Steve McQueen’s Widows may be based on a 1980s TV show, but it feels really, really relevant in 2018.
When a Chicago gang’s robbery literally goes up in flames, their wives are not only left without their partners, they’re also saddled with the crew’s outstanding $2 million-dollar debt. Thrown into a complex web of crime woven by men, Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) join forces to plan their own heist to pay back the money, and in the process, buy themselves the freedom to build new lives. Given that this film is co-written by 12 Years a Slave’s McQueen and Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, you best believe that things get gritty—but at the same time, it serves as a reflection of the anxiety-inducing times women currently face.
I hear you thinking, Wait, are you saying that a film about losing your husband, being saddled with his debt to corrupt politicians and subsequently being forced to plan a v. dangerous robbery sounds… relatable? Don’t worry, this is not me divulging that I’ve left journalism for a life of crime. But doesn’t dealing with a life-altering blow and then joining forces with women who share that pain and have a common goal to make shit better feel all too real?
“These women are absolutely catapulted together in dire circumstances and I think it’s a terrific metaphor for how change happens. Because change happens when you’re forced into it, kicking and screaming, and these women are forced to take ownership of their lives,” Davis said during a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Widows premiered.
In Widows, that agency requires going up against powerful men—a familiar fight to our current climate (and tbh, all of history). In fact, Veronica, Alice and Linda are initially defined by the men that they’ve lost, positioning that is reminiscent of the fight for women’s ability to own property, particularly after their husbands have passed away. After becoming the titular widows, the fate of these women is seemingly dictated by corrupt male politicians, namely father-son duo Tom and Jack Mulligan (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell) and a new municipal candidate, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). While the film doesn’t make direct reference to the current political climate, these themes are top of mind given the real-life U.S. president bragging about sexually assaulting women, and defending those accused of similar conduct, and an Ontario premier who doesn’t believe consent needs to be part of sex-ed.
But what makes Widows feel particularly relevant is how Veronica, Alice, Linda and later Belle react—joining forces to combat a system built against them, much like how the Women’s March, MeToo and Time’s Up movements have aimed to join women of different socioeconomic, racial and cultural backgrounds in the fight for equality. The most inspiring part? Seeing those widows, who the men see as pawns, prove to be queens.
“It’s rare that we find a film or any entertainment that allows women to work together in their own individual ways,” Rivo said during the TIFF press conference. “Each one of these women has their own individual quirk, they’re all very different, and yet somehow they find connection with each other and they help each other take control of their own individual lives.”
And that’s exactly the moment we’re in. Women are marching, speaking out and taking control of narratives that have been controlled by white men for far too long. Just like these issues, the idea of a film about a dangerous heist isn’t all that new. But what Widows does so well is turn the perspective towards characters we never hear from. It brings men’s wives, girlfriends and partners out of supporting roles to give them their own stories, authentically. For instance, McQueen does not employ Harry Potter-esque filming tactics to make Debicki appear shorter, but instead allows her to stand at her full six-foot-three-inch height; his choice to allow these actors to be viewed as they are subtly challenges viewers to consider the homogeneity of the types of women we usually see on screen.
"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. We simply are a couple in love. I've never seen it before." pic.twitter.com/0vtaUM8338
— Diversity School (@DiverseSchool) November 10, 2018
Similarly, as Davis points out, the depiction of her marriage doesn’t include an overt political statement, but is nonetheless groundbreaking, simply because it hasn’t been seen before. “I’m dark, I’m 53, I’m in my natural hair [and] I’m in bed with Liam Neeson. And he’s not my slave owner. I’m not a prostitute. We simply are a couple in love,” she said in an interview with BBC.
Widows doesn’t try to fit women into the role of men (*ahem* House of Cards) or restrict them to supporting characters that routinely fail the Bechdel Test. That shift alone makes this a film unlike any heist movie I’ve seen before, one where the leads use sexist stereotypes to their advantage and childcare is taken into consideration during the planning scenes.
“The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off,” Davis says as Veronica, a quote that might as well be emblazoned on t-shirts for the next real-life rally. That line is punchy enough that it is featured in the film’s trailer, but the message that hit me in the heart while watching the movie—and sums up why a fictional crime thriller feels so real right now—is a single line from Alice. At one point, a rich older man offers to take care of her and give her a “nice life.”
“You say ‘life’ like it’s yours to offer,” she responds. “But it’s mine.”