Saturday, 24 October 2015

Why Hollywood does not understand 'the Suffragette

The film 'Suffragette' opened in this country to widespread acclaim. Despite however having Meryl Streep in it all for 90 seconds American audiences were to say the least sniffy.
Time magazine damned it with faint praise, drawing attention to the objections from Black activists that there were no black actors in the story and that the film relied on too many cliose-ups because it was a 'low budget' production.
If only Walt Disney studios had made the film,Victorian London would have been awash with singing cockney chimney sweeps,titled ladies in pearls with swishy satin dresses and probably dancing penguins too!
It is a remarkable film and should be shown in every school as a shot of reality.Indeed if I was programming British education I would team it as part of a double bill with Ken Loach's 'Spirit of 45'
In two films all you need to know about the last 100 odd years of British history- sorted!
I would have liked to have included 'Braveheart' too,but the presence of that Neanderthal Australian knobhead Mel Gibson sadly rules out William the Wallace s' story for the time being.
Some British critics have not been to kind either,although given one eminent 'critic' was Danny Finkelstein  his opinion is barely worth the paper it was printed on.
His thesis was that votes for women was not won by the suffragettes but rather by the patient work over half a century by respectable campaign groups like those led by Millicent Fawcett, and anyway it was World War 1 'wot won it'.
Of course there is some truth in both those claims, the patient tireless work of those predominantly middle class ladies was an important part of the battle for the vote and it is true to say that the war was a catalyst for change.
It's also true to say that the WPSU that Mrs Pankhurst and her family led had a large element of middle class ladies involved-the Pankhursts themselves,Richard her husband was a doctor in Manchester-and a socialist freethinker to boot,but what the WPSU did was to kick the issue of 'Votes for Women' right onto the front pages and into the faces of the Ministers in Westminster.
The film however highlighted the role of working class women in the struggle.
It has long been known that many working class women were involved,Mary Kenny and the Northern mill girls are frequently cited, but the film focussed on London's east End, and the main character Maud Watts, was a browbeaten laundress in a sweatshop laundry in Bethnal Green where she had laboured for a pittance since childhood.

The notion that there were no black actors involved and the description in the publicity that the women were 'slaves' seems to have upset black activists.I think that reaction is a pity for two reasons, firstly of course there were few black workers in the East End in 1912,there were of course some,mostly men who had arrived as merchant seamen, and more significantly it was perfectly correct to describe the women as slaves, they were in every sense 'wage slaves'and were every bit victims of the system as black men and women.
Solidarity in struggle must always be a two way street.
The other American criticism was that the film didn't have the sweep and grandeur of the blockbuster epic.
Thank Christ for that.Edwardian London was dark,claustrophobic,insanitary and raw.It wasn't the technicolour world of Downton Abbey.Watching it you could smell the streets,the washing hanging out to dry and the decay all around.
Atmospheric it certainly was.
The other feature of the film was the understanding that most men were not villains, apart from some of the MP's and the lecherous laundry owner.Maud's husband simply did not understand what was going on, he was hard-working,poor and somewhat dim.Today we call men like that 'Sun' readers.
The Scotland yard detective, an Irishman was a subtle creation, an early intelligence/surveillance officer it was a recognition that they often get things wrong (even today) and the fact that he was Irish was a nod to conspiracy theorists and of course their concerns then about the dangers of Fenianism.

I wonder what nationality they would make such a character today?

The timing of the release of this film is a brilliant piece of serendipity.In the week it came out the Labour party launched a campaign to ensure as many people as possible are registered to vote.The Tories have changed the rules and it seems likely that maybe a million people will lose their right to vote.
They want to speed up the process and get it dusted off as quickly as possible.
In any other place and time it would be called gerrymandering!

If you see no other film this year,go see Suffragette- there are horrors in in,like the force feeding regime in Holloway, but the most moving is the way the Metropolitan Police  break up the demonstration outside Parliament.
Direct action has always been the last resort of desperate people, the women in 1912 understood that,just as we a beginning to understand it again.
Everything changes-nothing changes!


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