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Steve McQueen talks 'Widows', feminism and his legacy

PICTURED: Steve McQueen

STEVE MCQUEEN is an intense figure – but the best kind of intense. Creative and magnetic and with a hint of awkwardness, you can’t help but be intrigued in his presence as he leads you down a rabbit hole that starts with one topic and trails on rapidly to the next.

This fascinating conversation I had with McQueen began at Claridges Hotel in London, whilst the director was promoting his new movie Widows – a cinematic heist thriller which places women centre stage as they overcome grief and adversity in the mean streets of Chicago.

The film is an adaptation of a 1983 ITV television crime drama from screenwriter Lynda La Plante, which explored the lives of three widows after their husbands are killed in the middle of a heist, and its their job to pay off their husbands’ debts by any means possible.

The meaty plot gave the three lead actors - Ann Mitchell, Maureen O'Farrell and Fiona Hendley - a lot to sink their teeth into and was quite progressive for 80s primetime TV. But as McQueen says, La Plante is "a genius" and the story she crafted for Widows resonated deeply with the Academy-award winner.

“When I was 13-years-old; lying on my stomach, propping my head up with my hands and watching this programme of these women being judged by their appearance and being told they’re not capable, I understood that,” he said. “I was being judged the same way as a young black child growing up in the 80s. That's what I engaged with and that story was always fascinating to me. “

Thirty-five years later and the show still inspires the director – so much so that he decided to undertake the project and make it his own alongside writer Gillian Flynn and with La Plante’s help.

“There were a few discussions with Lynda, because I really got to know the characters that she was writing about. It was great to hear it from the horse's mouth and the funny thing about this whole project was that three decades after its premiere, not much has really changed.”


MUST-WATCH: Widows

The perception of women – their talents and capabilities – continues to be limited in mainstream media. But Widows challenges that with a diverse cast including Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debicki, showcasing intersectional feminism at play on the big screen.

“When I make movies I don’t set out to be ‘diverse’ – I just open the window, look outside and see the society I live in,” said the father-of-two. “I want the people who go to see this picture to be reflected on the screen. I didn’t have to flex my muscles for that, it was a given, especially in America.”

The London-born director seems to be ahead of the curve when it comes to showcasing films that represent a growing movement among our society. Prior to the release of 12 Years A Slave there was no #OscarsSoWhite campaign – which challenged the lack of racial diversity amongst the nominees at the prestigious award ceremony – and equally, there was no #MeToo campaign when McQueen was directing his first female-centric project that aimed to put womanhood and all its splendour and complexities in the cinema.

“As an artist, your dream is to make something that can be useful and can be used as a tool for enhancement. So if my work plays a role in that, then I’m very happy.”

Throughout our tête-à-tête, there are various little nuggets that I picked up along the way. McQueen often refers to himself as an amateur – and while he’s only 10 years into his professional film career, he has taken to sharing stories that capture the hearts and minds of his audiences and peers alike.

This spans from the 1981 Northern Ireland hunger strikes explored in Hunger (2008), sex addiction in Shame (2011), and most notably, slavery in 12 Years A Slave (2013) – a movie which transformed the trajectory of black filmmaking and its financial success worldwide.


Director Steve McQueen celebrates with his Oscar after winning best picture for '12 Years A Slave'

“Even though I regard myself an amateur, I always want to be the best I can be because it's important - that’s just fuel to me,” enthused McQueen. “Before 12 Years A Slave, people said to me that films with a black protagonist could not make millions outside the United States. When I wanted to do reshoots of it, people didn't want to give me the money.

“So when this movie came out with a very small opening, people basically got into fights with cinema managers demanding where this picture was. So Fox Searchlight had to rush and release this picture on a wider scale.” he recalled.

“It went on to make $187.7 million and $56.7 million in the States.”

The film also proved to be a success outside the cinema as it made $24 million in DVD sales. “We exceeded our DVD sales and expectations in one week because some people were too afraid to see it in the cinemas.

“So this movie made over $200 million dollars and without 12 Years A Slave, there would be no Moonlight, there would be no Selma, there would be no Black Panther, because we were the canary in the cage and they saw that they could now make money out of this.

“That’s what happened and that’s what 12 Years A Slave was all about in a way. So I’m very proud of the legacy of that picture.”

That legacy continues as McQueen met another achievement when he opened the London Film Festival last month (Oct) with Widows. “It felt kind of odd and weird to open LFF,” he revealed. “But I was most proud to have my wife, my children and my relatives on that red carpet. To see black people being on that red carpet in London, made me very proud.”

And as Widows – his fourth feature film - opens to the public and he celebrates the 10th anniversary since his debut feature film Hunger, McQueen reflected on the dreams and aspirations he had as a young creative. “For me it was just important then and now to be free of shackles, limitations and to focus on following my dream and my heart.

“I say it’s important to always be yourself and don’t try to be anyone else. I don’t try to be anyone else and I’m totally me all the time.”

Widows is out now across UK cinemas

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