Suffragette doesn’t come out until October 23, but it’s already earned enough press for five movies.
There’s plenty of good press - early Oscar buzz for both Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter; praise for the rare existence of a movie directed by, written by and starring women; acknowledgement of the importance of learning about this seldom-told part of history. And then there’s the bad press - Meryl Streep saying that she’s not a feminist; those Time Out photos showing the four white stars wearing T-shirts that say “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”; the domestic violence activist group protesting at the premiere (several members of the film’s cast later spoke out in praise of the protest).
I watched a press screening of Suffragette, and I loved it. I found it to be the story of an important piece of women’s history, told exceptionally well, and I thought the filmmakers managed to convey that this is just one part of the global fight for women’s rights. I understand skepticism about the film's"whitewashing," but I also know much more about the racial history of America's suffrage movement than I do about Britain's.
So I went straight to the source. I sat down with Suffragette director Sarah Gavron during a press junket at New York’s Waldorf Astoria on Sunday morning to talk about how a movie like Suffragette gets made, what it’s like being a female director in a male-dominated field, and, of course, those criticisms.
I read that Suffragette is a movie that you’ve wanted to make for a long, long time.
I did want to make it for a long time. I hadn’t learned anything about it at school, which is extraordinary because it’s such an important piece of our history. We have the Mary Poppins view of it. Then I started to learn about the true story, the story we tell in the film. These women sacrificed so much: they were imprisoned, went on hunger strikes, were force-fed, faced great police brutality, and they turned to civil disobedience after 40 years of peaceful protests achieved nothing.
It felt like a story that was timely and needed to be resurrected because it’s so resonant with so much that’s going on in the world today. Globally, there are people fighting inequality. All the aspects of this story seem to have many, many echoes.
We debated for a long time whether to do a biopic of Emmeline Pankhurst, but there was something exciting about telling the story of an ordinary woman who had no platform and no sense of entitlement. She, in a way, had much more to lose than the middle-class and upper-class women. Maud [the lead character, played by Carey Mulligan] is a composite of many different working women.
The film takes place over a comparatively short period of time and it ends before women get the vote. Could you talk about the decision to focus on that moment, and to end when you did?
We chose to focus on 1912 and 1913 because it was a year where militancy was at its height and the government was at its most brutal. It felt like a year that summed up so much of what was key to the struggle and was also a year that felt most connected to what’s going on in the world today.
We chose to end it where we did because as with many political movements, it essentially ended in negotiation. We wanted to show the lengths to which the women went. We didn’t want to wrap it up neatly. We wanted to end on a moment that was profound.
Suffragette is a period film that intentionally doesn’t feel like a period film. Can you tell me about that?
We wanted to put you in the shoes of the women living then and allow you to see the world through their eyes. That, translated in filmmaking terms, meant having a handheld camera and giving a lot of freedom to the actors so there was fluidity and energy. These women were about “deeds not words,” so we wanted to have a lot of action in the film.
The production designer created these 360 degree sets so we you could look in any direction as much as possible, which is always hard with a period film because you can see modern buildings everywhere! And with the costume design and makeup, we tried to make it feel very real. It permeated the whole way we put together and shot the film and the acting as well.
In recent years, there’s been a more critical look at the American suffragist movement because it grew out of the abolition movement and then distanced itself from that to focus on voting rights for white women. Obviously, it’s a different history because this is about the British suffragette movement, but did you feel like you had to show a similar side?
It’s a very different story in the UK. In the UK, the brilliantly diverse ethnic makeup that we have today emerged primarily in the 1950s, and partially around the First and Second World War. If you look at 1912 Britain, you had tiny pockets of immigrants. [Writer] Abi Morgan and I, we made Brick Lane with a cast of people of color, and we’re particularly sensitive to that subject.
We scrutinized the written and photographic evidence and what we discovered was that, reflecting society in many ways, there were two women of color - in a movement of thousands of women - who were prominent in the movement and worked closely alongside Emmeline Pankhurst. They were both aristocrats, and they were both treated as aristocrats.
There’s one story of an aristocratic white woman called Lady Constance Lytton who was treated so differently for being an aristocrat - as was Sophia Duleep Singh, the Asian woman - that she disguised herself as a working woman to get equal movement. There is one photograph of a contingent of women from India in the coronation procession of 1911, which was before the film began, and it was a peaceful demonstration. Of course, there were many women in India fighting both to free India and for women’s rights. Around the world, there are so many stories to be told.
As you say, in the US, it was divisive and it’s a very complex chapter. There were many women of color who worked alongside white women, and there were many who were excluded. I understand the sensitivities around it, but it’s a very, very different story in the UK.
We don’t see many stories of working class suffragette women in the UK or the US - it’s seen as an upper-class movement, and it seems like it was so important to you that the film focus on the working class.
It was important. They’re in the shadows of the history books, and what was striking about this movement was that, despite this kind of class apartheid we had in Britain, this movement included all classes of women. These women had so much to lose and sacrificed so much and were at the vanguard of change. We felt that their story was fascinating and ought to be told.
One thing I noticed was that we see how the vote stands for so many other rights for Maud: custody rights, an equal wage.
To me, that was the biggest revelation in making this. I saw how important it is that today we use our vote. We’ve become very complacent about it and forgotten how hard fought it was and what it represents.
The minute we got the vote in Britain, the world changed for women: for the first time ever, they got parental rights, they could sit on juries, they could become solicitors, they weren’t sacked if they were pregnant or married. The world changes with representation. It didn’t go far enough, and we still have many battles to fight. We’ve got to stand up and be counted. Especially since it’s almost an election year in the States.
There’s been some press around Suffragette that is not the most positive, with Meryl Streep saying she’s not a feminist and the “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” shirts. Do you feel like this will affect how the movie is seen?
I think Meryl Streep’s actions really speak for themselves - she’s the most incredible advocate for women’s rights in the industry and beyond. What’s exciting about this film is that it is provoking discourse. Our intentions were to make a film that resonates with women - and not only women, but people - across cultures, across class, from all sorts of backgrounds.
It’s about inequality today and about how globally, all women are suffering and affected by it and how we must stand up and fight. I want the message to be very inclusive, and I passionately believe that we must have more diversity, not just in terms of gender but in all ways, behind the camera because films should reflect the society we live in.
Last question: Would you call yourself a feminist?
Definitely. I believe in equal rights.
Photo credit: Suffragette/Focus Features
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