Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins, two Oscar winners for Best Picture and some of the most notable filmmakers of our time, are often associated together because of the level of their achievement within their race and without. Yet, these two artists happen to come from completely different backgrounds.
McQueen was born in London and had a long, strenuous climb up the ladder of both academic institutions like NYU and Royal School of Arts, and then in the festival circuit with a number of notable short films. His remarkable breakthrough features, Hunger and Shame stunned audiences all over the world, landing him a major release with Fox Searchlight, which was 12 Years a Slave, one of the most subtle and powerful pictures about race and slavery of the past decade.
Jenkins arguably had an even harder and slower climb after he graduated from Florida State University, a journey after which he was greatly rewarded. Not being able to put out a feature for eight years after his debut work, Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins kept busy with development and advertising. The hunger that must have been building up during this period was expressed in Moonlight, a film that pushed and challenged the artistry of America’s independent film with its simply beautiful and remarkably subtle portrayal of a child’s development in a seemingly forgotten part of the world.
After much hard work, careful planning and anticipation, both McQueen and Jenkins are getting a lot more freedom to push new boundaries. The filmmakers are achieving this in completely unique ways, which paints a positive picture of the diversity that black artists are able to express in their work with major production companies.
McQueen co-wrote Widows with best-selling author Gillian Flynn. The film is based on a British mini-series from the 1980s that has been transported to a U.S. setting, and notably is a heavy genre film. Even McQueen himself identified it as so in his statement to Variety. Its central team of grieving widows and desperate women is notable for being racially diverse — Cynthia Erivo and Viola Davis are black, Michelle Rodriguez is Latina, and Elizabeth Debicki is caucasian. There are also major roles for actors of color such as Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya. Moreover, Widows is the rare major release to feature female heroines who get to carry the gun.
Barry Jenkins adapted James Baldwin’s novel, If Beal Street Could Talk, himself and the film stars Kiki Layne and Stephan James as Clementine “Tish” Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, two romantic partners forced apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape. When Tish finds out she is pregnant while Fonny is in prison, she races against the clock with help from her family and her lawyer to find evidence to exonerate Fonny.
Widows will be released on November 16 by 20th Century Fox. Beal Street will follow soon after with a November 30 release by Annapurna Pictures, who have lately been upping the ante with their independent projects.