Steve McQueen isn’t afraid to defy expectations.
“Widows,” a labyrinthine heist story about a group of Chicago women who have to complete a robbery put in motion by their dead husbands, sounds like a departure for the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “12 Years a Slave” and “Hunger.” However, despite its thriller veneer, “Widows” is also concerned with poverty, prejudice, and power — issues that McQueen has addressed in previous films. It is as concerned with dramatizing the third-act caper as it is with examining how its characters criminality ties into larger urban corruption and exploitation.
“It’s a genre picture,” said McQueen. “I liked the idea of going into a genre, but still having social realism involved. Chicago had all the elements that I wanted to investigate, those of race, class, religion, policing… It’s such a fertile narrative environment. It has this criminality that goes all the way back to Al Capone.”
The film, with a script by “Gone Girl’s” Gillian Flynn and a cast of heavyweights that includes Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall, also seems more commercial than McQueen’s previous efforts. Though “12 Years a Slave” won an Oscar and “Shame” attracted awards buzz, McQueen’s efforts to plumb the murky depths of the soul can make for difficult viewing. But the director balks at any intimation that “Widows” is a glossier outing.
“I don’t understand why it would be more commercial,” said McQueen. “Commercial means that it’s going to be successful, and I don’t have any idea if that will happen. The only thing I can control is to make a good film.”
“Widows” will make its worldwide debut at the Toronto Film Festival. The annual celebration of cinema has hosted McQueen’s previous work and the director said he opted to have “Widows” unveiled in Canada because he appreciated the relaxed environment that characterizes the gathering.
“Toronto is all about that excitement of going to cinema, and it’s all about the audience,” said McQueen. “It’s not snobby, it’s not exclusive, it’s for the people who go and see movies and love them and pay for popcorn.”
“Widows” is based on a British mini-series from the 1980’s that has been transported to a U.S. setting. Its central team of grieving widows and desperate women is notable for being racially diverse — Cynthia Erivo and Davis are black, Michelle Rodriguez is Latina, and Elizabeth Debicki is caucasian. There are also meaty roles for actors of color such as Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya. Moreover, “Widows” is the rare major release to feature female heroines who get to carry the gun.
McQueen said he wasn’t interested in making a statement by shattering that particular glass ceiling. He just found the desperation of these women, who must scramble to pay back a debt left by their spouses, to be relatable.
“I wanted to see characters I know on screen,” said McQueen. “I wanted to investigate the emotional aspect of the situation.”
Davis’ role wasn’t written specifically for an actress of color, and McQueen said he met with several actresses of all different races. But there was something that kept bringing him back to Davis.
“I needed someone with gravitas, who you believe could get people to follow her,” said McQueen. “But I also needed someone who could convey a vulnerability to make the person human and not superhuman.”
With “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen became the first black filmmaker to win best picture. Since that time, Barry Jenkins also won best picture for “Moonlight” and films from other black directors such as “Black Panther” and “Girls Trip” have continued to show that race is not a barrier to big box office. Yet, studies show that there’s still ground to make up in terms of diversity on screen. For instance, of the 100 top grossing films of 2016, a quarter featured no black characters, 44 lacked Asian characters and 54 failed to feature any Hispanic or Latino characters, according to a study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
McQueen thinks that the conversation around representation is leading to some positive change. He’s particularly pleased that Toronto and the Sundance Film Festival have committed to increasing the accreditation of underrepresented journalists by 20%. That effort is part of a corrective to statistics that demonstrate that film criticism is dominated by white males.
“I’m a believer in good journalism and along with that should come a diverse array of voices,” said McQueen. “We need to encourage a multitude of perspectives.”