confines of 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 remembered. “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, like 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,” said Sidney.

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 not about taking people down or destroying other countries; 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 VFX-aided 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, who suggested her character wear a Shakespearean quote tattooed on her arm, echoing the elusive peace she seeks: “To Thine Own Self Be True.”

“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,’” said Mbatha-Raw.

“I hope people are inspired and empowered. I hope people have a remembering — that they already have this power; it’s already there. It’s going through your family tree and going, ‘My ancestors went through this and this and this…’ I’m the leading edge of the next generation of evolution, and I have all of this power behind and within me.”

jen.yamato@latimes.com

@jenyamato