In Steve McQueen’s latest film “Widows” a priest asks his congregation “What has happened in the world that normal now passes as excellence? When did we lower our standards?” It’s a question that soon after walking out of an early screening for the film had me thinking, not only about the lowered standards by which we uphold our current politicians, but also about the types of films that have snuck by on their overblown tropes that boast of “heist-ness” but never truly nail the genre down.
If “Ocean’s 8” is the white feminist version of a heist film, “Widows” is a paragon of the heist film.
CREDIT: Widows” / 20th Century Fox
Unlike female-takeover films as of late, which have largely failed to reckon the industry’s race imbalance, Widows is a film that takes its female leads, ensures that they are of different colors and ethnicities, and notices them for their circumstances before they pull triggers and blow up safes. Here, the main characters show their audience the repercussions of their being Black in a Black Lives Matter era, of being a Latina in a country cold to their existence, and being a white in a world where certain privileges are conferred.
“Widows”, co-written by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, hammers out a league of female characters forced to clean up the mess of their deceitful husbands who never really did well to take care of them as partners in the first place. Veronica’s (Viola Davis) husband is neglectful, Linda’s (Michelle Rodrigeuz) squanders her earnings from her small business on gambling, and Alice’s (Elizabeth Debecki) beats her.
After their spouses are killed in a high-stakes heist gone wrong, Veronica (a woman who lives in unrelatable wealth in a Chicago high-rise thanks to her husband Harry’s –Liam Neeson– dirty biddings) finds that he has left behind an impossible debt. In his most recent robbery, Harry and his deceased accomplices stole $2 million from a local crime boss turned politician all of which was blown up in the explosive fire that also killed them. At the start of the film, the ruthless crime boss comes to Veronica’s door to collect and gives her one month to deliver. With a looming and severe deadline to come up with the money coupled with a notebook left behind by her husband that points to $5 million stashed away in the household of the crime boss’s corrupted political appointment, Veronica goes out on a mission. She starts by recruiting the other widows Linda and Alice with the threat of exposing them to the crime boss if they do not help her and an incentive to split up the remaining $3 million amongst themselves. Belle (Cynthia Ervio) joins the crew in an essential role soon after the crew develops their plan.
Like the best of films, the heist at the center of this one doesn’t just get the job done it searches for truths.
CREDIT: “Widows” / 20th Century Fox
Crawling into the darkest corners of deceivingly polished settings, “Widows” exposes the most nefarious and sinister aspects of its traits for what they are before allowing them to skitter away back into their dank and corrupted crevices and continue to slither along. It dives into the repercussions of police brutality, forces you to observe the glaring bruises of domestic abuse, and most memorably encourages you to take a closer look at and scrutinize the true intentions of our political leaders. Where does all of our money go exactly?
“Widows” is smarter, more contemplative and purposeful than any other heist movie the film screen has seen in a while. Where typical heist films promise characters the ultimate shortcut to their biggest dreams, “Widows” offers its main characters an opportunity to obtain something firm that we all have a right to, one that women have strived for in a male-dominated sphere for centuries: autonomy of self. With her earning’s from the heist, Veronica can maintain an independent life her husband had never truly afforded her, Linda can buy back the business she’d lost after her husband squandered her earnings and died, and Alice can live a life where she depends on no man– no matter what kind of abuse or treatment he attempts to make her endure.
Where films like “Ocean’s 8” made work-shy attempts at female empowerment, “Widows” is forthright and honest about what it wants to be. Even more importantly the film allows women to simply be in their humanity. They aren’t angelic “badasses” who automatically know how to set off bombs, torch safety boxes and screech away in getaway vans the moment the prospect of big money rears its head. They’re multidimensional, with their darkest of sides acting and behaving in cruel ways and actively learning and researching how to, albeit out of necessity, commit gruesome crimes.
Speaking about the film in a roundtable, actress Michelle Rodriguez (who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent) explained that the film made her feel as if she’d been given an opportunity to truly uplift women with her role as Linda. “The idea of female empowerment has been my drive in my entire career because I’ve always felt more like an activist more so than an actress,” Michelle says. “This [film] was the first time I was challenged psychology… the idea of playing Linda– you get to see what’s coming from the inside.”
McQueen’s female lineup takes the traditional plot of a heist film and turns it into something much more complex. It’s a testament to the capacity women of color have to take old genres, and not just make them new or “rebooted” but to truly turn them on their heads.