The Carey Mulligan-starring historical drama “Suffragette” has already stirred up some controversy, thanks to star Meryl Streep (who plays pioneering women’s voting-rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst in the film) commenting on gender imbalance in film criticism, a contentious t-shirt-based marketing campaign and even a red carpet that was recently crashed by protesters at the BFI London Film Festival (via The Wrap).
But director Sarah Gavron is apparently ready to stand up to scrutiny, including questions surrounding the absence of women of color in the cast.
At a luncheon held in the film’s honor today at Tribeca restaurant Locanda Verde, Gavron, alongside screenwriter Abi Morgan, producer Alison Owen and activist Helen Pankhurst — Emmeline Pankhurst’s own great-granddaughter — participated in a half-hour chat about all aspects of the film, but the last question proved to be the most controversial. When asked by a member of the audience why the film didn’t feature women of color, Gavron explained that it was a matter of historical accuracy.
“We interrogated the writ and photographic evidence, and the truth is, it’s very, very different picture from the U.S. The U.S. had a lot of women of color involved in the movement, some who were excluded, some who weren’t excluded. But in the UK, it wasn’t like that, because we had pockets of immigration…it was later, around the war, around the fifties, that really the UK shifted and changed in a really wonderful way to produce what we have today,” Gavron said.
Gavron added that there wasn’t a complete absence of minorities involved in the UK movement. “At the time, there were these two prominent Asian aristocrats who were part of the movement,” she said. “Emmeline worked with Sophia Duleep Singh — she’s going to have a TV one-parter made about her, and she’s a fascinating character — but she was an aristocrat, and she was treated very differently from the working women. We really wanted to focus on the working women, and so that’s what we did. There were thousands of women in the movement, there were these two women of color.”
Although the film follows the women’s voting-rights movement in the UK that took place during the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, it is specifically focused on the years 1912 and 1913, when the Pankhurst-led Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) participating in more violent activities against the government.
“There was this one photograph of the 1911 coronation procession, before our film begins, where you’ve got a contingent of women from India, and there were of course lots of women fighting in India for women’s right and for free India,” Gavron said. “There were lots of women fighting around the world, and its subsequent movements in the UK when women of color became very prominent, but we were reflecting what was historically true at the time.”
Although the film doesn’t feature much racial diversity, it does offer compelling roles for both men and women, something that screenwriter Morgan thinks has already changed the way she writes her scripts. “It’s made me really interrogate the way I write, how often I ask women to take their clothes off instead of men,” said Morgan, who also wrote “The Iron Lady” and “Shame.” “Why do I cast a man in that role? Can I really interrogate that role and give it to a woman?”
“Suffragette” arrives in theaters on October 23.