'Suffragette' and 'Freeheld': Rights and Wrongs

Two new movies about the struggle for Women's Rights raise important questions. What are Civil Rights and how do they change over time? Who benefits from denying rights? What is the best way to secure rights?

"Suffragette" chronicles women's fight to secure the vote in early 20th Century Britain. Chief protagonist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has been a passive observer watching women vote organizers as she toils long hours at her laundry sweatshop. Moved by the discrimination and harsh conditions at her work, Watts is recruited to speak for Suffragettes before a Parliamentary committee. Committee members have indicated sympathy. But when it comes time to take action, the Members of Parliament - all men - refuse to endorse the women's cause.

Maud is spurred to action by this refusal. She is greatly aided by key organizer Edith Ellyn played by Helena Bonham Carter. Though Ellyn is a fictional character, Carter's actual great grandfather was former British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith (1908-1916) a staunch opponent of women's suffrage. Unlike his pro-suffragette great granddaughter, Asquith turned a deaf ear to suffragette protests. He was repeatedly verbally and physically attacked. The suffragettes smashed his carriages, brandished dog whips against him and even broke windows at the government headquarters at 10 Downing Street.

Frustrated by their government, women turned from peaceful protests and demonstration to more violent means. Shattered windows were succeeded by the use of explosives against the mail system and other targeted buildings. Understandably, working class women sought respite from their squalid factory conditions and slum housing.

But middle class women also, leaders of the movement Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and inspirational icon Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) were resigned to dramatic violent action.
Their efforts were suppressed by bosses, Members of Parliament and police agents like the conflicted Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson).

But the film fails to examine forces beyond the obvious patriarchy. Perhaps if it questioned the economic structure that nurtured patriarchy, it would find that the answers to inequality only begin at the ballot box. If it took street actions and violence to win the vote, how could they depend on the vote to secure further social change?

If such questions were beyond the film's scope, they were not lost on scores of modern demonstrators who showed up to smoke bomb and physically disrupt the Red Carpet Premiere in London to oppose government cuts to domestic violence services . . . cutbacks that disproportionately effected women of color, women largely unseen in the film itself. To their credit the actors applauded this real life drama, hoping that the film would inspire progress in women's rights.

Perhaps it is a measure of progress that the real life of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) depicted in "Freeheld" is more comfortable than that of Maud Watts. But even Hester's contemporary professional police officer cannot escape injustice. She administers the laws which discriminate against her. As a lesbian, her partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) is not eligible for her pension.

When Hester is diagnosed with cancer, she must struggle to win that pension for Andree so they don't lose their house. But the local government votes against Hester. Her fellow officers refuse to come to her aid. Only her intensely reasonable squad car partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) defends her.

Local struggle over rights spills onto a larger stage when Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the self promoting Chair of Garden State Equality gets involved. In a misstep that washes over the entire movie, Carell attermpts to channel Robin Williams, wresting control of scene after scene, in a loud, unflattering stereotypical performance that would seem to equally offend the Human Rights Campaign and the Anti-Defamation League. Spotlighted foreshadowing and one dimensional characters litter the landscape.
Only the sound, steady, professional performances from Moore, Page and Shannon barely rescue the film's propelling issues.

So in the end, neither the lifelessly predictable, well intentioned tear jerker "Freeheld," nor the stolid, socially freighted period piece "Suffragette" goes much further than description of the landscape. Raising questions is certainly a start. But film can and should take us to the next step: illustrating the forces that shape our world and suggesting ways to change.