In 'Fast Color,' Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Saniyya Sidney show the power of black girl magic

The new sci-fi film highlights the supernatural strengths of three generations of black women.
Lorraine Toussaint as Bo, Saniyya Sidney as Lila, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ruth in "Fast Color."
Lorraine Toussaint as Bo, Saniyya Sidney as Lila, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ruth in "Fast Color."Jacob Yakob / Codeblack Films

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By Candice Frederick

Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw referenced author Marianne Williamson's stirring words about fear — that often we are "powerful beyond measure" — as she discussed her provocative new sci-fi film, "Fast Color."

In the film, which is in theaters Friday, she plays Ruth, a mother on the run who, along with her daughter Lila and mother Bo, have extraordinary powers they’re forced to hide from the world for fear they may be jailed or face an even graver fate.

“The idea that we have power within us is something that I’ve always been interested in — whether it has been suppressed historically or by our society, outside forces, or by our own disbelief in our abilities,” Mbatha-Raw said in an interview with NBCBLK. “It’s liberating to know that we can unlock that power by connecting with other women. That’s something that we’ve seen play out in our culture.”

This feminist spirit is also what powers "Fast Color," a dystopian movie that highlights the supernatural strengths of three generations of black women who overcome personal challenges such as addiction, uncertainty and the complexities of motherhood. When we first meet Ruth, she’s strapping herself to a rusty hotel bed, desperate to control her powers that have caused an earthquake. She’s alone in a ravaged world without anyone she can trust, least of all the law enforcers and scientists — all men — who are eager to confine her. With nowhere to go, Ruth returns to her mother’s farmhouse on a desolate land where she must confront the daughter she abandoned and a difficult past she’s tried hard to shake. It’s also where she rediscovers her powers and realizes they are a gift.

“It’s a tale about black girl magic,” Saniyya Sidney, who portrays Lila, said. The 12-year-old actress basked in the opportunity to portray a powerful young girl who can transform a bowl into swirling purple dust and fix a truck with her bare hands. She agrees with her movie mom that this special story hinges on the poignant relationship among the three female characters.

Saniyya Sidney

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“When you’re with your mom and your grandma, you see the beauty across generations and how strong you can be together,” she added.

But the film also understands that the relationship between a mother and daughter is one of the most unique, complex experiences a woman can have. In "Fast Color," this relationship is further complicated here by Ruth’s past struggle with drugs. Going back home is a part of her recovery but reuniting with Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and Lila isn’t easy for her. Mbatha-Raw empathized with this struggle and tapped into her own experiences to authenticate the story.

“Growing up an only child in a single-parent household with my mom, I can definitely relate to the intensity of that bond and how it shifts over time,” she said. “That dynamic of trying to reconnect with your parents and your child is sometimes the hardest thing to do. Ruth is a mother, but she is also an addict and has had to process her demons. She doesn’t feel like she is up to the task of raising her daughter and fears stepping into the shoes of motherhood.”

On top of navigating her maternal responsibilities, Ruth is grappling with powers she’s always been told should be contained. As a result, she doesn’t really know how to use them and has to reacclimate herself to the idea of home as a safe place for them.

“I realized I’ve never seen a movie starring a woman with superpowers who is also a mother,” Mbatha-Raw said. “We take bringing a child into the world for granted. It’s a huge responsibility and a miraculous event. I think [writer/director] Julia Hart wants us to celebrate that and let people know that you don’t have to have a superhero suit or a cape or any kind of weapon in a CGI- and special effects-laden story to be able to see that people are powerful.”

Casting three black female leads in a genre that hasn’t always been kind to characters of color is the film’s other compelling statement. The fact that Ruth, Bo and Lila are making it on their own in a post-draught, apocalyptic state, battling a wasteland without the assistance of white people or any men, is profound.

“It is quite arresting to see three women of color in the desert with special powers,” Mbatha-Raw said. “We’re not used to seeing ourselves in this traditionally male iconography that is almost like a western. Optics really matter. We don’t need to comment on race. It’s not an issue in the story. It’s just present. I think that in itself is really empowering. This is a whole new world we’ve created. It’s the future and these generations of women have survived.”

It’s what makes "Fast Color" such an optimistic film.

"There is definitely a sense of hope for the future and the next generation,” Mbatha-Raw said. “It’s about legacy; what we hand down to our daughters and what our mothers give us — not just genetically but spiritually. Even though the world that we’re in in the film is bleak and fading, there is potential for new life that’s in our hands.”

That’s exemplified through not only the precocious Lila but also Sidney, the rising star who proves that the future is not just bright but victorious.

“I think it’s important for people to know that they can do whatever they set their minds to do,” the actress said. “I hope to inspire other children the way I have been inspired.”

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