Movies about movements come in at least three kinds. There’s the ‘Great Man or Woman’ biopic, the best known of which is Gandhi, which risks suggesting that the achievement was one person’s alone. There’s the so-called palatable entry point type of story, the most troubling of which may be the civil rights era drama Mississippi Burning, which seems to suggest that black people were weak and broken, and that the FBI sent a couple of nice guys down south to save them. And there’s the more nuanced attempt at telling the always complex story of how human beings come together to change the world for the better (the best recent examples are last year’s Pride and Selma).
The story of how women claimed their right to participate in democracy has to be told, and the new movie Suffragette makes a valiant attempt to be the better kind of movement movie. Substantial performances from Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Anne-Marie Duff make the characters compelling (and there’s a heartbreaking but all too brief turn from the great Natalie Press as Emily Davison, who died for the cause). But the didactic nature of the script and direction make it more like an educational TV documentary than a great film, and not educational enough.
When people invoke George Santayana’s warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” they are usually referring to the bad things humans have done to each other, rather than the acts of courage that have moved things forward. Humans have a tendency to tell the bleak side of things—and when we try to talk about the life-giving parts of our stories, we may find ourselves unpopular at dinner parties. Championing the positive can lead to charges of egotism or being a “do-gooder” (which is a strange thing to turn into a criticism, but there it is).
Another problem with telling stories of struggle against injustice is that they too often portray the process of overcoming historic oppression as a simplistic one-directional series of steps. We see injustice in action, we see a conventional attempt at addressing it with authority figures, we see a protest march or two, we see someone we identity with being attacked or killed, and then we see the power structure give way. Captions inform us what happened next, and what remains to be done.
This structure constitutes a necessary skeleton for telling movement histories – if we don’t have those elements, we will definitely be telling an incomplete story. The problem is that so many movement movies only tell it this way. There’s no room for tension or reflections on the inner lives of participants, therefore it’s difficult to practice their lessons ourselves. Selma is a rarity in that it managed to reflect deeply not only on the individual struggles and gifts of Martin Luther King and his spouse Coretta Scott King, and their associates, but also the complexity of strategy and relationships within the civil rights movement.
Suffragette, alas, misses some of this complexity. We see lots of pain—inequality in the workplace, women used as fodder for commerce and property for husbands, the subject of oppressive surveillance and law enforcement—so we’re convinced of the need for change. And we see lots of women band together to do something about it, led by the indomitable Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep’s presence is valuable, but no more than a cameo). That something gets done, and we go home, inspired by the memory of people who put their lives on the line for the sake of freedom.
But there’s so much in the story of the suffragette movement that deserved more attention here. For instance, the decision to use force against property but not against people deserves at least a decent exploratory scene—our culture needs creative conversations about violence and nonviolence, and it’s a pity this movie avoided having one. Perhaps most regrettably, Suffragette pays scant attention to the character of Emily Davison, who was killed when she stepped onto Epsom racecourse to highlight the cause. Historians are divided over whether she intended martyrdom, or was trying to attach a banner to the king’s horse, but the movie both clearly paints her as an intentional suicide, and gives Natalie Press so little screen time that some may feel it runs the risk of dishonoring her sacrifice.
These issues are, of course, a matter of life and death, and what Suffragette gets right is important – it’s written and directed by women, men are not invoked as saviors, and there’s no sugar-coating the rewards of struggle (by the end our protagonist has lost her child, her husband and her job). And it’s important for me to acknowledge that my take on Suffragette has its limitations: I’m not just a writer responding to a movie, but as a man I’m an inheritor of the privilege it’s trying to overcome. Its inspirations speak loudly: it may make us ask deeper questions about how we can turn my complicity in the oppression of women into serving their liberation. That’s what makes Suffragette, on balance, better than many (though not all) social movement films—it doesn’t suggest that the journey is over. There’s still work to do; all it takes is imagination, courage, and a way to communicate.