Review: ‘Suffragette’ connects with modern issues

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) and Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), are two working-class women in “Suffragette” who join the suffrage movement. Although the film is set over a century ago, it connects to many modern issues. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features.)
Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) and Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), are two working-class women in “Suffragette” who join the suffrage movement. Although the film is set over a century ago, it connects to many modern issues. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features.)

Throughout the past 96 years since women have gained the right to vote, many young female voters have stopped caring about the political power their vote holds, and voter turnout has continued to decrease. According to the Census Bureau, 38 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the last presidential election. The low voter turnout reflects a population that has become ambivalent about the hard fought battle to gain the fundamental right that is the center of “Suffragette,” a historical drama film that was released earlier this week.

The film is set in East London  and follows a small group of women who are campaigning for their right to vote. But the issues that the film touches upon go deeper than just the suffragist movement and the fight for the vote.

The film reflects issues that were not only pertinent a century ago, but are still incredibly relevant today including sexual assault, domestic violence and wage discrimination. For instance, Maud, (Carey Mulligan) complains to her boss that she and her female coworkers do just as much, if not more, work than their male counterparts, yet are  paid significantly less.

Maud’s call for equality reflects a recent call made by Jennifer Lawrence in an essay for lennyletter.com, “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?” in which she calls out the wage gap in Hollywood. Even Meryl Streep, one of the stars of “Suffragette,” and who is widely regarded to be one of the greatest actresses of all time, said she is paid less than her male co-stars in an interview to BBC Radio 4 Today.

It’s not just celebrities who are paid unequally — women, on average, make 77 percent of what their male counterparts make, according to the Pew Research Center. And it is the average working-class women that the film focuses on, rather than the well-known, aristocratic leaders of the suffrage movement in Britain like Emmeline Pankhurst.

“When we think about the suffrage movement, we think about women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, in England it’s the Pankhursts,” Beth Kelly, a professor of women and gender studies at DePaul said. “In reality, the change is made by the people who are marching in the parades and collecting the signatures, and while leadership is important, so is the grassroots activism.”

The historical drama follows fictional working-class women and their increasing involvement in the suffrage movement, which resulted in arrests, prison sentences, hunger strikes and force-feeding. This led to the depiction of police brutality in the film, as the activists were beaten by the police whenever they organized, an issue still relevant today with Black Lives Matter, an activist movement campaigning against police brutality directed towards African-Americans

The connections to modern activist movements are what makes “Suffragette” a relevant film, although it is set over a century ago.

“I think all drama is about trying to extract the universal from the specific,” Alison Owen, one of the producers of “Suffragette” said. “This movie is on two levels. It’s about the events themselves, but it’s also a metaphorical statement of Black Lives Matter, of the Arab Spring, of anything you want to apply to it. We knew this story had a real resonance for women today and a lot of political movements today.”

“Suffragette” is another addition to the small, but growing collection of historical drama films that are about women including “Marie Antoinette” and “The Iron Lady.” The lack of women-centered historical films brings attention to the fact that women are normally a footnote in history — something the film attempts to change and bring to light through its gripping take on the historical events depicted.

“I didn’t learn about (suffragettes) at school at all,” Faye Ward, a producer of “Suffragette” said. “They were mentioned very briefly, in a sort of throwaway sentence.”

The lack of women’s history being taught is a commonality that both England and the United States deal with.

“Look at your average American high school history book,” Kelly said. “You’re lucky if you get one paragraph on women’s suffrage, and maybe a picture of the church where the Seneca Falls convention was held in 1848.”

Beyond the content of the film making an impact on women’s issues, the crew, comprised of mainly women, is a reflection of the growing diversity behind the camera.

“I’m very for promoting diversity behind the camera,” Sarah Gavron, the director of “Suffragette” said. “Ninety percent of films are directed by white, straight, educated men and we have to change that. We have to get people from all parts of society telling stories because that reflects the culture we live in.”

The culture that we live in is one in which women still face many issues, which “Suffragette” tackles — but there is hope for the future.

Ninety-six years after women gained the right to vote in the United States, two women are running for President.

“Support women who are running for office,” Kelly said. “This isn’t a Democrat or Republican thing. The more women we have making the rules, the easier it’s going to be to change the rules.”