Thursday, February 04, 2016
Suffragette: A theological film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor
Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for February 2016.
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor
Suffragette is compulsory viewing, a disturbing depiction of the power of patriarchy. The movie, directed by Sarah Gavron, is a fictionalised exploration of the fight for the right of women to vote in Great Britain. If follows Maud (Carey Mulligan), a working mother with a young child, who unexpectedly finds herself caught in a street protest. Amid, the shattered glass of a shop front window, she recognizes a fellow worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff.) Despite the protests of her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and threats from Polcie Inspector Steed (Brendan Glesson), she steps into the battle for justice. Forced out of home, imprisoned, brutally force-fed while on hunger strike, she embarks on an increasingly desperate quest for equality.
The movie is bleak, shot in tones of brown and drab. It is apt, given the film’s final statistics, which note the painfully slow journey toward equality. While New Zealand is a world leader, it was not until 1971 that women in Switzerland could vote.
Three places in Suffragette invite specific theological reflection. First, is the matter of unanswered prayer. The first time she is arrested, Maud’s son, George (Adam Dodd), prayed she would come home. Imprisoned for a week, his faith is shaken, both by Maud’s absence and the lack of answer to his prayers.
Second, is the ethics of protest. Are there any circumstances in which protest should become violent? This is the question around which Suffragette pivots. After years of protest through legal and political avenues, change has not occurred. The response of Suffragette is pragmatic. “It is deeds, not words, that will gain the vote.” Christian tradition has always been divided on the role of violence in the face of injustice. Martin Luther King said no, while Bonhoeffer gave his life as a yes. Historians still debate whether the violence of the women’s suffrage movement was justified. Despite the turn to violence in Suffragette, it was another sixteen years before women were given that vote.
Third, is the place of women in the church. Suffragette is set in England in 1912. Theologian Anne Phillips in her 2011 book, The Faith of Girls: Children’s Spirituality and Transition to Adulthood argues (nearly a century later) that the church remains church gender blind. Disturbed that it is mainly men that write about the faith development of women, Phillips talks to young woman about their faith. The experience helps her read the Bible afresh. She discovers richness in the vulnerability of Lo-ruhamah (Hosea 1), courage in the actions of Namaan’s slave girl (2 Kings 5(, faith in the slave girl in Philippi (Acts 16) and sacrifice on the part of the daughter of Jarius (Mark 5). Each are pre-pubsecent girls in whom the values of God are made visible. Hence Suffragette remains both a historic and a living challenge to the church. Will it value the spirituality of women? Or will it remain a place in which, to quote Inspector Steed, “their husbands deal with them”?
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: forthcoming) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.
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