November 8, 2015

Suffragette and Stonewall: Hollywood’s Whitewashing of History

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It’s no secret that the movie industry has a diversity problem. In 2014, only 17 percent of the top 100 films featured non-white leads, and only 12 percent featured female protagonists. In the same group of films, there were just 19 queer characters with speaking roles out of 4,610 total characters, and zero of them were trans. The lack of diverse casts isn’t that surprising when you consider that there is even less diversity among filmmakers.



So this notorious lack of representation in film makes it all the worse when films depicting actual, historical events fail to give credit to the people of color who participated. The recently released movies Suffragette and Stonewall — movies about events in the women’s and LGBT liberation movements respectively — both faced controversy for their whitewashing of important movements for social change.

Suffragette focuses on the early fight for women’s rights in Britain, following the stories of the working class women who fought against the British government for suffrage and the intense brutality they faced. As part of the film’s publicity campaign, four of the actresses wore t-shirts with the words: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” While the logo was a real quote by famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep, this evocation of slavery by white women came across as tone-deaf and racially insensitive — especially because there are virtually no women of color in the film.

Director Sarah Gavron explained the movie’s lack of diversity by saying that women of color were not involved in Britain’s suffragette movement like they were in the US: “When you look at the UK in 1912, unlike the US, we didn’t have immigration on the same scale. In the US, there were many women of color involved in the movement, and also many excluded. In the UK, the issue at the time was class, not race.” She added, “there were two Asian women who were involved in the movement and they were both aristocrats, who were treated very differently. But we were looking at working women, so they didn’t enter our story.”

While Gavron’s focus on the intersections of class with the British feminist movement is commendable, the film still managed to include a nod the white aristocratic activist Emmeline Pankhurst, but it did not make reference to the famous Indian suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh, with whom Pankhurst worked closely. Photographic evidence also shows that there were other Indian suffragettes in Britain, and they did not appear even in the background of the film. There are always going to be too many stories to tell in one movie, but it is hard to stomach a film that purports to be feminist, but does not depict a single person of color.

Stonewall is another movie that has faced great controversy for its egregious whitewashing. The Stonewall riots — violent demonstrations for LGBT liberation known to have been incited by trans women, drag queens, lesbians and people of color — have been earmarked as some of the most important moments in the early gay liberation movement. A lot of people were probably excited when they found out that a movie was in the works depicting this important event, especially given the aforementioned lack of representation of LGBT people in mainstream movies. But any excitement was promptly crushed upon the release of the trailer, which showed that the protagonist was a fictional white, cis, gay male — traditionally handsome and an Indiana-born NYC-outsider — who personally started the riots by throwing the first brick. All gender-nonconforming, women and people of color characters in the film were, inaccurately, reduced to the background as support for the invented white male protagonist around whom the whole movie revolves.

When asked to respond to the accusations of whitewashing the story around the riots, director Roland Emmerich claimed that he had to make the protagonist digestible for straight audiences: “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him,” he told Buzzfeed. Catering to the straight, white, male audience that (supposedly) would not accept a version of history that did not revolve entirely around a “straight-acting” white male is a gross betrayal of both history and the community that the movie was meant to depict. Stonewall karmically bombed at both the box office and in its critical reception.

While it is disheartening that these two new movies depicting the histories of women and LGBT people are tainted by whitewashing and cis-washing, the backlash they’ve faced at least shows that we’re talking about the lack of diversity in film — and it’s a very important conversation to have if we want directors to recognize that their audiences are demanding more representation. And more diversity behind the scenes of films is essential for avoiding problematic portrayals and increasing representation in the stories filmmakers choose to tell.