Widows: Steve McQueen’s Heist Movie With Socio-Feminist Message, Starring Viola Davis

A 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 British Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “12 Years a Slave.” 

However, 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 are connected with 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.”

Though “12 Years a Slave” won an Oscar and “Shame” attracted awards buzz, but McQueen balks at any intimation that “Widows” is a glossier.   “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 premiere at Toronto Film Fest, which has hosted McQueen’s previous work.   The director appreciates the relaxed environment that characterizes the gathering:  “Toronto is all about that excitement of going to cinema, and it’s all about the audience.   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 1980s that has been transported to a U.S. setting.

Its central team of grieving widows and desperate women is racially diverse: Cynthia Erivo and Viola 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 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 debt left by their spouses, to be relatable.