The Politics Behind 'Widows'

Steve McQueen crafts a heist movie that also explores issues of race, gender and class.
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Viola Davis in 'Widows'

[This story contains spoilers for Fox's Widows.]

Widows is a heist film upfront. But throughout, the planning of the heist and the heist itself drive forward with such force due to the political and power dynamics constantly at play. Director Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 12 Years a Slave, the film — which follows three widows forced to enter a world of crime by the powerful people their dead husbands were intertwined with — is not a great genre picture that happens to also have an incisive political lens. It’s a great genre picture because it has one.

The widows are Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and who they must deal with are Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), the political candidates for alderman of Chicago’s 18th ward. With Mulligan, the film digs straight into issues of money and nepotism in politics. Alongside co-writer Gillian Flynn, writer of Gone Girl, McQueen writes and paints Jack and his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) in the vein of the Kennedys, nailing a similar toxic father-son dynamic that the Ted Kennedy film Chappaquiddick did earlier this year.

The plot holds an obvious political layer, but McQueen, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker go further with the imagery they set forth. As Veronica, Linda and Alice mourn their husbands, Walker cuts with force to Jack talking about a piece of art he’s bought and then arguing over minutiae with his father, juxtaposing pain next to privilege.

As Jack enters his car to leave a campaign event in an economically struggling area of the ward, Bobbitt’s camera sits on the front of the car, tracking the change of scenery as Jack privately complains about the optics of his campaign. The car eventually turns into an affluent neighborhood where Jack’s campaign headquarters is located, the dissociation between Jack and his constituents posed powerfully by Bobbitt’s oner.

Widows is certainly expansive, though, with socioeconomic and political power dynamics examined across characters. With Linda and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), the film looks at the economic struggle of small businesses and the lies of rich, powerful politicians who suggest that they empower those businesses.

With Alice, the film looks at abuse and toxic, transactional gender dynamics. She was abused by her late husband and has to find a way to earn money after him. Her storyline tracks her entering what seems to be the escort business, space of further potential toxicity, but a space where she, over time and through conflict, comes to embrace her self-worth. And as that happens, Alice contributes more and more to the planning of the heist.

It’s this cohesiveness that separates Widows from many other genre pictures, mostly those involving crime. To McQueen and company, the genre trappings are to be embraced, but they’re not to be separated or treated differently than the politics at play. Two films released earlier this year, Peppermint and Sicario: Day of the Soldado, have arguably indulged in genre without considering the prescient politics their stories naturally bring up — most importantly, what an image can mean.

Peppermint comes from Taken director Pierre Morel, and there are plenty of similar elements between the two, such as international crime, revenge and vigilantism. But Peppermint fails where it ignores clearly tricky racial imagery, the film stoking a sense of xenophobia because it doesn’t offer a depiction of the cartel without visually tying that villainy to race. And some of the dialogue that tries to point toward the protagonist’s crime-fighting abilities simply results in depicting her as a white savior (“It’s not a coincidence that makes this area low crime. It is low crime because of her”).

Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario walks a very fine line of genre and politics that is arguably cohesive but is certainly still one that’s worth scrutinizing. Stefano Sollima's Sicario: Day of the Soldado, however, falls off that line from the beginning for very similar reasons of visually tying cartel villainy generally to race. Where Sicario occasionally shows the faces and perspectives of people in Mexico outside of the cartels, Day of the Soldado fails to show this perspective at all.

Both of these films hold thriller and crime genre trappings, but neither consider carefully enough what’s at stake, socioeconomically and politically in their stories.

Such genres naturally engage in layers upon layers of issues of gender, race and class, issues that are very real and tangible. But rather than dissociate that all from the high-speed chases, the deadly shootouts and the intense heists, Widows intertwines them. Jack’s antagonism is defined by white greed and privilege. The stakeout of the location is a visual deconstruction of class. The heist itself is rendered an examination of gender power dynamics, the line “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off” a distillation of such.

Widows is an even better piece of genre because of all that. It’s not a heist film in one breath and a political film in another. It’s one and the same.