Several days ago, an article entitled “Why I Won’t Write a Review of Suffragette” wandered across one of my many social media news feeds. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, or how to justify those feelings. So I’m going to write about it.
The article is short and should be read in its entirety, because the writer Ijeomo Oluo makes a very clear and compelling point. There have already been numerous discussions about Suffragette and its lack of PoC representation; by all accounts (and I’ve yet to see the film) the film is overwhelmingly white. The director Sarah Gavron has attempted to justify this choice, but her reasons don’t entirely ring true, because there were women of color involved in the suffragette movement, and there’s no reason why those women shouldn’t be represented. In fact, it’s important to acknowledge both the women of color who worked for women’s suffrage as well as the very racist underpinnings of many leading suffragists. I’m sympathetic to Oluo’s objections to the film, and to her annoyance with Gavron’s explanations. What I’m not sympathetic to is her unwillingness to actually take a critical look at the film itself.
The article, well written as an editorial perspective, tells me very little about the problems of the film. It presents no plot summary, no examination of the film – it’s not, as Oluo makes clear in the first paragraph, a review. She’s refused to write the review, instead presenting a perfectly justifiable but biased perspective on a film that most of us have not yet seen and then telling us that if we do see the film, we are legitimizing a racist narrative. Yet I know nothing about the narrative. Did she have a problem with the film as a film? How did the film present the suffragette movement in Britain? Did it grapple with any PoC issues at all, or did it completely ignore them? What does the film mean in the history of feminism, a history that is currently being discussed and debated at length? Is it entirely whitewashing or is there anything to be salvaged from this?
I have other problems with the article – the writer’s insistence that the filmmakers are being insensitive to African slavery, for instance – but the main one is that a critic has taken it upon herself to write an opinion piece in place of criticism. She says that she’s declining to “legitimize” a film that ignores the suffering of women of color – but the reader has no way of knowing what that means. Should we therefore ignore the progress made by women like Emmeline Pankhurst, the importance of women’s suffrage? I have no way of knowing if I might have a problem with Suffragette because this writer refuses to present the perspective of a woman of color on the film. Instead, she offers an angry response to the behavior of the director and the cast, and a dismissive single sentence about the quality of the film. This is not criticism.
I have serious problems with James Bond, but would I therefore refuse to review Spectre because I think Ian Fleming is a misogynist pig? No. I would review Spectre as a way of explaining and developing my perspective. Oluo has failed to do the fundamental job of the critic: criticize the film. Did Laura Mulvey refuse to review Vertigo because she thought Hitchcock presented a sexist perspective? Has any critic declined to discuss the plot of Birth of a Nation because it’s racist? No, because in order to support those comments about those films, you have to be willing to engage with the film on its own terms. But she hasn’t criticized the film or engaged with it or allowed her reader to understand it. The polarizing attitude of her article means that the reader must either agree with the author entirely – without, by the way, actually experiencing the film at all – or be working against equality.
Oluo’s article makes me want to see the movie and decide for myself. It presents no argument for me to not see the film because it presents no concrete reasons why the film itself is problematic. I have no idea of the plot or of the presentation. I’m sure that Oluo would argue that I am legitimizing Suffragette by going to see it, but guess what? If she’d done her job and reviewed the damn movie, maybe I wouldn’t! Maybe the force of her arguments, based on evidence, would convince me that this is not a film I should give my money to (much like Stonewall, which critics lambasted by criticizing it). But she’s made no arguments, instead making a disingenuous statement that we must either agree with her perspective based on no evidence from the film, or be labeled racists for choosing to decide for ourselves. Her arguments carry no weight because there is no review of the film to support them – where is the evidence? Where is the analysis? What is Suffragette even about? So now, I have to go see Suffragette. Maybe later I’ll write a review.