In one of Steve McQueen’s earlier art installations from 1993, Bear, he’s wrestling in the nude with another black man. Throughout the roughly ten-minute black-and-white film, the two men joust, jostle, and test each other. Their bodies collide and together form a kind of dance, fluidly moving between wrestle and embrace, conflict and camaraderie. It’s the kind of pushing and prodding McQueen enjoys, and is evident in his latest feature film, Widows, where the four principal characters, Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) assess, provoke, and challenge each other, all the while working toward a common goal of robbing one of the wealthiest families in Chicago.
In person, Steve McQueen clearly relishes the back-and-forth. He furrows his brow and looks intensely at you as he listens. He likes questions, and his reactions play out openly on his face as he figures out just what he wants to say. In a conversation during the Widows press tour, we discussed how his gaze has operated throughout his work — from Bobby Sands’s hunger strike in Hunger to sex addiction in Shame to slavery in 12 Years a Slave — and how he’s been influenced by New Queer Cinema.
Are you disappointed by the box-office numbers for Widows, or do you feel unbothered by that?
Well, yes, obviously. [Laughs.] One would want it to be better, but it is what it is.
The film had a lot of critical support, but there seems to be a disconnect with popular audiences. Many have theorized that maybe the film was marketed incorrectly.
I don’t know how to answer that because I’m not an expert in marketing. I might think a bit more about it, but I don’t want to say, really.
Do you have any theories of your own?
As an artist, you can only do what you can do, and you can only do it to the best of your ability. You can do a smaller picture, of course, and get a situation where the box office doesn’t really matter. My aim was that I wanted to reach a larger, broad audience. That was very important to me with this picture because I wanted to talk about things I thought were important. But maybe it’s the case that people, at this point in time, who knows, are just interested in other things. The measure of my success was never about box office. It never has been.
I guess it becomes tricky when there’s the possibility that the box office might constrain work in the future.
No, to be quite frank, I’ve never had more offers than I’ve had now as far as studios are concerned. I suppose that’s weird, but that’s the truth.
You’ve talked about how you identified with the original television show that inspired Widows when you were young. What did you identify with?
It’s all about people who were being judged by their appearance, and people who were being deemed not to be capable. When I watched the TV show, I had that immediate connection with them. I projected myself onto Sean Connery for example, who played 007, or Johnny Weissmuller playing Tarzan, but for the first time I saw these people who were very much similar to me and what I was going through as a young man — as a 13-year-old black child growing up in London in the early ’80s.
Widows is in many ways about underestimation, and you’ve discussed your own experiences with being underestimated in the past. How did that inform the movie?
Well, I think it’s everything. These women are totally underestimated in what people think of them, just being judged by their appearance and deemed as being not capable. Once you’re dealing with that aspect of things, it becomes interesting in the way you deliver in the narrative. I just think people will recognize everything because we’re quite smart. I don’t think that’s answered your question, but can you hit me another.
Well, what’s interesting also is how the women have ideas about each other.
And that is a negotiation process that they go through that is ultimately fruitful.
The only way I can answer that question is what I love about these four women. They come from four different socioeconomic backgrounds, class, race, what have you. And through talking to each other, they realize that their differences are not really differences and they are very much the same. And for me, that is America.
What’s interesting about America, and it’s why I’m a big fan of this place — okay, the foundation of America is genocide and slavery — but what’s interesting about America and what makes America is different people from all over the world coming together to make this thing, which is one. And that’s incredible.
Well, that’s the mythology of America.
It is the mythology, but it is the reality of it. I mean economically, socially, even if people don’t get on, but that is the reality of it. I mean, not one particular part of the country could survive without the other.
No, but that relationship can be more exploitative than a simple coming together of minds on a level playing field.
Well, that’s what’s being done now — people are trying to sort of exploit that and talk about differences. And if that’s the way people talk about this country, that will ultimately tear it apart. People know that the best solution and the best idea of this country is coming together, even if people have differences, even if people are suspicious of each other. But the best future is about people being one because that’s the only way this country can survive. Otherwise, they’d be tearing each other apart; it’s just a fact. Also, what’s happening in Europe — but again, maybe things have to get bad before they get good.
And I think that these widows, putting them together in a room, and talking, and finding each other out … Again, it’s once you realize that, Hey, we’re kind of similar, then things can actually progress. We can move beyond so-called “differences.” I don’t know if I’m being cute here or if I’m being sort of, “We are the world; we are the people.” I don’t know, but it’s the only thing I have. That’s all I’ve got, otherwise I would be throwing myself off a bridge later today, so I have to believe in that. And I actually live it, I see it in my friends and people I associate myself with, we’re not that different.
An example of how they’re testing each other is the scene when Veronica (Davis) and Linda (Rodriguez) first meet each at the spa, and they’re introducing themselves to one another. Linda expresses surprise when she meets Veronica, saying, “Oh, you’re Harry’s wife. How did you two meet?” Veronica just brushes it off.
[Chuckles.] “Follow me.”
Right. Clearly she has fielded that question all of her life.
Yeah, and forgive me for asking, I don’t know if you have a partner, and I don’t know if the partner is a different background to yours — I imagine if you had that, that you’d have had that [situation] a number of times. So it’s very familiar, but at the same time it’s kind of like you want to say, “I met her in the Congo,” or something like that. I don’t know what kind of answer they would want.
But yeah, it’s kind of indicative about the film — it’s about things that we know, and it’s about the audience filling that gap. That’s how you can play with narrative more — you can have an idea of a city just through peeks and blinds and things. I think audiences are intelligent, and this is to satisfy people’s intelligence and stimulate people’s minds.
In an interview after you did Shame, you said you couldn’t make American movies because “they like happy endings.” I’m curious to hear how your thinking has evolved since then.
I don’t necessarily think a happy ending is a great conclusion, but it doesn’t have to be unhappy at all! Maybe I was a bit blanketed in my opinions then, but I think it’s all about the story, and if it’s a story that needs a happy ending, fine. Doesn’t bother me.
As you get older, you get wiser. When you’re young, there’s a punk in you. There’s a certain exploration you want to carry out, and as you get older, you don’t have to shout anymore. You can actually whisper.
Do you see Widows as your most optimistic film?
[Pause.] Optimistic film. I don’t know about optimistic.
Or hopeful, perhaps.
Interesting. [Pause.] No, it’s great. Optimistic. I would imagine all my films are bloody optimistic. Solomon being reunited with his family [in 12 Years a Slave]; even Brandon and sex addiction [in Shame], the fact that he realizes he has a problem is kind of optimistic. He looks at himself and says, “I know that something’s wrong with me. I know that I’ve got an issue.” That’s optimistic. I don’t want to drag people through the mud; that’s not my game. It’s about being aware of things.
We could put our blinders and walk down the street, but as a filmmaker, as an artist, you want to look at things. You want to investigate, you want to experiment, you want to say, “Well, let’s look at this for a while.” And the whole idea of dragging people though the mud — that’s not my interest. At the end of the day, I’m not going to be blind to the world that is happening around me. I will not do that, never.
I think of your gaze as unflinching. We have to look.
Ab-so-bloody-lutely. Sade wrote a song for this film called “The Big Unknown,” and there’s a great lyric in that song — I think it’s one of the best songs she’s done, literally — and the lyric is, “I had to go back to save me from the wreck. I know it’s not over yet.” Meaning that she could have submerged, but she realized that she had to go back to pull herself out of whatever carnage there was down there in order to be healthy.
So again, you have the choice to be blinkered or to be illuminated. And as an artist, at least for me, I don’t have a choice.
Have you ever felt that it was difficult to look or to hold your gaze on something?
[Pause.] No. I would say no, because again I’m not going to hide, not even from myself. We’re all gonna die anyway, so what have I got to lose? Nothing.
Going back to the idea of underestimation, I felt like I could see it in the casting, too. Elizabeth Debicki told me how she felt seen by you in a way that she hadn’t previously, because she has a certain stature that telegraphs something specific to people, which you saw past. And it seems with all of the actors that you were able to move past how they have been conceived by other films or the media.
Well, I think I go beyond stereotype.
Is it that sad and simple?
Unfortunately, yes. I mean, that’s it. Because of Elizabeth’s height, a lot of people will cast her as a villain. You know what I mean? It’s absolutely ridiculous. Someone like Viola is seen as some sort of holier-than-thou. She’s dark-skinned, the black woman who’s regal, when she is a woman who has a sexual appetite. Again, she’s a woman in every way and every form. It’s similar to how Cynthia Erivo is looked at. I mean, Michelle is a sort of a tomboy. There’s a certain idea of who she is or what she is. That’s not the world I know. So what I want to do is just portray our every day as it is. The cinema screen should be a mirror reflecting the people in the audience. Simple as that.
Do you read criticism or reviews of your work?
I try not to.
Could you say why?
Well, again, it’s one of those things where, when you’re an artist, this is a decision you take. You hope it gets received well, but that’s not the best mark to me. Again, that’s not my forte — to see what other people might think or care about what other people think. If I did, I wouldn’t be speaking to you now.
I wanted to talk about the criticism around 12 Years a Slave, particularly around gender and …
There was criticism? Okay. I don’t know.
Some of the criticism was about the way in which female suffering had been used in the film. Maybe you weren’t even aware of it, but I was curious if that informed Widows in any way?
No. Female suffering. You mean Patsey?
No. I wanted to do the best job I could in translating that book onto film. People didn’t really know about that book unless you were in academic circles, and it was a story of Solomon Northup, who I thought was a national American hero. Again, it’s one of those things that occurred, so how can I translate it in the best way possible? I imagine that people wish I never made the picture, but I did, and I’m very happy for it.
It is a memoir written from Solomon’s perspective, so inherently, in some ways, Patsey’s suffering informs his character or illuminates him, which you could say is a natural consequence when you write from the first person …
I wouldn’t avoid that.
Well, I wouldn’t avoid it because it’s part of the narrative. It’s a huge part of the story, and again, I couldn’t avoid it. The story wouldn’t be the story otherwise. When someone like Lupita Nyong’o comes into play and portrays that character the way she did, one would hope that people understood that character and what that character had to go through. That’s it. That’s as much of an answer as I can give, really. I imagine that people wish I didn’t make the picture, but I did.
Can you talk about the writing process on Widows? You’ve said that you and Gillian Flynn, who co-wrote the screenplay, have different processes, but that it eventually became more complementary. Could you elaborate?
Well, with myself and Gillian — it’s getting to know each other and throwing ideas about, and not being precious, and just getting on with it, really. It’s one of those things when you start writing, and you say, “Can you do this? I do this?” We see each other, and she can write over me, and I can write over her. It’s how it becomes a sort of intertwining vine.
We spoke to each other quite often on the phone. We actually saw each other on more than a dozen occasions. And we never wrote in the same room together. That’d be hellish! Could you imagine? Look, she’d do this. I’d do this. It just made itself together. We’re very different, but we respect each other. What will surprise certain people, I imagine, is something that she wrote that I didn’t write, and something I wrote that she didn’t write.
Could you be more specific?
Oh! It’s one of those things that I don’t want to get specific about, not because of any other reason, just because, again, it’s just one of those things that happened.
I don’t want to elude that question. It’s just very difficult to be specific because I’d rather Gillian be in the room when I have that conversation.
It was very important to me [to represent] the whole idea of someone taking care of your children while you’re taking care of someone else’s children. That was very important to me to put into the script. Very, very important. An idea of two kinds of feminism. It’s not for me to talk about because I don’t want to mansplain feminism. It’s for women to have that conversation, but to just sort of speak about my own experiences with my mother and my sister.
Is that something you saw or experienced with your mother?
You know what’s interesting? I saw that more in New York with relatives that I had, who would babysit. ‘Cause there was a time in the ’90s when I was in NYU, there were a lot of West Indian women who were babysitting. And I remember that very much, how my relatives had to babysit their children, in order for them to be in Manhattan to babysit other children. It is how it is.
Again, you sort of see it and don’t, but there’s a depth to it that’s like an iceberg. You see a bit of it, but actually it just pushes the narrative along. That’s what I love about it. You never see that happen with men. What happens to their kids. What happens to the domestic situation. It’s like they walk out the house, and that’s it. But I love the fact that these women have to negotiate a situation in order for them to do what they have to do.
Did you see the film as a way to honor women like your mother?
Yes. Absolutely. I mean, geez, isn’t it great just to have a middle-aged black woman as a hero? I feel also men can identify with Viola. You identify with that person. It’s very important that she becomes definitely specific, but absolutely at the same time universal. It’s important.
I watched Bear fairly recently.
Where the fuck did you see that?
A friend of mine had a bootleg copy of it. Sorry, I hope that doesn’t bother you.
And I read that, after Shame, you said you wanted to revisit the topic of male sexuality. There are a lot of ideas about black male sexuality in Bear that seem like they could be a feature film.
It’s such a huge part of us as who we are, sex, obviously. Our existence is because of it. The majority of our existence is because of sexual encounter. Male sexuality is very odd. It’s interesting — you don’t want to offend, and at the same time, you want to participate. That’s a difficult one. Let me get there … It’s something that I don’t have the answer for yet, but I think you have the answer through experimenting. It’s a road, isn’t it? My goodness gracious. That’s a heavy one. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer.
Well, to double back a bit, could you elaborate more on the difficulty of portraying male sexuality? You did so with Shame.
Well, pornography is difficult. I think that stuff is just wack. Straight male pornography, because it’s sort of so exploitative. What was that magazine called? Butt magazine. I’m not gay, but I discovered that magazine in the Netherlands [through] my friend who was a graphic designer. What I loved about that magazine is that it was funny and fun, and when you’re of the same sex there’s a kind of liberation and a kind of equality to the sexual gaze.
I think there are ways in which other hierarchies of power are reproduced.
Race, for instance.
Absolutely some stereotypical bullshit. It’s not there yet, there’s work to do. I’m working on something actually about that, and you’re absolutely right about that. That’s why it’s wrong. I think the more ethical — not always — you are in your idea of sex, the more enjoyable sex will be. It’s a difficult road. I haven’t got there yet. It’s a huge question. Right now I’m in 2013. But it’s a seed I planted five years ago, so hopefully it comes to fruition at some point, but it’s a very interesting conversation to have, and wonderfully problematic. I don’t know how it will ever come into fruition. When filmmaking is concerned, it’s just too dense, it’s difficult.
Check it out: that kiss with Viola and Liam [Neeson] at the top of the picture, how much debate that’s caused. Just through two middle-aged people engaged in a passionate kiss. You see that in the street and you wouldn’t even think about it. You see it on the big screen it becomes — whoaaaa — it becomes something.
What do you think it became?
Again, everything becomes so much in view. With me and you sitting here, we’ve got this Asian guy and this black guy sitting and having a conversation. I’m not thinking that, but outside they would be thinking that.
It’s beautiful, it’s fantastic. It’s difficult and great work to do. We’re not there yet; so many people have brought us to this point where we can actually have this conversation. I am very grateful for people like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and people like, oh, God, a filmmaker …
Marlon Riggs, wonderful Marlon Riggs.
Isaac Julien. An English guy, come on, give me an English guy. I’m brain-farting. Derek Jarman. What was so important in my life growing up was queer cinema. I grew up at a time when there was a revolution in cinema, which was queer cinema. People having dialogue within cinema. It’s fucking amazing because you had these conversations on the silver flipping screen. There’s a language that’s being used within the medium of film, which hadn’t been done before. I was like, Wow it’s amazing. So I grew up within that revolution. Fucking hell, it was a revolution! What was that one where they spat? What was it called?
Poison. And there’s the Asian guy, what’s his name again?
Yeah, so there was a lot of that going on. You’re seeing all this stuff, but you’ve got to be open to looking and trying to find answers. Basically, what I’m after is difficult questions. Not to avoid it — to look at it and try to deal with it, because it’s going to make you better. I know, bullshit, bullshit.
How did New Queer Cinema influence you?
It allowed me the idea of possibilities — that healthy thing of seeing other ways of doing things and other languages and other methods and ideologies. It just broadens the possibilities of how you want to make films. Those films were always political, there was always some sort of questioning, not just about sexuality, which was obviously a given, but the surrounding world that people making the pictures were in. That was very enlightening.
Can you talk about making the interracial dynamic between Veronica and Harry (Neeson) have more specific contours — her resentment, for instance?
There are so many interesting things to talk about as far as that interracial relationship is concerned. Did Harry have a conversation with his son Marcus? Did he have the conversation? Or did Marcus feel, because of his background, that he was more privileged than other types of black males? And that his accessibility to things gave him privilege? I don’t know. Did Veronica feel that? I wouldn’t think so, but who knows? Harry getting involved in a relationship with this woman he clearly loved, he had a passion for: Did he understand the ramifications of what happens when you have a black son? So much ripple effect, so much afterthought. And she says, “I never knew I would marry a white man” and “Happy white family.” How much will you give up as a white male? As any white person? Are you willing to give anything up? Are you? I’m doubtful.
At some point you have children and you have a responsibility of the world they happen to be in. So you obviously have to be aware of that. Or have some understanding of that world that you’re living in. I imagine the majority of people don’t take that lightly. It’s just how it is. It’s a minefield out there, in any regard. One has to understand how people are treated because of the way they look, and what advantages or disadvantages one would have. It’s unfortunate how it is. You have to educate your partner. They don’t know.
I think race, sex, and gender — it’s huge. This whole conversation is about race, sex, and gender. You see them in the past and present. You see them every day. All these questions can relate to so many things. It’s incredible.
Can I ask you one last question? You’ve said that you think of Kanye as a thinker and listener, and I was wondering if you still felt that way.
[Sighs.] I don’t want to talk about Kanye!