We saw Suffragette last night. I found it a pretty good political flick. Its most brilliant choice was to focus on a prole, the laundry worker played by Carey Mulligan. The word about this movie and the way it is being advertised has created a faux controversy. Apparently, publicity pics show the Mulligan, Meryl Streep and some other stars of the film wearing tee shirts across which is emblazoned the slogan, I’d rather rebel than die a slave, a phrase from a Pankhurst speech featured in the film. This turns the film’s sympathy for attacks on property into a slogan no better nor worse than I’m with stupid. In other words, activism becomes consumerism, and consumerism is then considered from the standpoint of whether it sets off twitter storms of offended comments.
This is too bad. The film is all white, as has been pointed out; what hasn’t been pointed out is that the all white movement appropriated strategies from the anarchists and from a long line of labour protest going back to the Luddites. Personally, I think there is material here for the black lives matter movement – the shattering of windows in zones of luxury consumerism Instead of the uplifting but empty slogan that the movie is marketing, I prefer Emmeline Pankhurst’s line: ‘The argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics’. The current disposition allows people to go out in the street with signs, as long as the police approve, but would jail any leader who went around saying such things now as a terrorist.
Many reviews I have read of the film – including an astonishingly tone deaf one in the New Yorker by Richard Brody – have gone at it with how the story of the Suffragettes should have been told. As with Selma (or War and Peace, for that matter), some material must be left out, and others must be turned and shaped by the the dynamics of the story. Myself, I was dissatisfied with two points: one was the depiction of the laundry factory as a world of silent passivity. Have I been mislead by L’assomoir, or did the film substitute an isolation tank for a much less respectable, more raucous, more resistant scene? And my second bone to pick was the dialogue around “telling the king” that Pankhurst was in danger from her fasting – I didn’t think it plausible that this servile idea would have been born in the brain of the working class Carey Mulligan character.
I went back and tried to look up some of the history that the film covers. I didn’t know it. History is, as always, messy. The Emmeline Pankhurst of the movie, who welcomes the support of all women, does not exactly correspond to the Pankurst of history, who seemed, at least in the time frame of the movie, to agree with her daughter, Christabel, who actively opposed giving working class women the vote, and felt so strongly about this that she split the movement. Her sister, Sylvia, took the opposite, radical side. At the same time, perhaps because of Christabel’s class arrogance, she was not afraid of radical action. I came across Christabel Pankhurst’s leaflet, Window Breaking: to one who has suffered, and I liked it. I thought about what we would think if this were a contemporary leaflet from a Palestinian on the West Bank, or an African-American activist in Ferguson, Missouri. Some controversy has whirled around the lack of people of color in the movie, Suffragette, but to my mind, what is missing is that the kinds of weapons used by the oppressed today are condemned by the people of whiteness in positions of power when those same weapons were used, at one time, by the people of whiteness in positions of social weakness.
Here’s the beginning of the leaflet.
“Dear Sir, You, a prosperous shopkeeper, have had your windows broken and your business interfered with, you are very angry about it, and no wonder. But you are angry with the wrong people. You are angry with the women who broke you windows, whereas you ought really to be angry with the people who drove them to it. Those people are the members of the present Government.”
In an unpublished fragment found by Sylvia Pankhurst’s biographer, Mary Davis, Sylvia is frank about both her opposition to her sister’s views and tactics and her unwillingness to oppose them in public to avoid splitting the movement. “My sister… declared that, without an element of real terrorism, the Government would never grant women the franchise.”
Put that on a tee shirt or twitter it and see what happens.