Viola Davis Deserved a Huge Payday for Widows

Viola Davis Deserved a Huge Payday for Widows

This month on You Love To See It (fanbyte’s movie podcast!) our theme is Payday May. That is, we’re watching movies where an actor infamously got a massive paycheck from a movie, according to Hollywood legend and/or the reporting we could find on the subject. 

This week, we’re watching Widows, an intense thriller about a group of women who were widowed by their con man husbands, featuring Viola Davis in the central role, and other incredible performances by Michelle Rodriguez, Daniel Kaluuya, and an entire ensemble of excellent actors. But this is largely Viola Davis’ show. We chose it for her — for the very deliberate purpose of highlighting the sad fact, during payday may — that actresses of color routinely get paid less than white women, and often far less than white men. So, what probably should or could have been a huge payday, especially for such an impressive performance… was not. Davis is an incredible advocate for women of color in her field, and frankly deserves all the paydays in the world.

As always, you can listen to the show in the embed, or find it on your podcatcher of choice here. I’m including our show notes here, which contain some creative capitalization, but should give a good sense of our research and thoughts moving into recording day.

Our Synopsis

Widows is a thriller that starts with a gang of crime dudes in Chicago getting screwed in a job gone bad, and then centers on their wives left behind. It focuses especially on the messes the shitty (and they are all shitty) guys left for these women, their struggles, and their plan to do something about it. It’s set against the backdrop of a political fight and hotly contested election in an impoverished ward in Chicago, with intense racial and class politics that play out in many ways throughout the film.

And now, for our notes:

Fernanda’s must-discuss items:

I was honestly surprised at how hard it was to find a movie for this week. We started with the idea of picking one example of an egregiously underpaid woman of color, and, given the state of *gestures broadly* all of this, I didn’t really think we would have a hard time. But whenever I ran across lists of actresses who got notoriously lower pages than their male counterparts, for instance, it was like 98% white women (Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, Michelle Williams in All the Money in the World, etc). The women of color who appeared the most were on TV (Tracee Ellis Ross in Black-ish and Arden Cho in Teen Wolf are the ones that stick out to me). While there are elements of this difficulty that are universal (it’s not that easy, in general, to know exactly what an actor learned for a role), I do think it’s strange (symptomatic?) that we don’t have any more outrage-inducing examples out there. The one big example I could find, interestingly enough, also centered a white woman; Jessica Chastain (bless her, by the way) found Octavia Spencer was grossly underpaid and from then on Octavia started demanding what she was worth. I do wonder how much the fact that we don’t see or talk about more of these examples stems from, honestly, just a general lack of interest in hearing about these stories. I mean, it’s easy to get outraged at Jennifer fucking Lawrence not getting paid as much as her male counterparts, but what about all the other women who aren’t as visible? And call me crazy, but I highly doubt that it’s just a matter of women of color generally getting paid well enough that we don’t get mad at their salaries. I mean, just look at any list of highest-earning actors in Hollywood and tell me you don’t really see a bit of a pattern there. There aren’t many women, for starters, but women of color? I recently saw ONE, Zoe Saldana, who happens to be in some of the most profitable franchises in Hollywood (and a few years ago there were quite a few write-ups on how, despite being in said franchises, she was still making less than a lot of her male and white counterparts). It’s really wild that it’s 2022 and we just sort of accept that this is how the world works.
Having said all that, the reason we went with Viola Davis is because she’s always been a voice for women of color in the industry. This is a great write-up from net-a-porter, which quotes her Emmy speech:

On winning an Emmy in 2015 for her role as law professor Annalise Keating in ABC’s hit series How to Get Away with Murder (the first African American ever to win in the Lead Actress category), Davis didn’t squander the moment with thank yous. Instead, she talked about the lack of opportunity for women of color, quoting her heroine Harriet Tubman, and delivered one of the most rousing speeches of the year: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes – people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”

widows veronica and belle

I truly do think some people, when we talk about pay gaps, think we’re referring to some white dude sitting on a chair saying “I’m just gonna pay this female candidate less because she’s not a male candidate” and we know it is so much more complicated than that. That when ignorant (or straight-up intellectually dishonest people) say things like “Oh but it’s only fair that this dude makes more money, since his movies bring in more profits,” or “so you’re saying a less experienced actor should make as much as the more experiences actor?” they are missing (or straight-up ignoring) the deep, systemic factors that led to those people being in such different negotiation positions in the first place. How many blockbuster leading roles are there for women of color? Sure, we can now accept women (hot ones, anyway) as superheroes, but how many of them are being WRITTEN with BOTH non-white, non-male characters in mind? And, even deeper than that, how conditioned are we to automatically lean toward a certain physique and a certain set of characteristics in order to find a character worthy or compelling or “believable” in these leading roles? Again, from Viola:

But when I ask about the several nominations awarded to non-white artists this year, following 2017’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, she isn’t impressed. “Here’s the thing: it’s not about the Oscars,” she starts, “it’s about how we’re included in every aspect of the movie-making business. When you look at a role as a director or producer that is not ethnically specific, can you consider an actor of color, to invest in that talent? The problem is, if it’s not an urban or civil rights drama, they don’t see you in the story. People need to understand that they shouldn’t see people of color one way. We don’t always have to be slaves or in the ’hood or fighting the KKK. I could be in a romantic comedy. I could be in Gone Girl. Or Wild. I could be seen the same way as Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore. I actually came from the same sort of background; I went to Juilliard, I’ve done Broadway. I’ve worked with the Steven Spielbergs. I should be seen the same way. That’s what I think is missing: imagination.”

OK, just one more quote from that article and I’ll stop (this time on pay):

There’s also the issue of pay, “especially for actresses of color,” she says. “If Caucasian women are getting 50% of what men are getting paid, we’re not even getting a quarter of what white women are getting paid. We don’t even get the magazine covers white women get. And that is not speaking in a way that is angry,” she adds. “They deserve everything they get paid. Nicole Kidman deserves it. Reese Witherspoon deserves it. Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Frances McDormand… But guess what – I deserve it too. So does Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry. We’ve put the work in too.”

Moving on to the movie, specifically… I was also in awe of the framing in the scene you mentioned, Danielle, where Colin Farrell’s asshole character is talking to his assistant when we first find she isn’t a doormat, and you don’t see the characters at any point, you just see the car traveling through the neighborhood with the dialogue in the background. Such a smart and interesting choice, and what a smart way to add weight to what could have been a completely unremarkable conversation in a car.widows sauna
I also love the choices of the female leads. I thought it was a very interesting way to give us these peaks into entirely different lives and entirely different ways with which women struggle and deal with those struggles. The cycle of abuse in which Alice had seemingly been stuck in and how she was able to finally break out of it; Linda’s struggle between dealing with the grief of losing her husband and having to contend with the wreckage that he — a whole mess of a man — left behind; the contrast between Veronica’s inner pain and outwardly tough attitude while dealing with yet another battle with grief; Belle’s hustle in order to simply afford to exist… Part of me wishes we were able to go deeper into each woman’s universe, but I also understand that would have taken away from the movie’s action quality and the central plot. And overall I think the balance is actually pretty good. There’s a lot hinted at, from the cycle of domestic abuse to the consequences of systemic poverty, but ultimately left to our own interpretation so that we can focus on the things being stolen and exploded and shot at and stuff. There really is a lot of rich text going on underneath, on power, on race, on politics, and, of course, on how women fit into all of it, all of it kept under a layer of just cool shit happening.
On that note, I found this little excerpt from a Time review particularly interesting:

“The women of Widows get things done not because they buy “You can do anything!” bathroom-mirror bromides, but because they don’t. They have to sell the idea of self-confidence to themselves, because that’s mostly how self-confidence works; it’s a self-renewing resource, not a fountain with an autopump. (That’s true not just for women, though it often seems that men have an easier time latching onto the idea.)”

Random comment: Elizabeth Debicki is 6-foot-3! And I, for one, welcome our new amazon overlord.
Michelle Rodriguez originally said no to the part, because she didn’t wanna play “a weak bitch.” She has a very interesting meditation on what her idea of empowerment looked like, vs. what she calls the “soft power” of women whom she grew up pitying rather than admiring. From an interview with Vanity Fair:

“It was my ego, basically,” Rodriguez said during a recent interview near her home in Venice, California. “My idea of strength is a demonstrative exaggeration of male qualities: assertive, independent, always making the right decisions, never letting anybody swindle you. I didn’t see the strength in these women. I was like, ‘Why would I want to play a weak bitch? Why would I want to play the reality of poverty in the ghetto?’ I grew up like that…

“Rodriguez was certain there was nothing McQueen could say to her that would convince her to do his movie. “It’s called Widows, and you’re talking about female empowerment? The entire title is about a man,” she said. But with Widows, McQueen said, he wanted to put real women on-screen, so he talked to Rodriguez about poverty and what female strength really looks like in neighborhoods where it persists. “I had this big self-reflective moment,” Rodriguez said of their conversations. “I looked at myself, and I saw this surface layer, papier-mâché creature with no dimension, and I said, ‘I need to do this movie.’ It will help me see the beauty in my mother, the beauty of all those women that I felt sorry for growing up. Nobody talks about soft power. In these poverty-stricken areas, where this machismo is through the roof, to see the strength in these women, raising these kids by themselves. It always brought me such deep sorrow, which is why I never wanted to go near that.” 

Quick note of praise for Daniel Kaluuya, who will inhabit my nightmares for weeks after this TERRIFYING role. This man can really go from kind-eyed doting boyfriend to ruthless sociopath with somewhat alarming ease. Range, my dears. Range!

Danielle’s must-discuss items:

we start out with a BITE (was this a reference to The Grey — another Liam Neeson thriller, that one is pretty cool and has wolves?)
There’s so much going on, and so many characters, but we get right into the action here on multiple levels. It’s pretty economical and grabs the attention nicely.
VIOLA. The screaming at the table, the breathing, the intensity of her emotion and her attempts to get under control. Her whole journey here is incredible, and that breathing/getting it under control is paid off so well in the end, where she’s able to shoot the bastard and run off with explosions in the background.
That early Daniel Kaluuya scene, with the rapping and shooting. We need to discuss the tension and even playfulness then MURDER. We see that again in the scene where Jamal threatens Veronica, being all cute and playful with the dog, then choking them. There’s this play, confusion, SNAP cadence to it.widows jatemme and jamal
Lmao ok, but criminal scrapbooking 
I like some of the audio choices here, and framing decisions — what we see, what we hear. The terrifying scene where Bash is being killed but the camera turns to Jatemme turning up the football game. The scene of the younger racist prick politician talking about his bullshit, but the framing is outside his car. The film makes interesting choices about what’s crucial to witness, how events are mixed up, etc.
The scene with Veronica and Alice is so intense and raw and these actresses are fucking incredible. There are ways in which this movie is like a darker and more intense Hustlers…
I LOVE BELLE — the no nonsense, super hard working, queer (I think!) runner who becomes the getaway driver. 
There are tiny pockets of humor — the dog going everywhere, some of the moments of Linda and Alice complaining about Veronica — in what is, at its core, a very intense and heavy movie.
Harry sucks! What a twist! I was actually pretty scared everything would fall the fuck apart after the twist, but actually, these women doubling down and getting shit done — and improving each of their lives without the shitty-ass man in each — made it all pretty wonderful.
The action towards the end was a huge, satisfying payoff, and again, the coda at the very very end pays off the thesis — these women don’t need the shitty dudes.

Author: Deann Hawkins