Director Steve McQueen is the straightest of shooters. His answers to questions pierce the veneer of any trivialities like bullets through tissue paper. When I first meet the Oscar-winning director of 12 Years A Slave, Shame and Hunger, he is hunkered down in a Toronto hotel room awaiting a phalanx of reporters. He is hosting a speed-dating like series of interviews during the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss his new film Widows, which boasts an all-star cast of Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Collin Ferrel, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Michelle Rodriguez and Robert Duvall. He is efficient with his words when discussing the heist film set against the backdrop of Chicago politics, which has drawn several uninspired comparisons to this years Ocean’s 8. But the gripping story of four widows who must pull off a robbery to pay back the politician their husbands stole from is much more than a Mission Impossible-like burglary fantasy. The stakes are very high for Veronica Rawlings and her unlikely crew of thieves as the intersection of class, race and gender is explored in this action drama.
The next time I see Steve McQueen he is huddled in the back of an auditorium in Chicago as the local audience prepares to take in Widows for the first time at their film festival. McQueen, a native of London with Grenadian parentage, held his first museum show in the Windy City and his wife, Bianca Stigter, covered the Democratic National Convention there as a reporter. Nevertheless, Widows is more ransom note than love letter to the home city of the 44th American president. While a work of fiction, there is no better setting to capture the compromised relationship between the American political system and the citizenry it is supposed to serve.
McQueen spoke with BET.com about his inspirations for making Widows, the majesty of Viola Davis and the realities of being Black and successful in Hollywood.
BET: The first Widows mini-series premiered in 1983 on British television, and a remake came out in 2002. How did you go about putting your vision together?
Steve McQueen: I haven’t seen the second one, only the first one in 1983, and I was 13 years old. It sort of transformed me in a way because these women were being judged by their parents, judged in a way about them not being capable. And as a 13-year-old Black kid in London I had the same judgments on me, I identified with these women. That was the thing that I held in my heart for 35 years until this day that we’re making this film. At 13 I didn’t know I was going to be a filmmaker of course, but it was a very fundamentally important TV show to see at the time.
Having a heist movie set against the backdrop of Chicago politics is very compelling. Talk to me about where this film is taking place and how that informs the storyline.
I think what it is in some ways is taking this sort of narrative, this fiction, this somewhat far-fetched fiction and steeping it into the reality of contemporary Chicago. It’s what I wanted to do. I want to take people on a roller-coaster ride, an exciting one. But at the same time bringing in our environment, which we currently live in.
At times you employed some unconventional shot choices, like when Colin Farrell (politician Jack Mulligan) is in the limo, we hear him speaking but it’s shot from the outside following him to his home. What made you want to shoot it that way?
There is private and public. Politicians say one thing in public and one thing in private. Of course in that way what you see in that journey is going from a disheveled area [with a] predominantly Black population into another affluent area just from that journey. I wanted to be economic and say three or four things in one shot. And the journey being so close, so that’s what it’s about.
You get a wonderfully villainous performance out of Daniel Kaluuya. Talk to me about his character Jatemme Manning.
That character Jatemme is about how violence makes you numb. He’s someone that lives by the sword and after a certain moment he is numbed by his violence. And his violence gets more perverse because he’s bored. Even in the last venture of his violence he doesn’t even participate, he rather does something else in a very domestic fashion.
You also get a wonderful performance from Viola as Veronica…
She’s amazing. She’s like an iceberg, there’s so much depth to her. Which can come to the surface. She’s a dynamic thespian who needs to be fed. She needs more movies so we can see what she can do. Because she can do anything.
She has a wonderful chemistry with Liam on screen.
I think having this kind of couple, of this age, having a sexual sort of active relationship, I think is more shocking for people than [being an] interracial couple, which means nothing. But I think we’re so obsessed with youth these days that to see sort of middle aged couple getting it on, I think it’s more interesting for people, shocking for people than anything else. But you know, love is love.
Viola made some very powerful statements about you casting her and how grateful she was that you gave her this opportunity to be a “Whole woman.” How do you feel about what she said?
I was very flattered. But I just see a great actor and a very smart, beautiful woman. So it’s a no-brainer for me.
The women in the team are diverse across race AND class. Talk about how that reflects the environment of Chicago.
It’s obvious, it’s right outside the window. It’s not a biggie, it’s just what’s happening in our every day. It’s normal. Often it doesn’t get reflected on screen but it’s the people watching the movie. They’re being reflected on the screen. It’s that obvious.
Do you think this movie would have been as easier to make five years ago? Is the environment in Hollywood more palatable now to a film with such a diverse cast?
I think 12 Years A Slave helped, big time. Because no one wanted to put money into the movie. And they didn’t think a movie with a black lead or leads could make that much money in America ($56 million) or that much abroad ($131 million). 12 Years A Slave shattered all of those ideas and through 12 Years A Slave you get things like Selma, Moonlight and even Black Panther. Now they know that Black films can make money. It’s a fact.
Speaking of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins Tweeted that he was asked to sign a copy of the Widows screenplay. Is that part of the hazing ritual for Black directors, to be mistaken for each other?
Yeah, I’ve been mistaken for Barry [too]. That’s the way it is.
You just have to roll with the punches.
Hey man, if you don’t do that you end up in jail [laughs]. We want to be making movies, we don’t want to be jail.
You also said in an interview that winning the Oscar gave you an opportunity to “make one more mistake.” Can you elaborate on that?
Well, I think certain people are allowed to make more mistakes than others. And I think as a Black person, you could make maybe one and a half, and that’s about it, you’re done. So I have a little bit of a wiggle room here.
What was the most challenging part for you as a director even with this wonderful cast to work with?
The most challenging part is just to focus. Again, I think we got a lot of strands, a lot of things going on in this picture, but to make it cohesive. And to make it about sort of one journey. Viola’s character, who’s called Veronica, that’s what it’s about. Within the context of what’s going on, that’s the driving force of the picture.
This screened at TIFF in Toronto first and then in Chicago at their film festival. How did it feel to be in the audience in Chicago as they watched your film?
Great. I mean... again, to have that kind of love but also to have that sort of nod from them, that’s my biggest judge. And I’m grateful that I didn’t let them down, and they were sort of proud of the picture.
Widows is in theaters Friday November 16.
Photo Credits: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images & Paul Morigi/Getty Images