Two Film Reviews
Suffragette Foregrounds Working-Class Women
Film Review by Linda Gordon
Suffragette is the first film to depict a women’s movement with major Hollywood stars. And Gavron’s introduction, Skyped in at the preview, was superb, emphasizing global women’s struggles and class and race inequality as well as the historical fight for suffrage. As more celebrities come out as feminists, we can hope for more.
An industrial laundry in 1912 London, the steam infusing the air, the sweat on the workers’ faces so vivid the viewer herself feels the heat. These laundries were not only literal sweatshops, but surrounded workers with burning toxic lye. This opening scene in Sara Gavron’s new film, Suffragette, is as powerful as any that follow. It is intended to surprise—not what one expects from a film about the British woman suffrage movement, because the history books have mainly told us about its elite leaders, Emmeline and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst.
It took the revival of second wave feminism to get historians, such as Jill Liddington and Sheila Rowbotham, to explore working-class feminism.
Gavron, director of the 2007 film, Brick Lane, centers working-class women in her film, a bold move. She does so through a device common in historical novels and films, by creating a fictional lead character—Maud Watts, laundry worker, played by Carey Mulligan—along with several “real” women to tell the story. Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, in a cameo appearance disparaged by some critics because its brevity comes as a surprise given the use of Streep in the film’s promotion. Helena Bonham-Carter plays Edith Ellyn, who is partly real; she is a character possibly amalgamated from the real Edith New, Edith Garrud, or Barbara Ayrton Gould, who had a degree in chemistry at University College London. (Viewers can’t know some juicy bits of irony: that Bonham-Carter’s great grandfather, Herbert Asquith, who was British prime minister between 1908-1916, vehemently opposed woman suffrage; or that the suffragettes tried to kidnap his daughter, Bonham-Carter’s grandmother.)
Emily Wilding Davison is also real, played by Natalie Press. She was the movement’s only fatality, trampled by a King’s horse after trying to float a “Votes for Women” banner at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
The American women’s rights movement offers unmatched material for such a film: the black and white women speaking out against slavery, the male anti-slavery activists who tried and failed to shut them up because women should be seen and not heard, the 1840 anti-slavery convention that refused to seat women—and these are just the conflicts of the first decade. But the British woman suffrage campaign was more dramatic at its peak, in the years before World War I. Frustrated by governmental refusal to give an inch, Emmeline Pankhurst jumpstarted a militant group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (USPO), in 1903. It was an independent, woman-only organization affiliated with the Independent Labour Party. (Its early leaders included George Bernard Shaw and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, and it rejected sectarian Marxism in favor of an openness that brought in Fabian, Christian, and feminist socialists.) The WSPU motto was “Deeds, Not Words.” Its members came to be called “suffragettes,” to distinguish them from the more polite woman suffragists who rejected direct action. (By the way, U.S. suffrage activists were never called suffragettes.)
Working-class women’s participation in the suffrage movement was a complex matter because Britain’s political inequality was not only one of gender, but also of class. Only 60 percent of British men could then vote—a matter probably unknown to most of the film’s viewers. Certainly Maud’s husband Sonny could not vote, because the suffrage extended only to those men who held land valued at £10 or paid rent of £10 a year. (That’s about £1100 today.) Nevertheless, many working-class women participated actively, convinced that woman suffrage would bring about other reforms, improving wages and working conditions, health and education.
The early suffragettes engaged in demonstrations, picketing and lobbying. They included the working-class suffrage leader Annie Kenney, who once led a demonstration to 10 Downing Street, where they refused to disperse and stood pounding on the door, demanding an audience. Police on horseback regularly charged into demonstrators, encouraged public hostility with jeers and obscene gestures, and arrested and imprisoned those who couldn’t or chose not to escape. Imprisoned women responded with hunger strikes, which the authorities answered with forced feeding. It was carried out not only brutally—“On Saturday afternoon the wardress forced me onto the bed and two doctors came in. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It is two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there is a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid is passing. The end is put up the right and left nostril on alternative days. The sensation is most painful—the drums of the ears seem to be bursting and there is a horrible pain in the throat and the breast. The tube is pushed down 20 inches. I am on the bed pinned down by wardresses, one doctor holds the funnel end, and the other doctor forces the other end up the nostrils. The one holding the funnel end pours the liquid down—about a pint of milk…egg and milk is sometimes used”—but also in a manner designed to humiliate—using rectal and vaginal “feedings”—at a time when women, born into Victorian culture, were socialized to regard purity as central to respectability. Enraged, the WSPU began a campaign of violence against property. They threw bricks and stones into government office windows, cut telephone lines, blew up mailboxes, destroyed greenhouses at Kew Gardens, and disrupted gatherings. In 1908, they tried to force their way into the House of Commons.
The forced feedings evoked greater public sympathy and the hunger strikes were extended. Fearing that a prisoner might die a martyr’s death, Parliament passed the “Cat and Mouse” law, which provided for releasing from prison those who became ill, allowing them to regain strength, then re-arresting them and resuming the forced feedings.
The narrative of British suffragism created challenges for Gavron and her screenwriter, Abi Morgan. The dictatorial Em- meline Pankhurst suspended the suffrage campaign in 1914 to support the war effort (breaking with the ILP in doing so), and British women gained equal suffrage only in 1928. So their peak militance did not produce victory. And the forced feedings began before the WSPU violence.
The film solved the narrative problem in two ways. First, the WSPU’s violence is shown first, the forced feedings later. Although this move obscures the fact that the WSPU’s violence was reactive to official brutality, it helps build the arc of escalating action. Second, since the film could not end with a victory, the death of Emily Wilding Davidson at the derby becomes its denouement. Although we are left with a woman sacrificing herself, the film thereby avoids a simplistic “you’ve-come-a-long- way-baby” happy ending. The truth is that feminism is unfinished.
But the foundational decision and the greatest strength of the film is its invention of Maud Watts to stand for working-class women’s stake and participation in the movement. Her world is beautifully visualized, from the grayed palate of colors to threadbare coats to muddy streets to a lecherous boss to husband and son with whom she lives in a tiny, dark flat. Imbedding the story of the suffragettes in this world is a fine corrective to more elite renditions of who and what feminism is.
Equally well done are the men—they’re not caricatures. Maud’s husband Sonny, who also slaves at the laundry, is delicately played by Ben Whishaw. Sonny loves his wife but objects to her increasing devotion to activism and time away from home. Edith Ellyn’s husband is an active supporter of the movement. Most of the police are brutal, but a fictional Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) wants to negotiate with the activists and urges restraint. David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller), Chancellor of the Exchequer, is polite and quite possibly sympathetic. He wants the women to be patient. Carey Mulligan carries off a working-class demeanor with grace and dignity (if not in accent). Her role is difficult because her conversion has to occur in such a short time. It helps that others and who work at her laundry are already WSPU supporters; it helps that her boss (played subtly by Geoff Bell) tries to force her into sex and she loses her job. Some parts of her transformation are just too condensed. When her husband throws her out, she adapts too quickly and comfortably and when she loses custody of her son, her desperation and grief is turned into activism too soon.
Most contrived is the coincidence that propels this neophyte activist into being the one to speak to a parliamentary committee on behalf of woman suffrage. And this coincidence was unnecessary. The film would have been no weaker had another WSPU member given the testimony. One such could have been Annie Kenney, and I wondered why Gavron did not put her into the film. A cotton mill worker from age 10, she became the only working-class woman in WSPU’s official leadership. In 1914, just released from prison under the Cat and Mouse Act, she had herself carried into a WSPU meeting on a stretcher. Too weak to speak, she fluttered her handkerchief as a form of encouragement to others.
Edith Ellyn and Violet Miller complicate the cast of characters to good effect. Ellyn is educated, a chemist or apothecary who serves a working-class community in a multitude of ways—providing drugs, medical care, a safe house, and a place for secreting radical leaflets and banners. Anne-Marie Duff’s portrayal of the fictional Violet Miller is absolutely gripping. Combining warmth with the hardness created by hardship—and, in the film, by determination—she is Maud’s key supporter. The film is gripping, emotional and complicated. Viewers will be entertained and learn a few things in addition. Reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly positive. Among the few negative opinions, most troubling are accusations that the film is racist because it shows no black people. Viewers might be excused for not knowing that very few blacks lived in England at the time, but these accusations can damage unjustifiably the reputation of a film and filmmaker committed to social justice. More damaging yet has been the circulation of images of the film’s stars wearing a t-shirt, provided by Time Out for a photo-op, quoting Emmeline Pankhurst saying “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Apparently British viewers understood the context, but some Americans did not, and considered the quotation racist for trivializing slavery. Besides, Gavron’s previous film, Brick Lane focuses directly on British racism.
I spoke with Gavron about the race issue before seeing the film. She was concerned about texts at the film’s end that announce that American women won the vote in 1920. Gavron knows, of course, that most African Americans (and, I might add, many Latino/as and Asian Americans) were not enfranchised until 1965’s Voting Rights Act. But there are many countries in which woman suffrage was at first limited to more privileged women, and she couldn’t list all these limitations. Our discussion and the t-shirt flap illustrated for me the problems of cultural translation—in this case, that the Black Lives Matter movement has made racism more prominent in the public discussion here in the U.S., not so much in the UK.
But no progressive social movement evokes these allegations as much as feminism does, despite the fact that even white feminists are less racist and more favorable toward anti-racist causes—such as Black Lives Matter—than are white nonfeminists (a fact demonstrated repeatedly by polls). Why feminism is a chronically used scapegoat is somewhat mysterious. Perhaps feminism’s vocal condemnations of injustice toward women seem to compete with condemnations of racism; perhaps white racism seems more personal when it comes from women rather than from men, politicians, or corporations; perhaps feminism still seems to some a diversion from the urgent need to resist racism; and many fear and resent the transformations in gender structures that feminism promises. Certainly Americans’ poor historical education contributes, seen in the common belief that feminism is a white thing, thus erasing the long history of African American feminism. More likely this scapegoating of feminism is an expression of all the above. But it’s a loss to us all.
Linda Gordon is a professor of history and a University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. Recently, she has explored ways of presenting history to a broad audience, publishing The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard University Press, 1999) and the biography Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits (W.W. Norton, 2009), both of which won the Bancroft Prize.
Spotlight Celebrates Heroes of Investigative Reporting—and Democracy
Film Review by Michael Winship
Long before I ever set foot in an actual, working newsroom, I was a sucker for movies and TV shows about journalism and reporters: the snappy dialogue, the nose for a scoop, the determination to get at the truth and expose the bad guys.
I never miss Citizen Kane, All the President’s Men and His Girl Friday (the great, screwball remake of that classic play, “The Front Page”). And when I entered the world of journalism, briefly working as a freelance feature writer for a now-deceased, great metropolitan newspaper and then for years in television news and public affairs, I discovered that there really were people in the business as funny, dedicated, and talented as the characters on film (some stinkers, too, but that’s for my future, sure-to-go- straight-to-remaindered memoir).
If you haven’t already heard, to the list of superb movies about the trade, you can now add Spotlight. The riveting account of the Boston Globe’s investigative team exposing the cover-up of widespread pedophilia in the city’s Catholic Church—and beyond—stars a roster of-big name talent that work together seamlessly as an ensemble: Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, to name just the top of the cast.
It’s directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and written by McCarthy and “West Wing” alum Josh Singer. It is the story of dedicated, scrupulous reporters going up against a seemingly indomitable institution and discovering a scandal.
They started investigating in 2001 and by the end of 2002, the Globe’s Spotlight team had published nearly 600 stories about the Church and 249 priest and brothers that had been publicly accused of sexual abuse. The archdiocese teetered at the edge of bankruptcy and, in December, Bernard Cardinal Law, Boston’s archbishop, resigned (he was transferred to Rome’s influential Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore). What’s more, the filmmakers note, “major abuse scandals” have been discovered in more than 100 other American towns and in another 100 places worldwide. In the words of producer Blye Pagon Faust, “Spotlight took on this institution that had power, money and resources, and showed people that nobody is untouchable.” Tom McCarthy was quick to add, “I was raised Catholic so I have great understanding, admiration and respect for the institution. This story is not about Church bashing. It’s about asking ‘How does something like this happen?’ The Church performed, and in some cases continues to perform, acts of institutional evil not only as an abuser of kids but also through the cover-up of abuse. How could this abuse go on for decades without people standing up and saying something?”
Spotlight is a celebration of investigative journalism and a reminder that it could be a dying art. “I’m extremely concerned with how little high-end investigative journalism is out there right now compared to what we had 15 years ago,” McCarthy said. “I saw this movie as an opportunity to show by example: Here is the kind of impact that can happen when you have well-funded journalism done by experienced professionals. I mean, what could be more important than the fate of our children?”
When I asked McCarthy at a recent screening whether Spotlight may be more of a eulogy than a love letter, he pointed out that among young people, the 1976 release of All the President’s Men, the movie version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book on the Watergate affair, spurred renewed interest in journalism as a career. He hopes Spotlight might have a similar effect.
We both noted that despite fewer investigative units at major metropolitan newspapers there are a number of independent, non-profit organizations doing great work
Of course, contributing to the problem in this Internet age is the slashing of press revenues that fund in-depth investigating, plus the sheer glut of information and data unaccompanied by knowledge or wisdom. McCarthy thinks the problem’s especially critical at the state and local level, where money for investigative journalism is scarcest but where some of the worst corruption occurs in dark corners un-illuminated by the kind of reporting that makes Spotlight so remarkable. The slogan on the movie’s poster is, “Break the story. Break the silence.” Journalist Ben Bradlee, Jr., played in the film by John Slattery, told the Annenberg Media Center’s NeonTommy blog, “The movie underscores the importance of investigative journalism in a democracy.” And in a recent interview at Salon, McCarthy said that this kind of reporting is, “so essential to a free and healthy press in our country. The fact that it is eroding should really be a great alarm to people, as much as the ice caps are eroding. We should be…worried about the state of journalism, and not just for the journalists but for us, because that’s who it will impact most.”
He told another interviewer, “I want to ring the bell about how essential this kind of journalism is, because to me, these reporters are straight-up heroes.”
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship.