Plenty of reviewers have already tackled the questions of the movie Suffragette’s cinematic merits, many finding that the film is a riveting story about a time, and a place, and a movement that changed the world.
The movie is engaging, and addresses class in a way that previous films about the suffrage movement, such as 2004’s Iron Jawed Angels, have not. It examines the tensions between those who have – who, in this film, are painted as the instigators of the movement – and those who have almost nothing, exemplified best in the “composite” character at the center of the film. It takes an unwavering look at the impact of involvement in the movement, including the loss of children, employment, and home at time when social safety nets and child custody laws did not yet exist to cushion the fall.
In this film, suffragettes are not soft. They are prisoners, soldiers, and anarchists. Throwing bricks into windows and building bombs, the women of Suffragette have declared war on private property and peace in order to gain the vote. The movie is, in turn, entertaining, maddening, and heartbreaking.
But before the film had hit theaters, it was already making waves. After an ill-conceived and tone deaf photo shoot from Time Out London, people started to have a very different conversation about the merits of this film and others like it. Specifically – the merits of telling the suffrage narrative through a largely white lens, and one that is colorblind to the point of erasing race entirely.
Though explicitly framed as one story in a larger movement through the placement of a disclaimer to that effect in the opening moments of the film, the question we need to ask about this movie isn’t whether it focuses on a small sliver of the suffrage movement – which it undoubtedly does. Instead, the question we should be asking, and one that The Stranger‘s Ijeoma Oluo poses quite eloquently, is: why are we still telling this story?
Reporting on the fallout from Time Out‘s photo shoot, The Telegraph‘s Radhika Sanghani parsed out the complicated relationship between the suffrage movement and race in the UK. While using the narrative of slavery to evoke urgency in the women’s suffrage movement, prominent suffragettes expressed outrage when indigenous populations in the colonies, New Zealand to be precise, got the vote before “white women with a certain station in society.”
Not only are these racial tensions completely absent from Suffragette (not to mention the complete absence of people of color in general, which Oluo criticized explicitly in her coverage), but the creators of the film also chose not to include the real stories of suffragettes of color from the UK. Sanghani points out that not only did these women exist, but one of them, Sophia Duleep Singh, was one of Emmeline Pankhurst’s (played briefly by Meryl Streep) “rockstar” suffragettes.
It is this ever-present unwillingness to unpack the white supremacy from the suffrage narrative that allows such photo shoots to be approved, such movies about the movement to be made with entirely white casts, and the conversation about women’s suffrage to continue to operate solely to communicate the struggles and experiences of white women both in the US and the UK.
It is time to deal with and tell the stories of the uncomfortable realities of the movement’s legacy. This includes having hard conversations about the racist views of some of the most celebrated suffragettes. Representations of the suffragette movement that erase the racial tensions of the time are only telling part of the story, and it’s way past time to change that.
What’s more – it is time to move beyond the whitewashing of the suffrage movement and to lift of up the stories and voices of women of color who fought, and are still fighting, for this fundamental right.