Think of the opening shot of Steve McQueen’s Widows as a Biennale installation at the Whitney Museum: Black Woman (Viola Davis) and White Man (Liam Neeson) are shown tongue-kissing in close-up profiles. Stark cinematography emphasizes the dark-light contrast of their flesh texture. Miscegenation Interruptus comes from sudden gunfire flashes. Transgression magnified.
But unlike the artful, fiery, sensuous illumination of the brown-skinned male coupling that begins Julián Hernandez’s epic love story Broken Sky (2005), McQueen’s imagery does not convey glowing passion but foretells cultural, emotional, and gender conflict. McQueen means to shock. He also intends rupture, the primary theme of transgressive modern art being mankind’s eternal, animalistic antagonism.
The $40 million Widows is the gesture of British McQueen toward the mainstream after making the Oscar-winning high-art horror film 12 Years a Slave. The pedigree of Widows comes from a 1980s BBC TV series and now boasts a commercially conceived screenplay that McQueen co-adapted with Girl Gone hack Gillian Flynn. Had it been titled honestly as, say, Gangsters’ Molls, its attenuated heist plot, in which a quartet of women achieve “agency” by shaking off their dead criminal mates, wouldn’t surprise anyone.
But McQueen always uses film pretentiously. Widows belongs to his edgy genre of queasy art projects masquerading as movies. A publicist-reviewer would accept Widows as a timely action film about female empowerment, but a critic must look deeper.
Showing feminine grief through four violent, sexually exploitive examples of emotional trauma is insensitive — as was using slavery for an exercise in sadism in 12 Years a Slave. As before, McQueen slips past politically correct monitors by manipulating sociological markers: Davis as the black gun moll Veronica Rawling, Michelle Rodriquez as Linda the Latina, Elizabeth Debicki as Alice the Polish-American semi-pro hooker, and Cynthia Erivo as Belle, the androgynous single mom from the ghetto. Each one represents female victimhood — and revenge.
Next, McQueen exploits electoral politics. Veronica gets caught up in the race for alderman of Chicago’s 18th ward between a black thug upstart, Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), and Mulligan (Colin Farrell), Irish scion of the city’s longtime racist political machine. There’s hostile “political” talk between these rivals, but each man is a criminal seeking money in a heist masterminded by Veronica’s presumed-dead white husband Harry (Liam Neeson). Under threat to pay back their loot, Veronica enlists the other “widows” as her Dirty Dozen or Oceans 11 accomplices.
All this unoriginal “plot” is pretext for McQueen’s exploitation of social vulnerabilities. It’s the same dishonesty as in The Sopranos, which excused criminal wives as blameless, and The Wire, which excused blacks as innate miscreants. In the progressive art world, gender and ethnic reprobates are heroes who reveal Western society’s corruption. Plus, they accrue big money, life’s ultimate prize.
Widows advances McQueen’s race-baiting opportunism through assorted ploys: scenes of black powerlessness (the thug-politician menaces Veronica as a fellow “nothing”); Latina oppression (Linda undoes the weight of machismo); and female oppression (Alice’s mother encourages her to work as a prostitute, and Belle masculinizes herself to survive). This is Hollywood demagoguery, and some moviegoers might respond to it reflexively as commonplace. But when Widows eventually celebrates theft and greed, it doesn’t inspire the audience’s moral progress. We’re supposed to cheer because women show lawlessness disguised as toughness.
By even careless measure, the already questionable heist-movie genre (previously used for sympathetic female sob stories such as Set It Off and Banditas) is not justified by the simple-minded, self-justifying immorality of Widows.
Action films are not necessarily devoid of moral force. Charles Stone III’s Lila and Eve elevated the genre through compassion. Suicide Squad gave Viola Davis her best-yet film role as the ruthless federal agent who rounded up supervillains and brought them back in touch with their forgotten humanity and moral purpose. In Widows, Davis is back to snot-bubbling, unreadable anger: Veronica advises her band of thieves, “The best thing we have going for us is being who we are.” But these are not working-class women like Oliver Stone diversified in his superb World Trade Center but merely a sop to identity politics.
McQueen’s dreaded return to the movies proves he is not an entertainer. Consider the flashback where Veronica and Harry’s biracial son Marcus is killed during a routine driving-while-black scenario, with posters blaring Obama, Hope and Change in the background on an anonymous Chicago street. This brazen political exploitation shows McQueen’s unfeeling impertinence; his agit-prop is as cowardly as Spike Lee’s in Chi-Raq, which also conspicuously failed to address the apathy of Chicago’s current Rahm Emanuel regime. In a showpiece 360-degree pan, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya fakes ghetto menace (epitomizing black-on-black crime) by slaughtering an amateur rap duo.
And McQueen gets worse. I want to stay inside the proper perimeters of criticism, but Widows adds to the perplexity of much recent race-based pop culture. Films such as Get Out, This Is America, and now Widows all suggest the impossibility of interracial relations — an irony that the filmmakers never personally address. Widows validates the new segregation that has become the fetish of the diversity movement, driving people back into parochial enclaves and tribal distrust. “I couldn’t save him,” philandering Harry tells Veronica of their son sacrificed to Chicago’s mean streets. Her pent-up rage — and subconscious sexual, racial suspicion — is violently released. When McQueen returns to that race-baiting opening tableau, his cynicism is revealed in Veronica’s bitter adieu: “F***ing me won’t make it better.” Widows is not a populist entertainment but something insidious designed to draw audiences together in their enmity.