“Widows” is an adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s 1983 mini-series, and is anything, but a typical heist film.
It doesn’t have the slick style or flippant humor of the “Ocean’s” franchise nor the star power and fiery action of “Heat”. But like Steve McQueen’s previous films, “Widows” tackles serious universal themes, including love and loss.
However, it’s his subtle handling of race and gender that stays with you after the movie ends.
#Widows showcases Steve McQueen's ability to tell us so much about a character by showing us so little: "It’s Tai chi filmmaking – using the audience to help me finish that narrative because they know often what that’s about.” https://t.co/ZPcH3XgIE7 pic.twitter.com/l48vcTmlSN
— IndieWire (@IndieWire) November 21, 2018
When Veronica’s (Viola Davis) husband, Harry (Liam Neeson) and his crew are killed in a botched job, she gathers the crew’s widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), to pull off Harry’s next job in order to pay back the debt left behind by his death. It’s a seemingly simple premise.
However, there are multiple plot lines that arise as Veronica isn’t the only one affected by Harry’s death. The movie weaves in communal aspects of southside Chicago, including a shaky political dynasty established by Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) and his son, Jack (Colin Farrell), and a crime family, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya), who are challenging the Mulligans for political office.
McQueen uses these plot lines to weave in how race and gender impact socio-political power.
These themes are alluded to throughout the film. Harry and Veronica had a son, who is later revealed to have been a fatal victim of a police shooting. Alice’s husband is shown to be physically abusive and after his death, she resorts to prostituting herself to make ends meet.
Linda’s husband gambled away all of their money when she thought it was being put toward her store. Belle (Cynthia Erivo), Alice’s babysitter, is a single mother, who works two jobs, and barely has enough time to see her own daughter.
All of these women are impacted by the absence of men, who had provided financially, and are left seemingly powerless.
The women need to figure out how to be “like men” in order to pull off the job. All the men in the film are antagonists, and are fighting against one another for power.
It’s hard to deny that race doesn’t play a big part in that dynamic. The Mulligans and the Mannings are wealthy although through slightly different means. The former are corrupt, white politicians, who have embezzled government funds, while the latter are black men, who have profited off of crime.
Financial security is the only way to gain socio-political power, so McQueen calls attention to how this power is unfairly embedded in race and gender.
— Variety (@Variety) November 23, 2018
Veronica states she never thought she would marry a white man and later tells her crew that no one expects them to pull off the heist because they don’t have “the balls”. Veronica’s marriage with a white man didn’t stop her son from being a victim of police violence. Alice’s and Linda’s lack of agency against their husbands when they were alive cost them.
The awareness of race in the Mulligan and Manning family are more apparent. Jack Mulligan asks his assistant if she’s “slept with a black guy” and when Tom Mulligan talks to his son, he uses racist ideology to justify their political dynasty and why Jack needs to beat Manning.
Even actions relay assumptions about gender. When Jatemme steals the money from the women after the heist, he doesn’t kill them. He merely takes the money and van. While he’s distracted by his brother’s debate on the radio, he doesn’t see the women speeding up behind him.
Jatemme took the power away from Veronica, Alice, Linda, and Belle, and they took it back.
In a scene where Veronica, wearing a white suit jacket, takes a seat in Mulligan’s lobby next to an Asian woman, who is wearing a similar white suit jacket. The Asian woman appears uncomfortable and is later revealed to be Tom Mulligan’s assistant. She has no lines in the film and when she sees the heist in motion, she stays behind closed doors.
As an Asian-American, I was reminded of how white supremacists fetishize Asian women and portray Asians as “model minorities” to wedge the racial divide between POC even further in order to maintain power. I wondered if this was a commentary on the complicated racial and gender dynamics in America.
All from a heist movie.
— Viola Davis (@violadavis) December 4, 2018
That’s where the genius of McQueen shines because he knew the audience’s racial assumptions and prejudices would bubble up to the surface as we watched the film and long after the film ended.
“Widows” is about how power is unfairly distributed through race and gender, and how we need to steal it back.
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Written in VA. An MFA graduate in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.