To celebrate yesterday’s International Women’s Day, this week we will discuss a recent film which was directed by a woman, written by a woman and with a cast led by women.
Suffragette (2015) is the first feature film portraying the struggle of ordinary British women, who, at the turn of the last century, risked everything in the fight for equality and the right to vote.
The film opened the London BFI Film Festival last October and catalysed media attention when, on the night of the premiere, a group of activists from Sisters Uncut, an anti-domestic violence group stormed the red carpet chanting “Dead women can’t vote!”. As highlighted by the protesters, gender inequality remains persistently entrenched in our contemporary society. Helena Bonham Carter, one of the leading characters in the movie, said the protest was a “perfect” response. (Interestingly Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of H. H. Asquith, Prime Minister during the first years of the suffrage movement, which he strongly opposed.)
Unfortunately Suffragette came under fire just a few days before the opening, when, during the promotion, actresses Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep and Anne-Marie Duff, were heavily criticised on social networks for wearing T-shirts with the slogan “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”, a partial quote taken from a speech given by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913. The quote was attacked from all sides for its connotation with U.S. history especially slavery and the Confederate rebellion. The quote was deemed racially insensitive for implying being a slave was a choice.
Time Out, the magazine where the photo shoot was published, immediately responded to critics arguing the quote was said over a 100 years ago and in a very different time and context. There is certainly an extreme modern impulse behind the criticisms; Mrs. Pankhurst clearly used the word “rebel” to indicate someone who fights against authority and “slave” in relation to women being oppressed and abused in their homes. However, that doesn’t deny the fact that to put it on a t-shirt today is to reinforce its underlying message. Especially when four successful white women wear it asserting that they won’t be slaves, it is disrespectful towards women of colour who are erased from feminist history.
The film in fact also had to face accusations of “white feminism” because of its failure to represent in any way women of colour that were involved in the suffragette struggle. Director Sarah Gavron responded saying that the lack of diversity in this case was a matter of historical accuracy, in contrast with the U.S. movement which was much more ethnically diverse at the time, the U.K. movement was primarily made up of white working class women made exception for two prominent Asian aristocrats, who were known to be part of it: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, and Bhikaji Cama. But they did not fall within the film’s scope since the objective was to concentrate on working class women, the foot soldiers of the women’s suffrage movement, who didn’t have all the privileges the higher born suffragettes enjoyed, such as a supportive husband, the freedom not to have a day job, or the means to bail themselves out of prison.
Yet despite all the above-mentioned controversies, it is unquestionable that Suffragette represents a progressive move in women’s filmmaking, it is an urgent, persuasive film as well as a necessary historical reminder on a subject that Hollywood has barely touched on before.
The women’s suffrage movement began in the United Kingdom in the 19th Century. Suffragette focuses on the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, in a cameo role) during 1912-13, when its civil disobedience was at its height and the police response was most brutal.
Part-fiction, part-fact, the film centres around Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a fictional laundrywoman, who has been working in the factory since childhood, a demanding and dangerous job for which she bears a huge scar that covers part of her body. She is married to Sonny (Ben Whishaw), they have a young son, George. Her husband also works at the laundry but because he’s a man he is better paid even though he is less skilled than her and he doesn’t have to fend off the constant sexual harassment of their boss Mr. Taylor.
Starting off as a loving wife and mother, apolitical Maud, who has never really given much thought to how the vote might improve her life, is first exposed to the suffrage movement almost by accident, as she witnesses a WSPU stone-throwing action and recognizes a co-worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). At that moment something inside her snaps: “What if there’s another way of living this life”.
Drawn in, first by curiosity, then conviction and activism, she joins the ranks of a small group of Suffragettes led by pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). During a peaceful demonstration that turns into a brutal riot, Maud is caullght up in the crowd and arrested. Despite promising her husband she would stay away from the suffragettes, Maud goes to a secret rally where Pankhurst urges the women to defy the government and define their own destinies. “Never surrender! Never give up the fight”, she tells Maud. When she is taken home by the police, Sonny kicks her out and forbids her to see George again. The moment she learns that he gave their son up for adoption, Maud becomes more and more radical. With nothing left to lose, she takes part to violent actions such as the bombing of mailboxes, the cutting of telegraph wires and eventually the blowing up of a minister’s summer home. The nation is shocked at the escalation of women’s disobedience but the compliant British press is still reluctant to give them visibility, hence recognition. Maud is imprisoned again, this time she goes on a hunger strike and as a consequence she has to face the horror of force-feeding. In another scene, during her imprisonment, Maud tells the authorities:
“What are you gonna do? Lock us all up? We’re in every home, we’re half the human race, you can’t stop us all”.
The police keep on pressuring the newspapers to drop the story and the suffragettes feel that they must do more drastic activities in order to gain attention for their cause. The final act concerns a famous incident, which Maud witnesses close up: the memorable martyrdom of activist Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), who threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913. It represented a turning point in the suffragette movement, which finally gained recognition on a worldwide scale. The film ends with the actual newsreel footage of the thousands of women who attended Davison’s funeral.
British women were given the vote on equal terms to men in 1928. On the end credits a scrolling text reveals a chronological list of countries that endorsed women with the right to vote to the present day (Saudi Arabia 2015 still pending).
“Suffragette” does not offer a Hollywood glorious ending instead it leaves us with a huge and bitter sacrifice that marks only the beginning of a long and strenuous fight for equality. Rights are not given they are taken, as Maude finally understands. The film shows us how, contrary to general beliefs, the suffragette movement was as fierce and dangerous as any other struggle for civil rights, with real people risking their lives for the greater good.
While there are some occasional flaws in Abi Morgan’s screenplay, mostly due to the difficulty of tackling such a complex movement, this remains a compelling and inspiring film that delivers a powerful message through astounding performances, great cinematography and accurate production design. Mulligan understated performance really stands out as she captures the conflicting emotions of her character’s political and personal awakening.
Although it is a period piece, the film is characterised by a visceral, modern urgency that really connects to the world today. Shot mostly hand-held with gritty camera work, the scenes of protest resemble actual contemporary news footage giving the impression the audience is witnessing an ongoing struggle. Arguably this might be the film’s best achievement, its capacity to shrink time and space, to take current generations back into the not so distant past in an engaging, provoking way.
Sadly many of the issues dealt with in the story, are still relevant today, as women continue to fight against inequality, discrimination and sexual harassment in many parts of the world. The World Economic Forum predicted in 2015 that it would take until 2133 to achieve global gender parity.
This means the fight is far from being over.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the women who have sacrificed so much to afford us rights and freedoms often taken for granted, especially by the younger generations. It is also a reminder that, with very few exceptions, all societies still have to contend with gender inequality of some sort, and this imbalance means many women have to fight for basic human rights. Films like Suffragette inspire conversations about how we can correct this imbalance.
Much has been achieved and much still needs to be done.
“Never surrender, never give up the fight”.