Warning: Light spoilers ahead.
Some of the best movies about race in America ― indeed, about America itself ― are not explicitly about America or race, like “Night of the Living Dead” or, more recently, Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.” These films tell universal stories; deep themes about what it means to be American are woven into their very fabric but rarely stated explicitly. They are neither pedantic nor moralistic, and they often say something about the culture as it stands far more profoundly than any “Crash” or “American History X” ever could.
This is the case with “Widows.”
As Steve McQueen’s follow-up to “12 Years A Slave,” the movie might seem like a wild departure from his last three films. (The overtly socio-political “Shame” and “Hunger” round out his body of work.) “Widows” is, and has been heavily sold as, an action heist movie. Yet deliberate threads link “Widows” in more ways to the messages of “12 Years” than to those of, say, “Ocean’s 8.”
The movie, written by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, is loosely based on a U.K. soap series that ran for two seasons in the 1980s. Far from the campy “Widows” of 1983, this iteration of the story is grittier, more violent, less sleek. A group of women, led by Viola Davis’ character Veronica, lose their husbands after a job gone wrong and, in order to settle some scores and start their new lives, endeavor to carry out one last heist themselves. Trailers for the movie feature explosions, high-speed chases, ominous villains and Viola Davis spewing one-liners like, “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off!”
Beyond the quips and pyrotechnics, the movie is a fascinating blend of genre ― of the heist movie and political drama. Veronica must recruit her fellow widows to pull off a $5 million job partly because she’s broke and partly because a Chicago gangster-turned-politician is looking for the $2 million her husband Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) stole before he died. They have one month to pull off the heist and pay back the money, or face consequences.
But that’s just the surface of “Widows.” A concise, spoiler-free summary misses the undercurrent of political and racial tension bubbling beneath the cinematic portrait of post-2016 America.
If the biggest consequence of the election was a grim amplification of power imbalances (previously more obvious to some than it was to others), then “Widows” can be read as an allegory of that imbalance. It’s a story about who we choose to empower and what happens when we do. It’s a story about the inexorable shifting of paradigms and who we consider heroes. It’s about the tension of power between real people ― between black women and white men in love, between white women who seem oblivious to their own privilege and black women who do not, between black men seeking power and white men who have always had it.
Identity and desire form two ends of each tug of war, a dynamic that is evident in several scenes throughout “Widows.” Like when Veronica seeks shelter in the home of fellow widow Alice (played by Elizabeth Debicki), then upbraids Alice for seeing a new, rich man so soon after her husband’s death. The conversation gets heated, and she slaps the younger woman. Alice slaps her back. In 2018, a scene in which a black woman slaps a white girl for disrespecting her and the white girl slaps her right back, declaring, “I’m not getting pushed around by anyone anymore,” is heavy with irony. The irony isn’t a mistake.
Neither is an earlier scene, in which Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a gangster running for city alderman, pays a visit to Veronica to find out why her husband stole $2 million dollars from him and where that money is. He walks menacingly around Veronica’s swanky apartment (that she doesn’t even own), and teases her about the years she spent as the wife of a wealthy white criminal. Now that her husband is dead, he says, “You’re nothing now. Welcome back.”
In spite of their posturing and their violence, the technical bad guys end up being just cogs in a machine.
So much in this film hinges on that “welcome back,” the idea that in America, proximity to greatness is proximity to whiteness and the power it affords; this idea that the power of whiteness is like a door one walks through, and for some, that door is either always open or always closed. This is, after all, what Jamal himself intimates when his brother asks him why he wants to go into politics, pivoting away from what, up until this point, has been a lucrative life of crime.
“I want what they have” is Jamal’s explanation. “Power.”
For the widows, the kind of power Jamal references has always been accessible to them by association ― not by birthright, not by taking it. Even Veronica, with her ultimate proximity to whiteness, still grieves the reality of this by way of the death of her son, murdered by police while driving his father’s expensive car ― a scene that is as brutal as it is telling about the world which the characters inhabit, a world so much like our own.
Veronica, like the other wives, has been backed into a corner, a cage not of her own making. She’s grieving, broke, and her life is in danger. Like her, every character in this film is yearning for more than her lot in life, even though, as Jamal tells Veronica, “Nothing you do is going to change your situation.”
There’s a scene halfway through the film where, after a disastrous political rally in a rough neighborhood of the 18th Ward, candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) rides home in the backseat of a swanky black car with his campaign-manager-slash-lover. Over the course of five minutes, several things play out at once: We watch the car move through a dilapidated black neighborhood, slowly, into the rich part of town where he lives. The vista changes before our eyes gradually and yet so suddenly it’s hard to remember where the poor neighborhood ended and the rich neighborhood began.
We hear Farrell’s character repeatedly ask his lover if she’s ever slept with a black man. We hear him lament the point of campaigning at all, giving that “These people are killing each other.” But we never see his face. Instead, the camera remains focused on the expressionless face of the car’s driver, a black man, as Jack groans, “What are we fighting for?”
This is the American question. In this great experiment, every one, at every level of society, asks it. And every one thinks they have the answer. In this way, “Widows” is an American movie because it asks the question in a rhetorical sense. The film provides no real answers, even after we’ve explored the political and criminal underbellies of a wider machine powered by racial tension, by money, by the selfishness of (white) men.
Speaking of white men ― there’s a twist near the end of the film that, if you really consider it, is only shocking for a few terrible seconds. Then it makes complete sense. Veronica, visiting the apartment of a widow who never joined the heist, knows intrinsically what lies behind a mysterious closed bedroom door after her little white dog crazily scratches against it.
Her reaction, her despair and her unwillingness to open the door, cements the inevitability of betrayal. It echoes something implicit: in 2018, is there anyone we trust less than powerful white men?
White men are not the outright villains in the heist plot of “Widows.” The Manning brothers occupy that character space for most of the film in a chilling double act that deserves its own analysis. Instead, white men are symbols for the ubiquitous nature of white male power. In spite of their posturing and their violence, the technical bad guys end up being just cogs in a machine. White men, however, are the machine.
It’s the moment that turns the movie ― a really well-done heist, a political thriller ― into something completely different: a dirty mirror to the present day.
In the movie’s final showdown, one I won’t spoil in full here, Veronica hears the following words, a confession that, at its core, is American too: “I couldn’t save us. So I had to take care of me!”
The excuse represents a less idyllic version of America, an America in which powerful white men will gladly throw others under the bus if it means securing their own futures. In the past, we were taught to root for these men. But in “Widows,” in post-2016 America, a paradigm has shifted. We’re rooting for Veronica now, as she shoots her assailant before he can shoot her. It’s the moment that turns the movie ― a really well-done heist, a political thriller ― into something completely different: a dirty mirror to the present day.
“I’ve never seen so many white folks cheer for someone[’s] demise,” a friend of mine wrote of the scene on Twitter. “The applause was so loud I thought it was in my head.”
All art, intentional or not, is a reflection of the times in which it was created. “Widows” was greenlit a year and a half before the election, but it was written and filmed once Trump was in office. What “Widows” does, above all else, is demonstrate the potential of genre film to reflect culture without outlining in painstaking detail every terrible thing that’s gone down in the last two years. This is the true potential of genre ― it lends itself to symbolizing our times in ways both subtle and unsubtle, so that something like a heist movie can serve as both entertainment and commentary without complication.
McQueen’s is not a message movie, but if he left us with any message at all, it’s that the solidarity of women ― not white men ― will save us in the end. Maybe that’s a naive conclusion. Maybe it too closely approaches the concept of hope. But isn’t hope, specifically the naive kind, just another deeply American dream?