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Why ‘Widows’ isn’t just another heist movie

The new fall film “Widows” looks like a heist movie, featuring plenty of star power, thrilling plot twists and explosions, as the widows of four armed robbers band together to finish the job their late husbands’ began. But director Steve McQueen wanted more than tired tropes. He explains to Jeffrey Brown how he stimulates his audience with a perspective that breaks from ordinary convention.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, an acclaimed director puts his own mark on a much-loved film genre.

    Jeffrey Brown continues his fall film series from the Toronto International Film Festival.

  • Actor:

    You have no idea what, do you? Or did you choose not to know?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    On its face, "Widows" is a heist movie, a stylish thriller with star power, and plenty of explosions, dead bodies, and plot twists.

    But the day after its debut at the Toronto Film Festival in September, director Steve McQueen told me he also wanted something more.

  • Steve McQueen:

    I want to sort of stimulate in people's minds the things which are around them. Again, it is a roller-coaster ride, and a thrilling one, through our current social, economic environment.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    McQueen was born and raised in London, the son of working-class immigrants. He made his name first as an artist, his work in video and other media exhibited in prominent galleries, a winner of the U.K.'s prestigious Turner Prize in 1999.

    His first three feature films were all tough-minded and harrowing, taking on subjects seldom tackled in commercial cinema, "Hunger" in 2008 about the 1981 hunger strike by Irish nationalist Bobby Sands, 2011's "Shame," a drama about sex addiction, again starring Michael Fassbender, and then the breakthrough of "12 Years a slave" in 2013, which won an Oscar for best picture, and a directing nomination for McQueen.

    With that history, some critics wonder why McQueen would now turn to the well-trod heist genre.

  • Steve McQueen:

    I don't know what the surprise is, because I'm a storyteller, and I want to go where I feel the best stories are, so that could be anywhere.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a genre we're kind of used to. It has its own particular tropes, whereas — and I have seen your earlier films. I think they're exploring something that in many ways we haven't seen before.

  • Steve McQueen:

    I think we're seeing things we haven't seen before in this picture. The convention always has to be broken, because, otherwise, we see the same film all the time. I mean, that's Hollywood, really, but that's not how I wanted to sort of handle this particular understanding of a heist picture.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Indeed, this is a heist film with a twist, many of them. McQueen adapted it from a 1980s British TV series of the same name, in which the widows of men in a gang of thieves attempt to carry on after their husbands are killed.

    McQueen watched it as a boy, and a seed was planted.

  • Steve McQueen:

    I just related to the protagonists, these women who were deemed not to be capable and being judged by their appearance, similar to how I was being looked upon as a 13-year-old black child in London at the time.

  • Viola Davis:

    Our husbands aren't coming back.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    His film transplants and updates the action to present-day Chicago.

  • Colin Farrell:

    What I learned from your late husband and my father is that you reap what you sow.

  • Viola Davis:

    Let's hope so.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It has an all-star and diverse cast, led by Viola Davis as Veronica, forced to take on a dangerous scheme after the violent death of her husband, played by Liam Neeson.

  • Viola Davis:

    My husband left me the plans for his next job. All I need is a crew to pull it off.

  • Actress:

    Why should we trust you anyway?

  • Viola Davis:

    Because I'm the only one standing between you and a bullet in your head.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Embedded in the story, as in contemporary life, issues of race, class, political corruption and, of course, gender, with the women as fully formed, complex characters in the lead.

  • Michelle Rodriguez:

    If this whole thing goes wrong, I want my kids to know that I didn't just sit there and take it.

  • Viola Davis:

    The best thing we have going for us is being who we are.

  • Actress:

    Why?

  • Viola Davis:

    Because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    McQueen enlisted writer Gillian Flynn, the Chicago-based bestselling author of "Gone Girl" and other thrillers, as his co-writer.

  • Gillian Flynn:

    What's cool about a heist film is the teamwork, is the men figuring each other out, the men figuring each other's skill sets out. And, to me, that's always such a male thing. You know, it's, how do men work? How do men make teams? How do men drive jobs?

    I mean, and that's always what male society is about. So to get to see women do that, I think, is a very cool and very unique sort of thing. To me, it feels very groundbreaking because it feels very real.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I heard you speaking on the stage before the premiere, and you were talking about the need to make films that look more like the real world, where the people look more like real people in the world.

  • Steve McQueen:

    I was thinking about the people who go to the movies, the people in the audience, wanting to be reflected onto the screen. That's all. That screen has to be a mirror reflecting back on the reality of its surroundings. That's all. Pretty simple.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And that is not the case?

  • Steve McQueen:

    Often, that is not. I mean, that's why people make a big deal about the whole idea of diversity, as if they don't look out their window. I mean, it's our reality.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do you see things changing in film, in the culture?

  • Steve McQueen:

    Slowly, slowly.

    It used to be that every sort of film or every other film, you know, the main protagonist, his best friend used to be black, and he used to sort of or she used to sort of disappear fairly quickly, within the first 20 or 15 minutes.

    So let's hope we get a fair and proper reflection of our reality. And if you want to keep cinema alive, one has to sort of cater to the people who pay to go and see it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Steve McQueen's "Widows" opens today, nationwide.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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