Helen Carroll looks at how biopics such as Stonewall and Suffragette erase important characters from history.
Film is a great way to educate. It teaches us new ideas, tells stories, and gives us ways of looking at the world. Some movies move beyond telling fictional stories, choosing to tell a real story and a real part of history, particularly that which pertains to social development. The recent Stonewall movie about gay rights, and the Suffragette movie on women’s rights in Britain, are attempting to portray the struggle of oppressed categories of people in the terms of a biopic. While they both aim to highlight the oppression of a particular group of people, they seem to unfortunately fall short at the last hurdle: there are injustices in our social and legal structure that are not fully resolved even today, and the films only seem to perpetuate this injustice.
Both movies seem to have fallen victim to white-washing, which is completely missing the point of what these social movements actually stood for. The white, blonde, muscular protagonist of Stonewall ironically seems like an attempt by filmmakers to appeal to straight audiences. The trailers and promotional materials depict him throwing the first brick at the riots that would give birth to the gay rights movement. In reality, black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick. Considering how ground-breaking a historical moment this was, to replace the instigator of events with a generic white male lead is simply insulting.
Suffragette takes it a step further, leading the audience to believe that women of colour simply didn’t exist in London at the turn of the century. This is untrue, as people of colour were prominent figures in both social movements. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, for example, was an Indian woman who advocated heavily for the rights of women despite her father’s wishes. Her presence is noticeably absent from the film.
The struggle of women’s rights began at the turn of the century, which the movie depicts well. The character Violet, played by Anne-Marie Duff, works in a laundry factory. The actor has claimed that people of colour in particular were cast as laundry workers in order to note the struggle of these minorities and the roles they played in the women’s rights movements, yet none can be seen in the movie stills or trailers that were released. Why were so many extras in this film white despite the fact that London was a hub of diverse cultures in the early 20th century?
“Both movies seem to have fallen victim to white-washing, which is completely missing the point of what these social movements actually stood for.”
Stonewall has much the same problem, albeit thankfully to a lesser extent. There are a handful of black drag queens in one or two scenes in the trailer, but that is all. Once again, every lead character is white, and black characters or other minorities are whitewashed. This movie in particular could have broken so many boundaries, and this is particularly upsetting as it is difficult for gay characters, particularly non-white gay characters, to break into the mainstream. It seems to have attempted to break the boundaries in a stifled way by casting a main protagonist that could not be more typical of blockbuster film.
These movies have been described as an attempt to dramatise important social changes in modern history, leaving them feeling almost like an expensive soap opera. It is always going to be difficult to push the boundaries for movies with a political undertone such as this, but by doing it in such a weak way, it leaves you feeling a little heartbroken. Stonewall was the birth of the LGBT community’s refusal to sit back and be oppressed anymore, and it led to the very first ever Gay Pride Festival which continues in many countries to this day. The suffragettes were beaten, abused and disowned by family and friends, yet secured the vote for women, albeit in limited circumstances that would be expanded upon in later years.
There is also the problem of inaccurate historical depictions, the most poignant one being that at the end of Suffragette, a message explains to the audience that all women secured the vote in 1920. This is not only inaccurate as only white women secured it, it also shows how certain aspects of history can be completely glossed over in order to keep that warm fuzzy feeling so no one leaves the cinema upset or feeling the sense of injustice that these women suffered. Stonewall goes even further, making it a sort of coming-of-age story about an attractive yet oppressed guy who moves to a new city from his sleepy countryside town to learn that they are more open here than back home. It all seems a bit like it’s been done before, but his sexuality seems to be only put in as an added note, almost a minor twist to the typical protagonist story.
The social ideas both movies attempt to portray are extremely important to many people. Stonewall is known as the birth of the gay rights struggle and without it there may never have been such a thing as gay pride or even pride parades and festivals. We may never have had the catalyst of police violence and brutality to make us rethink our world view and realise that being gay is okay. Without women campaigning at the turn of the century, we may never have stopped to consider that women should be allowed to vote. These are important movements for our modern history and so the movies will undoubtedly be under close scrutiny, but it seems that they know this and chose to hold back and stick to the status quo, so as not to offend.