SINCE I started reviewing films, I have become increasingly aware of how many films I would otherwise want to go and see have controversy surrounding them. Usually this is because I don’t like going to screenings alone, so I try to go with friends, and fairly often one friend or another will say that they do not want to see that film due to an actor associated with it or the film’s depiction of certain events in problematic way, or some other ethical problem.
While this means I sometimes have to see a film alone, it’s a practice I thoroughly approve of. I think that as consumers of media, being a responsible consumer is in some ways our duty, and if you have strong ethical views applying those to the media you consume seems entirely consistent.
I usually don’t bring this up, as the intricacies of a film’s production and the people associated with it are not best addressed in a review. However, I mention it in this case because some of the controversy I have read surrounding Suffragette deals with the contents of the film, something which can be addressed in a film. In addition to this, controversy can often influence the decision to see a movie, and helping people with that decision is one of the purposes of a review.
Suffragette is a piece of historical fiction. It follows a series of events in the life of a fictional person in order to portray the very real historical events surrounding the campaign for votes for women. A number of people have commented that inventing a fictional person is unnecessary, given the interesting lives the real people involved lived.
With regards to the content of the film I can’t say whether inventing a character was necessary, I don’t know enough about any real individuals involved in enough detail. What I can say is that the events in the life of the fictional person presented make for a profoundly compelling and moving story, and while she wasn’t a real person the events she experienced did happen to real people (perhaps not all to the same person) and I think depicting these not only makes for a powerful and interesting narrative, but is important from an educational perspective, which is another aspect of the film worth mentioning.
Before I saw this film I was aware of the history of the suffrage movement, I was aware of the forced feedings, the imprisonments, the abuse many of them suffered. Despite being intellectually aware of these events, however, seeing them depicted in Suffragette had a unique effect. I think it is because reading about something and seeing how a real person experiences things (or the depiction thereof) are very different sensations, the latter being much more memorable and having a greater impact. As such I would recommend seeing Suffragette based on that alone, as it is a very effective way of making people aware, in a very emotional and memorable way, of the things that women had to do and endure in that era.
I will briefly address some other points of controversy. One issue some have raised is the use of the line “I would rather be a rebel than a slave”, and have stated that it is insensitive to the issue of slavery. I am in no position to claim that this is not the case, the film does indeed contain the line, and when it comes to offense and sensitivity I tend to believe that it is the impact a statement has that matters rather than the intent behind it. I don’t believe the intent behind this was in any way disrespectful, and it appears in the film as a statement made by a historical figure as an incitement to action against a background of oppression. I don’t feel that I am in a position to judge the appropriateness of the line, but I don’t believe that the entire film should be disregarded because of it. Many good and even great films contain elements which are unpleasant or problematic, and I feel that it is a mistake to disregard a work because of one line which may have been misjudged.
Another thing worth mentioning about the film is that the cast seems overwhelmingly homogenous in terms of ethnicity. The film is set in London, albeit in the early twentieth century. While the population of the country may not have been as diverse then as it is now, London has been quite diverse for a long time. We know that women of colour were involved in the Suffragette movement and as such it was disappointing not to see any of that diversity depicted in the film, especially given the existing history of erasure from film and popular historical accounts of minority groups.
Despite these controversies, Suffragette is a very good film. While it feels predictable in places, the story is compelling throughout, and brings to life the struggles of people in an exceptionally important part of our history. It is far more moving than I expected it to be, and both thoughtful and thought-provoking. It is evidently the product of not just a great deal amount of skill when it comes to acting, production and writing, but also the product of a great deal of thought about the roles people play and the nature of oppression. While sometimes the characters produced by this thought may seem fairly shallow, it is because everyone presents a different aspect of the story, a different part of the whole, and thus together they present an interesting and fairly well rounded depiction of how society at the time acted, how people acted in that society, why and how they did what they did and why and how many different sorts of people chose to fight it, as well as the impact this had on them.
Suffragette is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.