What a Disservice to History to Reduce Great Moral Struggles to Cardboard Caricatures

In reading Richard Brady’s review of the movie “Suffragette” in the New Yorker, I thought of other historical movies about moral issues of great consequence: slavery, civil rights, voting rights. I thought especially of the civil war and how it can be over-simplified, and the moral issues presented as so stark as to reduce protagonists to cardboard caricatures.

Watching “Suffragette,” I sensed that the onesidedness of its argument was rooted in a different sort of fear—that of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, of passing ammunition across the lines of ongoing battles. It’s as if the very notion of a debate, implicit or explicit—even one in which reason is entirely on the side of the movie’s heroines—suggests that there’s another side to the conflict that’s even worthy of mention. It’s easy—too easy—for a movie about history to present the great changes of the past as the triumph of reason over unreason, without indicating the profound investment in tradition and continuity, and the fear of change, that even the beneficiaries of that change might feel. And this very fear of giving aid to defenders of injustice today has an aesthetic correlate—namely, a resistance to beauty: as if the free-spirited artistry that can find pleasure even in times and places of trouble were legitimizing the source of that trouble. That’s why “Suffragette,” like many contemporary movies on the subject of the advancement of just causes, is a comfort to its viewers, but not a tool; a gratification, but not a stimulus. It takes no risks and offers no challenge.

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