Understanding ‘Suffragette’ better through song

Appreciating messages in other times and beats

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts in “Suffragette”; Rating: PG-13 Grade: B

Following the preview audience screening of “Suffragette” I attended, I found myself driving around town, between appointments with an iTunes playlist cued to shuffle, and two songs that on the surface would seem to have very little in common with director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan’s film triggered a very weird and intriguing association for me, about what “Suffragette” could have been.

I may have been prejudiced to the narrative, in that it presents the very real-life drama of a collection of women, fed up with second-class status, giving voice to their frustrations, and ultimately resorting to calculated acts of aggression when the patriarchal system ignores their more non-violent calls for the right to vote and equal pay, through the perspective of a character named Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) who is, at best, a composite of women suffering under the sometimes mild (and other times abusively cruel) dictatorship of men. The problem with Maud is that, at worst, she is a wholly fictitious creation, when she needn’t have been.

“Suffragette” stumbles out of the gate with a plea for women to come forward, to share their personal stories of abuse and/or general (unthinking) mistreatment at the hands of the system. It should not have been difficult to find testaments from real women, the real Maud Watts out there, to serve as the basis for Mulligan’s character, even finding ties to one such Everywoman that could have been linked to the larger, more significant figures in the movement like Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a glorified cameo seeking to gain traction by the very fact of enlisting Streep).

My iTunes double play kicked off with the track “Dilly Dally” from the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, a jazz-infused hip-hop collective settling into a deeply contemplative Rastafarian groove and spoken-word lamentation about the daily struggles of living on the marginalized edges of society. “I rise each day/to yet another shock/from this alarm clock culture,” the lyric begins, intoning a litany of indignities quietly accepted by the working class, the working poor and the dispossessed without a voice or vote in society.

Although this thoroughly modern song is set in America (New York), it is not hard to draw comparisons to London’s East End, a century ago, and its women like Maud Watts toiling away in insufferable conditions in laundries. Women who watched silently as their men, barely treated better themselves, held their heads high and scoffed at the notion that women should be allowed to vote. Those women had every reason to wonder about the elusive vote, much like the narrator of “Dilly Dally” who concludes, “It’s hard to love the fruit/when I never get to climb the tree.”

“Much has changed” is a familiar refrain from those in society who have never had to live without privilege, for whatever reason. Much has changed, they say, expecting the downtrodden to gratefully agree, to offer thanks for table scraps.

That second completely different track which followed was “Change it All” from the R&B singer Goapele. More melancholy than the darker and quite cynical “Dilly Dally,” there is still a role-call of societal ills—fewer public libraries, teachers working for free, small businesses closing—“because there’s not enough,” Goapele tells us. She’s asking us if we see the state of things; she’s begging us to open our eyes to see it, to start sorting it out, because there are those of us who live in comfort, capable of doing something about the situation. We don’t have to sit around, “waiting, restlessly, for the words to a song, to change it all.”

“Suffragette” captured a world before contemporary luxury was more widespread, before changing laws, before advances in science made it so that we weren’t merely fighting to stay alive in the face of disease and common ailments, before people sat around imagining that the words of a song could make a difference or before a critic, like myself, could bemoan the idea that a fictional composite shouldn’t have to represent a generation of real women.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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