TORONTO • Director Steve McQueen returned to the limelight at the Toronto film festival on Sunday with the feminist heist movie, Widows, at a time when calls are multiplying for heftier roles for women.
It has been five years since the British director released his last movie, 12 Years A Slave (2013), which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and other accolades.
His newest film, starring Viola Davis - the first black woman to be nominated for three Academy Awards, winning Best Supporting Actress for Fences (2016) last year - was adapted from Lynda La Plante's 1983 to 1985 British television series, which McQueen says "just spoke to me as a 13-year-old black boy in London".
"On screen, these four women were being judged by their appearance rather than their character," McQueen told a press conference in Toronto for the film's world premiere. "And at that point, I was too."
In the film, Davis plays Veronica, who lives a cushy life in Chicago bought by her partner Rawlins, (Liam Neeson) who robs people.
When a job goes wrong, leaving Rawlins' gang dead, a local crime boss (Brian Tyree Henry) and his muscle (Daniel Kaluuya) come looking for the money, forcing Veronica to enlist the other women who lost their partners (Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debicki) for a heist of their own, to win their lives back.
The film, co-written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, 2014), also stars Jacki Weaver, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall.
"These women are absolutely catapulted together in dire circumstances and I think it's a terrific metaphor for how change happens because change happens when you're forced into it kicking and screaming and these women are forced to take ownership of their lives," Davis said.
Erivo, making her feature-film debut, said: "Each one of these women has her quirk. They're all very different and yet, somehow, they find connection with one another and help one another take control of their individual lives."
A dearth of good roles for women in Hollywood has, in recent years, precipitated a movement to call for change.
Reflecting on the lack of roles for black women in particular, Davis said: "I just feel like the narratives that are created in Hollywood right now have got to become inclusive.
"They have to reflect the changing world and the changing cultures."