The marketing for "Suffragette" has been a hot mess. Writer Abi Morgan told Variety that she "didn't set out to make a feminist film," Meryl Streep pulled some of that "actually, 'I'm a humanist'" nonsense and -- definitively worst of all -- the movie was promoted with T-shirts reading, "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave."
Basically, the publicity has been a heap of white feminism that was too scared to even call itself feminism. It's frustrating, if not just confusing, that an outwardly empowering film about women fighting for the right to vote would engage in such aggressive self-sabotage. But director Sarah Gavron is here to make things right.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Gavron explained her intentions for creating "Suffragette," acknowledged the backlash and clarified that she and her impressively female-centric team are 100 percent feminist -- whether they say so in interviews or not.
What drew you to direct "Suffragette"?
No one had ever made a movie of [the movement] and it seemed such an important part of our history. I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a big screen version of it. I hadn’t learned it in school. It’s just not widely known, because women’s history has been so marginalized over the years. It not only felt overdue as a story to be told by these women who had begun to change the course of history, but also it felt really timely in the way the story resonates with 21st century issues.
There's definitely been a rise of feminism in the mainstream, why do you think that is?
It’s interesting what’s happening at the moment and the new kind of activism. We’re reclaiming feminism, which is a word that -- certainly in my early career -- was dismissed, and that’s exciting. So, it’s entered the mainstream conversation in a really positive way. I hope it’s a recognition that gender equality is good for everyone and not just for women. It’s something we could all keep addressing.
How would you like "Suffragette" to add to that conversation?
I’d like [the audience] to take away two things. One, to remember how the right to vote was hard-fought. Two, to remember how recently we have gotten these rights, how precarious they are and also how important it is to use the vote ... You realize it’s important to stand up and be counted and have your voice heard. I hope people come away from the film empowered, willing to stand and fight the continuing inequalities in society.
I think this film will -- as it has in the U.K. -- provoke a dialogue that can be a kind of positive discourse about inequality and how to solve that.
Is Carey Mulligan's character Maud based on any specific woman in your research? Why did you choose to lead the film with her story?
She's composite of a number of different working women we read about. We wanted people to connect with her. We wanted the heart of the film to have a human story, to have someone who the audience could get inside the mind of and go on this emotional journey with. Abi really created her as the three-dimensional character we could believe in. But you can find several of her in the research. All of those women are out there once you look.
The supporting male characters are also quite three-dimensional, which is interesting since supporting female characters are so often used as plot devices.
We wanted to put women very much at the forefront of this story, but we also didn’t want to use the men as two-dimensional figures. They were complex characters, they weren’t just villains. There was a whole range of opinions. Some men, as reflected in the husband of Helena Bonham Carter’s character, supported the movement. Then you’ve got Sonny, Maud’s husband played by Ben Whishaw, who is struggling to understand the pressures. So, we wanted to show all of that.
But you still had a bit of trouble casting them?
It was interesting, we got all the women we wanted very quickly, but some agents were hesitant about the male roles. They’d say, “He’s just the husband, there isn’t very much for him to do.” It’s funny to hear that after all these years of women as supporting roles in film.
Abi Morgan told Variety she didn't set out to make a feminist film. Did you feel that way, too?
I saw that and I’m not quite sure what she meant by that! We set out to tell a human story, I think. We set out to tell this important piece of history in a way that everybody, we hoped, could connect with it. You know, women from all backgrounds across the world and also men, anyone who is fighting inequality, anyone involved in activism today ... So, that was one of the missions for it, but we are 100 percent feminist, Abi and I and the whole team.
Do you think there is hesitation to directly brand "Suffragette" with the word "feminism," from Abi or anyone involved in marketing the film?
Feminism has been around so long as a term, it’s got lots of variation, but I think ultimately what it means is equality between the sexes. So, I don’t see why there can be any resistance to that idea.
We recently had a screening in the U.K. where a man stood up and said, “I’m a feminist!” And I thought, “Yeah, of course, but you wouldn’t have that a few years ago." He wouldn’t have used that label. Now, it’s kind of being reappropriated. So, I think that maybe young people need to find their own word for it, perhaps to own it in the next generation. I think, if people know what it means, it should be a good, approachable term.
Right, but even a hero like Meryl Streep is saying she's a "humanist" now.
You know, if you look at what she does, she is such an ardent feminist. I’ve never met a woman like that. There are many people that campaign, but she really, truly is a feminist. She has also said that she's a feminist in interviews. So, I think what she meant is that she’s also a humanist.
OK, one more "what is going on with everyone besides you on this film?" question. What happened with the T-shirts?
I think it’s all about context. In the U.K., we had a very different movement. We had a very different makeup and a very different association, but I completely acknowledge the sentiment it received here. Anything that brings up a discourse about diversity in film, which is one of my passions, is a good thing. You know? We need to have those conversations.
Can you speak more to the idea of context and this specific moment in the early feminist movement?
The intention of the film was to make a film that related to all women everywhere. It’s set in this two-and-a-half mile radius in London in a very specific 16-month period, but it can speak to people everywhere. And the issue around women of color in it is really interesting and I think needs to be discussed.
Part of the response to the T-shirts may have been a reaction to this particular story being so white.
Right, I think it’s important to know that the U.K. movement was very different because we had a very different immigration pattern. Here you had many people of color and many women of color involved in the women’s movement at that time and some were excluded or forced to march at the back of the march. It was very divided from that period. But in the U.K. we only had tiny pockets of immigrants. We didn’t have women of color [in the film], but we did have two women who worked for the aristocrats.
Also, the first film I made was all people of color, there was not a single white person in it. It was “Brick Lane” and this is my second film. My mission in life is to put people you don’t normally see on screen on screen and also to put people behind the camera that you don’t necessarily have behind the camera. I hope that narrative doesn’t get divergent from the positive narrative of talking about inequality and how we can tackle that.
You've certainly made strides there with "Suffragette." It's easily one of the most female-centric films we've had this year.
This film redresses the balance in every respect. As we know, about one to 10 percent of films each year are directed by women, and it feels more like 99 percent by men. But in this film we had this incredible team: the writer, director, production designer, location manager, costume designer and all of these women in front of the camera. So, we were really doing something that broke the mold and that was exciting, but I think it’s really important that we keep talking about it.
It's exciting to me that this year the conversation has gathered proper momentum. It's partly because people are being vocal about it, partly because there are initiatives to challenge it. We’re aware that things are really shifting and this is just the beginning.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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