On affect and criticality in
Steve McQueen’s Widows

by William J. Simmons

“Black stories can be ridiculous. Black stories can be silly. They can be problematic. They can be mediocre and remarkable. They can be boring. Can we have that privilege now? Instead of having to be exceptional all the time?”
— Toyin Ojih Odutola
[open endnotes in new window]

In the concluding scene of Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018), one protagonist and another, whose stories I will get to in a moment, meet unexpectedly after some time apart. These protagonists are both women. One of them is Black and one is white. The white woman leaves a lunch date and readies to get back into her car, but the camera swivels slowly and methodically backwards to reveal the Black woman standing there with an empathetic, but slightly apprehensive look on her face. After all, with the trauma they have both experienced, it may be harder to talk to someone from the past than spending the rest of their lives craving that camaraderie again. I originally misremembered that the Black woman waves, but instead she just says “Alice,” and we hear no response. We imagine that one might have come, but the credits get in the way. Though the Black woman does not wave as I had thought, she nevertheless asserts herself, makes herself materially present in the life of her former (white) colleague. Describing this final moment, the script for Widows (co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn) reads:

“Veronica’s expression is one of guarded recognition. She is reaching out.”[2]

She does not wave, but she reaches out. She knows perhaps that the genre she inhabits has relegated black women (in a way very different than white women or black men) to a state of unintelligibility that precludes her from being either a femme fatale we fear or a heroine with which we identify—indeed a woman at all. Instead, she will not fade away into history or narrative and instead maintains through a look and an implied gesture that she will persist in both the thrilling and action-packed past of the story and in the real sociopolitical arena outside of the darkened theatre.

Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) prepares to leave the café without acknowledging Veronica (Viola Davis), perhaps unwilling to revisit the traumatic experience of the heist.

McQueen’s camera swirls backward toward Veronica, indicating a vastness of time and space, and, in its dissolution of the image into abstraction, becomes a gesture akin to a brushstroke.

Veronica is cautious about “reaching out” to Alice, but any guardedness comes with a compelling empathy that is manifest in her facial expression.

That gesture of acknowledgment becomes the corporeal link between the film’s past and present, which are both our own present, and we see time condense before our eyes. The knowing glace or wave is a filmic cliché endemic to melodrama, and yet each time those bodily expressions remain compelling as e/motions that both signal a return to order and remind us of all the transgressions and thrills that occurred prior to it. The “knowing” ending is also a call to action, to remember the possibilities afforded by the filmic narrative that could translate into “real” interventions or a realization of the pure fantasy of those longed-for interventions. We remember all that these characters accomplished together and the hardships that they overcame, even as we mourn the dailiness with which they must comport themselves now that the film has reached its falling action. Moreover, that knowing look accomplishes an empathetic muting of emotion in a narrative that, in the tradition of melodrama and film noir (which were originally synonyms, e.g. “crime melodrama”), has been marked by emotional extremes, by grand inquiries into morality and the ongoing discourse of the individual verses crushing social forces that are both external to and played out within the protagonists. It follows that a sobering glance is both melodramatically poignant and an indication of a (perhaps begrudging) commitment to realism inasmuch as it reminds us of the tension between melodrama and everyday life.

Perhaps most importantly in the context of Widows, the “reaching out” is an assertion by the Black protagonist that she is a part of the film’s realist aspirations, its partial return to normalcy with all its drudgery and possibilities for newness, even as she is equally integral to the romance and car chases that mark a world of fantasy. She persists as both simultaneously—not liminal or oscillating, but rather fully both at the same time. She is moreover fully in control of that interspace, using her gesturality as a way of grounding herself and claiming filmic space.

Indeed, persistence is perhaps the quintessential theme of Widows, as is the potential of occupying multiple racialized and gendered emotional/viewing positions. Melodrama and film noir tend to have persistence at their core generally, so one could say that Widows is an appropriation of the thematic conditions of these genres for the 21st century and in a non-white-male context. The film is itself an act of appropriation that centers on the persistence of McQueen’s childhood fascination with the British TV drama of the same name from the mid-1980s.

The film follows four women in Chicago whose husbands are killed in a failed robbery and begins with a passionate kiss between Veronica (Viola Davis) and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson).[3] After Harry’s death, she is threatened for the money he stole, so she teams up with Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to steal $5 million to clear their debts (and perhaps, for some of them, to sustain the legacy of their husbands, no matter how checkered that legacy might be). Imbricated within the widows’ plan is a political power struggle between a white incumbent in a South Side election (Colin Farrell) and his Black challenger (Brian Tyree Henry). The film proceeds with a compelling combination of humor and pathos, and finally the satisfying completion of a successful heist.

However, in a perfectly melodramatic twist that is characteristic of the film noir genre, it turns out that Veronica’s husband was alive the whole time. He planned to kill her and steal the money back so that he could run off with his mistress. Veronica kills him in self-defense. We therefore understand her tentative assumption of the role of a femme fatale to be justified and not based in greed or aspiration, and the foregrounding of her sexuality at the beginning of the film does not become a prediction of a punishing sexuality in the tradition of the femme fatale.

Veronica does kill her husband in the tradition of the femme fatale, but we do not understand it as vengeance or castration. Instead, in a melodramatic fashion, we are swept up into an emotional space characterized by female virtue, which has often been denied to women of color. Interestingly, here Veronica and McQueen appeal to the white/Western art historical tradition of the pietà.

It is not clear that the other widows learn of Veronica’s tragic choice, but, in any case with the heist completed, they each make new lives for themselves—traumatized certainly, but wiser, as often is the case with films offering some kind of sentimental return to order—and they go their separate ways, at least until the chance meeting between Veronica and Alice with which I began. Belle gives her money to a struggling friend who owns a black hair salon. Linda opens her own store in her own name. Alice finds self-fulfillment without the intervention of men. Veronica donates her money to the local public school in honor of her son who was murdered by the police.

Social commentary and anti-racist activism certainly are major components of McQueen’s work, but what we need to remember about Widows and other films by and about non-white and/or non-male individuals is that social engagement should not equate their work with a documentary status or be a requirement for our enjoyment and engagement with those films. What characterizes Widows in addition to its revolutionary attention to non-white-male stories is an interest in allowing those stories to be told through visual pleasure and through the at times irrational emotional configurations afforded by melodrama and film noir. Of course, associating people of color and/or women with irrationality is a tactic of the racist heteropatriarchy, but what I mean to suggest here is that Widows cannot be equated with a documentary-esque performance of racism and/or sexism in heist movies, melodrama, or film noir. While it does accomplish the critical task of making visible how melodrama and film noir focus on white bodies and white stories (often making people of color objectified accessories in the process), the film also sites visual pleasure and complex, problematic even, attachments at its foundation. After all, the film begins with a kiss that quickly cuts to a scene of violence, indicating the pleasure and danger of any erotic-filmic relationship.  

Perhaps we could therefore also use the term narrative desire as formulated by the queer historian of literature Joseph Boone, who argues for a relationship to the text that exhibits both a desire for narrative and a desire to disidentify with the narratives imposed by deconstruction or critique.[4] To understand Widows as an enjoyable movie by an artist of color with fantastic visuals and acting would require the qualifiers of “merely” and “just” to imply that the seasoned critic or the properly deconstructive observer should be looking for the ways in which the film exceeds conventionality, visual pleasure, or the historically congealed markers of genre in order to find a meaning more sophisticated than enjoyment. I wonder if allowing McQueen to exist in a dialectic or even a provisionally non-oppositional space with regard to genre and problematic cultural tropes might be a useful exercise. This is not to say that we can reduce Widows purely to the essentialist pleasures afforded by these genres, but rather to explore the possibility of minoritarian artists existing in both pleasurable and critical ways to the conventions of genre and to the histories of art and film themselves.

Indeed, Widows seeks not to solve the racist history of film and its reception, and perhaps it does not even seek always to deconstruct those discourses, at least in the conventional academic sense. Deconstruction is often another burden we foist upon artists of color anyway, who, in addition to theorizing themselves, must also always bear the burden of theorizing difference [for the benefit of white people]. It is no mistake that Michele Wallace, via Stuart Hall, argues that postmodernism (and the deconstructive apparatus it implies) is itself an appropriation of marginalized temporalities and lives.[5] Widows, in its gendered and racialized appropriations, reminds us of this critical hegemony without fully detaching from the analytical pleasures and possibilities it provides.

In his recent book Stolen Life, Fred Moten takes the Black gesture, the Black “reaching out,” as the impetus for his critique of Linda Williams’s foundational text on melodrama Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Williams foregrounds her text with a consideration of how O.J. Simpson’s trial, itself drenched in melodramatic conventions, engendered a melodrama within her own mind centered on her racialized/racist discomfort with the trial’s outcome. Williams takes special note of visible gestures as exemplary of the corporeal legibility of melodrama in a racialized context: 

“Viewers could thus observe the way Simpson exhaled and half smiled, the way Johnny Cochran, standing behind him, first slapped his shoulder and then rested the side of his head against it; the way, in another view, Kim Goldman, sister of Ron Goldman, let out a howl of pain, and finally, in a gesture of “raced demeanor” that was not seen by the television camera but was much commented on by the media, the way one black juror, upon exiting the courtroom, raised his fist in what some interpreted as a black power salute and others saw simply as the pleasure of being set free.”[6]

Williams thus understands this gesture performed by a Black body as something both illegible and self-explanatory, something akin to her own admitted ambivalence in response to the verdict handed down in the O.J. Simpson trial. Moten, however, takes the raised fist much more seriously as an indication of an inability on Williams’s part to assign intentionality to the Black body in her theorization of racial melodrama. Moten argues:

“More specifically, part of what compels Williams to examine the history of racial melodrama is that a black male juror in the O. J. Simpson criminal trial raised his fist—in relief and/or triumph and/or thanks—when the jury was dismissed upon the reading of the verdict. As if the gesture were evident of something that is, in turn, so self-evident as not to require either mention or elucidation, as if its presumed bad taste were directly linked to a failure, or even absence, of moral reasoning, Williams recites but does not comment on it.”[7]

Moten’s assignment of what might initially seem like an undue amount of emotional investment (as we have all experienced when our melodramatic connection to a certain character in a movie is questioned) in the fist (or the Black gesture generally) actually connects to what he sees as a more pervasive problem in Williams’s text. She seems focused on an inherently conservative rights-based discourse (unlike Berlant and others who have critiqued citizenship itself) and is unable to theorize Blackness vis-à-vis melodrama beyond it being a metaphor for self-making through suffering. Moten also notes a blatant apolitical stance in Williams’s book which he sees as coextensive with an inability or unwillingness to theorize what Black resistance might look like in the racist (not just “raced”) and melodramatic landscape outlined in the text.  

So, Moten charts that path of resistance by returning to the text that germinated studies of melodrama, Peter Brooks’s The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, quoting the moment wherein Brooks rehearses the liminal and spiritual possibilities of melodrama via a racist metaphor found in Denis Diderot’s “Eloge de Richardson.” Diderot, in his melodramatic praise of the proto-melodramatist Samuel Richardson, describes Richardson as a kind of guide who leads us through the dark spaces of our emotional lives. According to Diderot, Richardson “spirits away the mighty phantom which guards the entrance to the cavern [so that] the hideous blackamoor which it masks stands revealed.”[8] Brooks quotes Diderot in his volume thusly:

“The desacralization and sentimentalization of ethics leads us—as Diderot discovered in reading Richardson—into ‘the recesses of the cavern,’ there to discover ‘the hideous Moor’ hidden in our motives and desires.”[9]

Brooks makes no mention of the racial implications of this passage, and one wonders why he includes the “the hideous blackamoor” at all. Moten, like Toni Morrison, argues that Blackness always represents always a metaphor of transgression for the white, racist imagination, which transforms Blackness into a vehicle for white meaning, rather than a material, affective, and discursive way of being in the world and relating to hegemonic and non-hegemonic culture.[10]

With this history in mind, Moten unseats the centering of whiteness exhibited by Diderot, Brooks, and Williams by allowing melodrama to exist in a state of both fantasy and realism, implying that there can be multiple ways of identifying or disidentifying with the problematics of the genre:

“Therefore, one way to think of blackness-as-abolitionism is as the site where madness and melos converge. It’s the site of a kind of unruly music that moves in disruptive, improvisational excess—as opposed to a kind of absenting negation—of the very idea of the (art)work, and it is also the site of a certain lawless, fugitive theatricality, something on the order of that drama that Zora Neale Hurston argues is essential to black life.”[11]

Melodrama becomes a metaphor for thinking about the interiority that Moten argues has been excluded from the racial and filmic imaginary as theorized by Williams and Brooks, as well as a way of taking apart the sanctity of the art object, and by extension the essentialisms of Enlightenment rights-based discourses. The melodramatic gesture, embodied by the raised fist at O.J. Simpson’s trial, becomes an agent of interruption that insists on the vast inner life of minoritarian subjects that resonates infinitely in the problematic, but useful, study of melodrama. We might thus be able to consider more deeply how individual and cultural affects are formed via spectacles of the moving image. All of this is accomplished exactly because of the prominence of racialized visual and narrative codes in melodrama and especially film noir with their foregrounding of class struggle and metaphors of darkness. Melodrama becomes emblematic of the range of feeling not afforded to people of color, whose representational outlets have often been confined to an either/or system of critique or complacency. And finally, racial melodrama is simultaneously not just a critical lens or rhetorical device, as Williams used it, but rather a fantastical emotional matrix that intersects equally with the lived experiences of people of color. Recall, in this vein, the centrality of the Black hair salon to the film’s conclusion and McQueen’s elevation of the mundane into a site of melodramatic identification, as Toni Morrison did before him in works like Jazz (1992).