Let’s get this out of the way: Meryl Streep has one scene in Suffragette, and her screen time amounts to five minutes, if that. Considering that Streep is among the top-billed and pictured in almost all of the promotional materials, the effect is more than just misleading, as many outlets have already purported. In fact, it could be said, without hyperbole, that Streep’s pop-up appearance in Suffragette is one of the most glorified cameos of all time.
“They say she’s to speak,” whispers devoted suffragette Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) to hesitant new member Maud (Carey Mulligan), as they hasten to attend a rally where suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep) is expected to come out of hiding to address her followers. Indeed, Pankhurst strides onto the balcony and delivers a rousing speech, which closes on the tone-deaf line, “I would rather be a rebel than a slave!” as the London police flood into the street below. Pankhurst flees in a town car, but not before having a little moment with Maud at the car window, telling her to “Never surrender. Never give up the fight.” Pankhurst escapes, never to be seen in the film again, while Maud and her friends are arrested and thrown in jail. Um, what is that bullshit?
Something else that must be said, because it is so egregious: There are no black people in this movie. None. And the fact that the film is set in Edwardian England is no excuse for the omission. There were plenty of black people living in London and other cities like Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool in 1912; their stories, apparently, just didn’t matter as much to the people who made Suffragette.
And here is where the problem of white feminism comes into play. The film has already received some blowback from a Time Out London photo shoot in which its stars wear T-shirts emblazoned with Streep’s “slave” line, the terrible irony of it being what the film chooses not to address: that the early suffragette movement was overtly racist. With so many fictional characters mixed in with historical ones like Pankhurst, the filmmakers could have equitably shown some cracks in the system, such as having one character discuss how black women are not welcome to join the fight, and having the fictional character of Maud, perhaps, confront that notion. Or they could have shown an actual black person; that would have been even better. But instead, the issue is tidily ignored.
Class is an underlying theme of Suffragette, however, as it is implied that a wealthy and well-connected woman like Alice (Romola Garai) can afford to give more of herself to the movement than a poor woman who works day in and day out at a laundry, like Violet, Maud, and many others. While that subject could have been made more explicit — like how many of the early suffragettes only wanted the vote to go to upper-class white women, not all women, and certainly not black women — the horrors of being a poor women at that time are shown, often in graphic detail. Also examined is the dynamic between husband and wife and the “shame” that a suffragette brings upon the man (or men) to whom she is supposed to obey. As Maud’s husband Sonny, Ben Winshaw — whom you might recognize as Q from the new slate of James Bond films — is excellent at toeing the line, of somehow not being a monster while also denying any part of himself that would allow his wife autonomy.
And yet, there is the quandary of Maud. You want to like Mulligan, with her sad, cherubic face, adorable son (Adam Michael Shaw), and makeup-ed web of scars covering her left arm from shoulder to wrist. But Maud is an obvious manipulation, a screenwriter’s rendering of the most sympathetic of suffragettes for audiences to invest in and applaud. She is the perfect stock waif turned vigilante, written expressly to generate the maximum emotional response from the events that surround and invade her; because that’s easier, perhaps, than tinkering with the story of a person who actually lived. She’s got some great lines, like “War is the only language men listen to” and “We’re half of the human race; you can’t stop us,” but not for a second did I believe that Maud, and not a Hollywood screenwriter, was the one speaking them. With no slight to Mulligan’s performance, which is as good as we have come to expect from her, the character never feels authentic. She is fleshed out on paper, given a horrific backstory and a cause worth fighting for, but we can still see the strings.
Meanwhile, most of the other characters are half-baked, with the exception of Winshaw’s Sonny and Duff’s Violet. The second-billed Helena Bonham Carter is a treat as always, every line delivered with a little flick of idiosyncrasy, but her character — based on real-life suffragette Edith Bessie New — lacks the luster of the actress playing her. Another important, real-life person, Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), is given too little personality or screen time to strongly register as the heart of the movement’s rallying cry towards the end. And we learn next to nothing about the movement’s leader. How did Pankhurst feel when her calls for radicalism resulted in tragedy? What was her story? What were her flaws? The film declines to tell us, deciding instead to present Pankhurst as more of an elusive Messiah figure than a real woman amongst women. Streep, wasted in this cameo, could have given us so much more.
In fact, the more that this critic thinks about Suffragette — a film which specifically targets her highly marketable demographic of young, white feminists to inspire — the more the memory of it sours. Though an earnest effort by British director Sarah Gavron, Suffragette falls short on inclusivity and depicting flaws within the movement, of which there were many. The women represented here are brave and often awe-inspiring, but the film could have been much braver.