Towards the end of Sarah Gavron’s feminist drama Suffragette, a group of feminist activists — who have all been radicalized enough to plant bombs in mailboxes throughout the city of London — stand in a city park, debating whether to similarly bomb the empty country estate of a prominent politician. They’ve been tipped off about the estate by one of their own (Romola Garai) who happens to be married to a government minister. Some think it’s going too far; others (led by Helena Bonham Carter as a militant chemist) think they have no choice but to act in this way, because their cause is being ignored otherwise.
It’s an exciting moment, full of dramatic possibility that unfortunately quickly gets passed over. Some participate, others demur. The politician’s wife is never suspected; the bomb-planters are suspected but can’t be pinned to the crime. This is a shame. Suffragette is a good movie; well-made, well-acted, stirring, with undeniably fascinating subject matter to plumb (radical feminists who used violence to achieve their political ends over 100 years ago!). But what stops it from being a truly transcendent film is its unwillingness to get dirty along with the “Panks” (followers of Emmeline Pankhurst) it depicts, to really see the divisions and arguments that make social movements what they are.
The comparisons to Selma are obvious. What made Selma so revolutionary in its portrayal of activism is that it went inside the mechanics of the movement, showing Martin Luther King sparring with students, arguing with his inner circle, and being a real brass tacks strategist — without doing any disservice to the cause he fought for. In Selma, audiences witnessed one sequence in which a dignified woman (played by Oprah) decided she was going to try to vote. As she was stymied, you saw how corrupt and humiliating the system was, and why the issue was important. But the movie didn’t try beyond those few minutes, taking it for granted that the audience got that voting rights were needed. The question became how to convince the un-convinceable, and that’s where Ava DuVernay found her suspense and tension, rather than the spending time on the question, “Civil rights: good or bad?”
Suffragette is too timid to go this route, which is ironic given the brick-throwing, mailbox-bombing, prison-hunger-striking suffragists it depicts. They weren’t particularly delicate. Gavron does make the wise choice to focus on the woes of the working class… and my, but they are woeful. Protagonist Cary Muligan is an industrial laundress, Maude, married with a son, whose daily life is miserable. Her husband is a good sort but he can’t see beyond social conventions, and we know from the outset that Maude’s mounting radicalism will drive a wedge through the family that cant be un-driven, despite her evident love for her child. She also has a dictatorial, serial sexual abuser boss. He’s such a stereotype of lecher and a tyrant, we can imagine that even Dickens might have said, “We’re laying it on a bit thick with this bloke, eh?” Once Maude gets sucked into the movement through a series of fortuitously-timed events, the women in her neighborhood think she’s a disgrace, and they ignore her or taunt her in the streets.
Yet the more alienated Maude becomes, the direr her home circumstances, the more militant she grows, feeding into a cycle. Eventually, she ends up sleeping in a church, alone, all but a terrorist fugitive. She’s there infiltrating the royal derby on the day that Emily Davison throws herself in front of the King’s horse, effectively committing suicide for the cause.
The main message of Suffragette seems to be: things were really, really shitty for women, And they indeed were. The film is clearly meant to remind contemporary viewers of this fact: it wasn’t just about the vote. Women had no property rights, no custodial rights, they made less than men for doing the exact same job on a routine basis, their reproductive control was nonexistent, their health was constantly at risk from the combination of constant baby-making and backbreaking work. They were under near-total dominion of their husbands, and this was an issue that affected women across class lines, from the politician’s wife who can’t use her husband’s money to bail out her fellow suffragists to the women with bruises on their faces.
Yet once it has thoroughly illustrated the penury of women’s lot, Suffragette doesn’t go far enough. I kept wanting to say: show us the bomb-throwers and the genteel types hashing it out, splitting into factions, arguing about other issues like race and class and whether they should be more ladylike. Show us Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst, who makes a brief, goddess-like appearance, scrapping with her followers about tactics. Show us politicians wavering and vacillating about what to do, instead of the spying inspector (Brendan Gleeson) and woman-hating MP (Samuel West) continually saying things that land on the audience like, “Yarrr! We will get those suffragettes!” Show us Emily Davison getting more and more angry (and doing crazy things like hiding out in the House of Commons) until she’s wiling to risk her life, rather than just popping her in at the end.
It’s almost as if Gavron is worried that if we see how intense and flawed these women really were, the audience won’t be with them. That doesn’t feel very feminist. In that sense, Suffragette doesn’t just “whitewash” the movement by not including the suffragettes of color, but does so by making them seem too unified, too noble, too saintly. The film remains well worth seeing because the story itself is so powerful and the cast is committed and feisty, but it’s hard not to wish for another film that joined its protagonists in setting fuses and watching things explode.