Steve McQueen’s action-packed thriller Widows, set in Chicago, is a feminist critique of contemporary action movies, putting women at the heart of the movie.
Opening London Film Festival, Widows is a heist movie with a big difference, it focuses on the wife of a gangster called, Veronica Rawlins played by Viola Davis. Her husband Harry is killed in the opening scene of the film, it is a heist gone wrong and Veronica has to come up with $2 million that Harry has stolen. She owes the money to a menacing gangster called Jamal and enlists two of the other widows whose husbands were killed in the heist to recover the money with her.
At first, it seems like McQueen is selling-out his infamous small-scale character dramas for a mainstream blockbuster movie, but this film is still aesthetically and stylistically McQueen. Widows is incredibly political, and I would argue, an understated exploration of grief and trauma, investigating how people cope under extreme pressures. In his previous movies, McQueen usually focuses on one person, but Widows is an ensemble drama. Although Viola Davis is the protagonist, the movie spends a considerable amount of time looking at the other widows and the political movements going on at the time.
As a piece of cinematic craft, McQueen utilizes everyday scenes of Chicago where every shot is vital and has fantastic meaning. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit’s camera is exquisite. In an extended shot, Jack Mulligan, one of the candidates for mayor, gets in a car and drives in real time from the slums of Chicago to the elite suburbs of the City. Bobbit intentionally focuses on the neighbourhood outside rather than the conversation within the car, giving the scene poignance and illustrating inequality; how wealth and poverty sit side by side. Indeed, McQueen and Bobbit’s accomplishment is how they successfully conjure a contemporary tale of class, political corruption, race and feminism. I haven’t seen a film like it.
What I love about this movie is the sheer variety of women completing the heist and how they come together as a nominal team. The way they work together is almost unbelievable, but they have never committed a crime before, so naturally, these women will struggle. My favourite scenes are when the widows have to figure out specific details of the heist, such as the blueprints of the building or figure out how to get guns. Even the physical differences, never mind the racial differences, of these women are highlighted, some of them are stout and strong, others are tall and fragile. The film plays on these beautifully.
Widows also centres around themes of class divide and in the US, where the film is set, class is inextricably linked to race. Jamal, played by Brian Tyree Henry, is clearly resentful of her and to him Veronica Rawlins represents what he aspires to, an upper, middle-class, happy life. But little does he know that Veronica has suffered a huge trauma in her past as a result of her being a black woman. These themes are entrenched in the film in an extremely clever and subtle way.
Viola Davis, who played the female lead told BBC News: “Here I am, I’m dark, I’m 53. I’m in my natural hair – I’m in bed with Liam Neeson. And he’s not my slave owner, I’m not a prostitute, it’s not trying to make any social or political statements. We simply are a couple in love. And what struck me about that is that in the narrative is that I’ve never seen it before.”
What has to be addressed is my favourite character, Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya and one of my favourite actors of all time. After his amazing performance in Get Out, in Widows he plays an evil, violent and malignant character and uses a completely different American accent seamlessly. A terrifying scene that stands out above the rest is where Jatemme questions two of his workers that have done wrong and after learning they are rap artists, forces them to rap before a quick and vicious murder. Kaluuya’s dead-pan face and harsh stare builds such tension that I was honestly intimidated just watching it.
Overall, Widows is an extremely progressive film, with subtle undertones of grief and trauma as well as a more covert message which emphasises the fractured nature of the world in which we live. For me, Widows is a breakthrough and true highlight of 2018.