More than once, since Daniel Kaluuya broke out into the mainstream with Get Out, I have sat at my desk — or on the train, or in a movie theater, or stared aimlessly into my refrigerator — thinking “Daniel Joseph Kaluuya, in Jesus’s name!” I have it on good authority that “Hair Body Face” was actually written about Kaluuya. (I don’t actually have this on any authority, but I invite Bradley Cooper to correct me.) I have successfully littered Vulture with about a dozen articles praising hot people for being hot, but I really mean it this time. Kaluuya is deployed so precisely — and so perfectly — in Widows that he’s hard to look away from. “God doesn’t call the qualified,” a T.J.Maxx-bought decorative wall hanging in my mom’s house reads. “He qualifies the called.” With this post, I surrender. There are truly so many things Daniel Kaluuya can do to me — Sister Mary Clare, I hope you are not reading this! — but at the tippity top of that list is this humble plea: Rob me, Daniel Kaluuya!
Widows is a rich constellation of politics, motivations, and passions, plus one very good dog. After the deaths of their outlaw husbands, three women — Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez — conspire with a fourth (Cynthia Erivo), to pull a heist of their own to settle their husbands’ debt to local gangster-turned-aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, an actor who I would alo lay down my life to protect). Jamal is formidable, but his real muscle is his brother Jatemme. He has the obedience of a hired gun — he’s not a typical unpredictable ID, like so many other halves of a movie’s villainous whole. His most chilling scene isn’t the one that has him poking a victim with a switchblade or shooting a pair of disobedient underlings straight in the face. His most memorable gesture is actually his most subtle: Daniel Kaluuya looks on at a nemesis and gives them a one-handed finger wave. It’s enough to send them running home.
Widows isn’t really concerned with the heist itself, but how its ramifications send shockwaves through seemingly disparate communities. One of Jamal’s henchmen fetches the two underlings who were supposed to be guarding $2 million in cash that the widows’ husbands stole. They were too busy working on mediocre rap beats, the henchman reports, bringing them to stand before Jatemme and receive their punishment. Jatemme seems nonplussed. If they were so distracted by their music, can’t they at least show him what was worth the robbery?
One guy starts to beatbox and the other starts to rap. Jateeme nods along, the guys get a little more confident. He moves toward the rapper, until they’re face to face, close enough for Jatemme to count every pore on this guy’s face. He grunts approvingly, like he’s listening to bars as hard as Vince Staples’s. The camera is on a dolly, spinning around them. Kaluuya’s eyes don’t even blink. Jatemme shifts a little bit, then shoots the rapper in the face. “Run,” he tells the beatboxer, who turns around and sprints. Jatemme shoots him mid-step. The first time I saw Widows, an older white man immediately peaced out. The second time I saw it, everyone gasped in horror. “Take care of this,” Jatemme says, motioning to his henchmen that it’s their job to clean up the blood and dispose of the bodies.
Kaluuya’s performance has drawn comparisons to Joe Pesci’s gleeful gangsters in Martin Scorsese movies, but it’s a connection that feels slightly off the mark. In Goodfellas or Casino, Pesci is nearly bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm. He’s eager to stab, to rob, to root for the bad guys, to maim. Sometimes he goes silent, but usually he’s a chatterbox: gleefully shooting a few rounds out the window of a semi-truck they’ve stolen, or getting revenge on an old foe. In his most famous Goodfellas scene, Pesci sits across from Ray Liotta, asking what the hell his friend finds so funny about him. There’s an energy to the way Pesci goads him into this argument, pushing Liotta into explaining himself into a corner. The scene gets more and more tense with each and every syllable. And then they both let out gregarious laughs that devour the scene: Phew.
Pesci’s baddies would never explain or apologize, but they’d offer their own hearty commentary. In Widows, Kaluuya is the opposite. Like Pesci, we don’t know what Jatemme is thinking; unlike Pesci, he’ll never tell us. Jatemme looms in the background of entire scenes, and Kaluuya is still enough to make us wonder if this character even has a pulse, let alone if it’s rising. In his first scene, Jatemme shadows his older brother’s meeting with a political opponent. Both men are running for alderman of the 18th ward, and have their second-in-commands with them: Jamal has Jatemme, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) has Siobhan (Molly Kunz). The politicians talk district lines and election dates. Jatemme’s eyes are fixed on Siobhan and she doesn’t even blink. His stillness takes on an outsized presence. Siobhan shifts in her seat uncomfortably.
But, because I am a maniac, I leaned forward. Kaluuya’s scenes are so charged — and his gaze so vehement, and McQueen’s willingness to only cast hot people, which I appreciate — that had I not been wearing box braids, I would’ve sweated out my blowout! Get Out and its ensuing press tour established Daniel Kaluuya as an actor capable of being the tragic hero or the charming cutie pie. But Widows allows him to flex a different muscle: Daniel Kaluuya can eat more than my peach. Daniel Kaluuya can poison my omelette and I don’t even like omelettes, but I’d eat the one he prepared, just to be poisoned. Daniel Kaluuya can string me along for 12 years from a carpool turned friendship turned romance. Daniel Kaluuya can start a new competing website and put Vulture out of business. Daniel Kaluuya can take a pair of scissors and cut me out of my turtleneck. Daniel Kaluuya can sing me classic film scores in a Blockbuster. Only for Daniel Kaluuya would I watch Fight Club again. I would be Daniel Kaluuya’s bet, his fucking bet! He is so compelling, so talented that if all he could offer would be waving to me at my husband’s funeral, I’d marry the next boy to ask me out on a date just so I could be widowed. Thank you, Steve McQueen, for this honor.