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Interview: Suffragette Writer Abi Morgan


Playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan has steadily become one of the most critically acclaimed young writers from England. In 2013 she won an Emmy (her second nomination) for the series The Hour. She has been nominated for 6 BAFTAs and won two for White Girl and Sex Traffic. Along with series work in England, she wrote the screenplays for Shame (with Steve McQueen), The Iron Lady, and Brick Lane (with Laura Jones). Morgan partnered with Brick Lane’s director Sarah Gavron for the new film Suffragette, which costars The Iron Lady’s Meryl Streep and Shame’s Carey Mulligan. I spoke with Abi about the film (which took 6 years to get produced!), contemporary women’s rights, and the controversy surrounding Suffragette‘s marketing.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): I know that there has been a lot of discussion about this already, but I wanted to ask you about the quote from Emmeline Pankhurst that has caused so much controversy. The speech in the film is a composite of I believe three speeches she famously made, and the quote is in the film, but was also pulled out and used in the photos for Time Out London. What are your thoughts on the public debate we saw in the press and social media last week regarding using that one line to promote the film?

Abi Morgan: We primarily wanted to focus on working class women who were involved in the movement, because they were essentially voiceless at that time, because they were often illiterate and didn’t have the wealth and time to write the memoirs. Mrs. Pankhurst was very literate and wrote an incredible amount of speeches. And there was a sense with many of her speeches that they were rallying cries. The UK suffragette movement was very different from the US suffragette movement. And the rich and diverse UK we have now was very different from the UK from back then. We had very small waves of immigration, primarily right after the first and second World Wars, and then a larger wave in the 1950s. And so the film is dealing with a very specific period of time. That quote, in reference to that photograph, was taken out of context of the speech which is in the film. But we are so aware now of the sensitives of that quote in the US. And I think it is a really big and important discourse that has been brought up and I think it is important that we talk about it.

My first film with Sarah was Brick Lane, by Monica Alley, and that was of course a film entirely about women of color. But this film is different and focuses on a different time, and only looks at women within about a 2 1/2 mile radius of East London. So the most important thing is that the audience can truly see what our intentions for making this film are, which is to inspire women of all races, ethnicities, and classes, to fight against inequality on behalf of all women, globally, today. So the taking of that phrase and putting it on a t- shirt has become very distracting, but the conversations it is raising is also very, very important.

TMS: When Emmeline Pankhurst used ‘slave’ to describe the rights of women in that time, do you believe she was justified, considering the almost global lack of women’s rights that existed at that time period? And, even now, considering we still see countries which control the lives of women so completely, are you comfortable using the term to describe this need for global solidarity for the rights of all women?

Morgan: There are certainly still examples. We still have the Chibok Girls, who were taken by Boko Haram, who are still not free. Slavery probably is a good term to describe what those girls are going through. Girls who have been taken and traded. But the term certainly has very different connotations within the US, and of course within the US suffragette movement, which is something we have to be more aware in the UK. Making this film we were just very focused on our movement, which was more than anything about class, and one of the things we wanted to focus on was this incredible group of activists from several classes, some militant, some not. When the film opens, we make it clear that this is set after nearly 50 years of peaceful protest, and focuses on 18 months of militant protest in East London. So our primary goal was to look at this collision of class. Women were strategizing like an army and the hierarchy of women funding and making plans were upper class women like Emmeline Pankhurst, but the women who were the foot soldiers were the working class women. But everything which has happened over the past week has made us self-reflect on what the term really means.

TMS: I read that you originally considered writing the film from the perspective of a woman from a higher class, and ended up starting over and focusing on Maud (Carey Mulligan), who comes from essentially the lowest class who still made up these militant suffragettes. What made you change your mind while writing it?

Morgan: I think it was when I started to read the testimonials given at Parliament, shown in the midsection of the film. They were so heartbreaking, so vivid, and so contemporary, that what I realized was that many of these women had only their lives to lose. They were often abused at home and living and working in appalling conditions. And that is a very 21st century concern. Many poor women have to fight for custodial rights to their children and equal pay. And the fact that this film took us 6 years to get made, allowed us to get a sense of what global inequality means, with the rise of the digital age. So we wanted to focus on women with such limited options. If they were arrested, they didn’t have the money to pay their bail, so if they were incarcerated for a week, they likely would not be returning to their jobs. So it was important to look at the kind of jeopardy these women put themselves through.

TMS: Regarding making this film feel contemporary, were there things that you read about or saw in the news or media during that 6 year period you wanted to comment on in the film?

Morgan: In many ways, we didn’t have to because it was all there. We didn’t have to comment on anything directly, because it is all still right in front of us. I think we now live in a world in which we are increasingly aware of police surveillance, the use of torture, and human rights abuses. Around the world, 98% of those affected by workplace exploitation are women and children, so we inherently had points of reference and comparisons, and made this feel very resonant and we hoped that would be conveyed to our audience. But in a weird way, this film is an example of the manner in which history keeps repeating itself. And the discourse we’re having around the film feels as important as the film itself. Discourse is how we create equality. One of the things which occurred for the women in the film was the fact that women were constantly being ridiculed in the press and denied a voice. The film is about giving women a voice, and more than anything, I hope this is a film which will advocate for giving women, all women, all over the world, a voice. So if it has resonance for contemporary life, and all that really came from the source material.

TMS: There is a line in the film from Edith’s (Helena Bonham Carter) husband Hugh (Finbar Lynch) about the need for dissent and disagreements within the movement, which is a really thought-provoking idea you brought up. Where did that part of the script come from?

Morgan: We’re portraying a movement, splintering off from the majority. There was a very strong anti-militant sentiment within the suffragette movement, which included men and women. There were also schisms within the movement itself. So we wanted to embody many different voices. We have someone like Maud, a working class woman who goes from a place of denial into militant activism, but there is also someone like Violet [Anne-Marie Duff] who was so economically bound and oppressed by her life. She’s in an abusive marriage and constantly has to relocate because of her activism. And then there is an educated woman like Edith Ellyn, who is essentially more educated than her husband, and is the most ardent in her belief in militant activism, whose values are brought into perspective by Violet saying “you ask too much.” And her own husband says, “Your friends are there to keep the balance in check.” And we were just trying to look at the maelstrom which occurs when you are at the vanguard of change. Any movement about overthrowing an oppressive regime has moments of militant activism, but it also has voices of dissent. And those voices are just as essential. And that goes back to the discussion we are having now, when a film like this comes out. It’s about listening to people saying “oh, I didn’t think that” or “I thought this.” The whole point comes back to freedom of speech, which we have to advocate for as the film comes out.

TMS: With a character like Maud, a fictionalized character who is essentially a composite of many women who went unnamed in the movement, who mingles with specific, real women and is present at major, historically significant events, how did you balance where she would appear in the film so it doesn’t simply become a Forrest Gump character who is responsible for or a part of everything around her?

Morgan: That was actually one of the biggest questions we had when considering who we did and did not put in the movement. There are others who were very, very significant. Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence. There were two very high profile aristocratic women of color involved in the movement, Bhikaiji Cama and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. And certainly these were women who were highly regarded and would have worked with Emmeline Pankhurst. And I often found myself saying, “Can I bring in a bit of her?” But ultimately, even [the Mrs. Pankhurst role] became slimmer in the film, because my desire was to focus on those women who had not had a voice. Sarah and I both felt it was more important to make a film which would be accessible to women globally. So as we looked at this incredibly charismatic leader, who created this structure and was the vocal advocate for the movement, it became more important to give Maud balance. And the most important thing was to make certain we found a way to incorporate these five significant events in the movement, first how she collides with these moments in history and then how she would have journeyed into these events.

TMS: The issue of Maud’s parental rights are so important in the film and her character arc. What made you decide that Maud would have a son rather than a daughter?

Morgan: Because some of the best feminists I’ve met are men. It takes both men and women to move the discourse forward and bring about equality. And my initial thought was, “she must be a girl.” But I have a 13 year son and 11 year old daughter, both of whom came to see the film, and if feels important that both men and women see the film. But I also believe he will grow up to become a feminist himself.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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