Long before director Steve McQueen became renowned in the art and film worlds, winning the Turner Prize in 2009, the Camera d'Or for Best Debut Film at Cannes in 2009 and the Best Picture Oscar in 2014 for his third film 12 Years A Slave, he was just another teenager struggling through school and questioning his position in the world.
One night in 1983 at the age of 13, lying on the carpet in front of his parent's television in Hanwell, West London, McQueen watched the ITV mini-series Widows scripted by crime writer Linda La Plante. It would have a profound effect on him.
The show transported McQueen into a criminal world where the most vulnerable and overlooked people were women, women deemed incapable of anything other than being judged by their stereotype. Rather than being chained by convention they took their destinies into their own hands.
McQueen saw a parallel between these women and his own experiences, where he was cast into a box, stereotyped because he was young, black and British.
“I knew that things that were happening to me were odd,” McQueen tells me in London. “And to be frank, it was because other people were racist.”
Deciding to reboot Widows
McQueen was inspired by the four women he saw on screen and refused to let himself be typecast and saw that he had to believe in himself.
“It was their struggle – these women had to deal with their stereotypes and get over them.”
Thirty-five years later, and now arguably Britain's greatest audio-visual artist of his generation, McQueen has decided to re-imagine the 1983 TV series Widows as a film starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo. The four women have to pull off a bank heist to pay a debt of $2 million (Dh7.3m) that local gangster and wannabe politician Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) claims he is owed. He has a bad hombre henchman in the shape of his brother, Jatemme, played by Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya, who spends his time licking his lips and cracking his knuckles at the prospect of the women failing to raise the money in time.
“A lot of his actions are motivated by love,” says Kaluuya. “He doesn’t agree with his brother, but he still supports him and that is unconditional. There is a weird intensity to him.”
McQueen decided to transplant the action from 1980s London to modern-day Chicago where gun crime is prevalent and there is a long history of politicians and gangsters being bedfellows. "Politicians and criminals seem to have colluded since the time of Al Capone, and so it's sort of engaging to me. What I was interested in was the political, social, and economic aspects of our current environment," says McQueen. Because of the city and that it is a film about women, he asked Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn to help him write the screenplay.
“First, I had to watch the shows,” says Flynn. “I took notes once and then Steve and I realised that it had to become its own thing as we created new characters and we had to work out what we wanted to say about these women and their lives, as well as corruption, gender and race. And we piled a lot in.”
'Change happens when you’re forced into it'
Erivo, who plays the getaway driver remembers when she read the script. “Each one of these women have their own quirk, they are all very different, yet they find a connection with each other and they help each other take control of their individual lives,” she says.
A powerful aspect of Widows is that all four of the women come from different racial, social and financial backgrounds. They know that it's only by working together that they can achieve their goals.
The leader of the pack is Veronica Rawlings played by Davis. The start of the film sees her in a loving embrace with her husband Harry, a career criminal played by Liam Neeson. Then in the next scene he is part of the heist that goes fatally wrong, leaving her widowed.
“I love it in my own life when I surpass expectations and underestimate me,” says Davis about her joy at playing Rawlings. “I think that it’s only when you are in dire circumstances that you see what you are made of. When you have it easy, you can wear the mask that grins and lies. So these women are absolutely catapulted together in dire circumstances and I think it’s a terrific metaphor on how change happens. Because change happens when you’re forced into it, kicking and screaming.”
Completing the unit are Linda, played by Rodriguez, who is struggling to keep her family and dress shop afloat after her father’s death, and Debicki’s Alice, a Polish immigrant who has been controlled and suppressed by her husband.
“I had to murder my ego to be in this movie, there was a side of femininity that I guess I didn’t truly respect. The kind I would find in my own mother, this vulnerability and unconditional love that is always being stamped on,” Rodriguez says.
“Where we find Alice at the beginning of the film there are many things that can be breaking her like the abuse she suffers,” says Debicki. “She has no sense of self-worth, but she doesn’t see herself as a victim, just a woman living in these circumstances. There is a tragedy in that, because it’s so common.”
But it's in overcoming their own self-doubt and pulling off a heist, being better at the job than the men, that is at the heart of Widows. As McQueen shows, if you put your mind to something, and are not scared of the barriers, or fearful of getting hurt, emotionally and physically, then anything can be achieved.
Widows is in cinemas across the UAE from November 22