A scene early on in Malcolm and Marie, featuring Zendaya and John David Washington
By Josephine Rivera-Hoagland, staff writer
At what point does a love story turn into a story about love? Two people collide by chance and begin a “will they, won’t they” journey, but when it turns into a relationship full of compromise and sacrifice for each other, is that where the actual story begins?
So it does for Sam Levinson’s unique film, Malcolm & Marie, released on Netflix earlier this year. The titular characters return to their mansion-like house after Malcolm’s successful movie premiere, lauded by critics for its portrayal of a drug-addicted Black woman. Marie—played by Zendaya—and Malcolm—played by John David Washington—then go off on a series of arguments that lasts through the night, stretching from topics about racism in the film industry to where inspiration comes from.
Although filmed beautifully, the fights are at times exhausting, as the pair fails to understand one another. This slow collapse pocketed with moments of tense truce works through the characters’ backstories and motivations, exploring their emotions in whirlwind arguments and thoroughly building their dynamic. Marie wants to be seen and heard through her acting, yet she feels shadowed by Malcolm, who used her complicated past as inspiration. She calls him out for failing to thank her during his acceptance speech and not casting her despite Marie’s close connection to the story. At one point, she pulls out a knife and holds it to her breast, crying a little, only to drop it a few moments later and walk off confidently, reveling in her ability to prove her acting skills to Malcolm and spite him.
Meanwhile, Malcolm believes that Marie is taking his actions too personally and overreacting, victimizing herself because she wants to feel broken. He claims credit for helping Marie get clean and loving her when she doesn’t even love herself.
The plot never tries to surprise the audience with new developments or twists, but this keeps the film grounded and realistic. The focus is all on the actors, with each giving a near-flawless performance. Their characters are well developed and complex, yet utterly different in personal views; this seems to draw them to each other despite driving a wedge.
However, the script could have been shortened, and not all of their fights revealed a new aspect of the lovers. The film itself glorifies the pair’s toxicity at points, with many of their arguments ending with the two reconciling briefly rather than having a mutual understanding of the situation. This disconnect hovers over each of their interactions, and as the night turns to dawn, the audience still has no idea whether their relationship will ultimately end or grow stronger.
Despite the plot’s lackluster appearance, the cinematography is beautiful. The black and white focuses the attention on the actors’ expressions while the camera follows them through the house, and the lack of bright colors purposely showcases the couple’s interactions.
And their arguments–exhausting seems too weak of a word at times. Zendaya, perhaps inspired by her work on Euphoria, seems to release a steady stream of pent-up rage that stems from her troubled past, while Washington’s character refuses to concede any of his mistakes, nor does he accept the most constructive criticism. Their stubborn personalities challenge the notion of unconditional love, and their differences quickly form a chasm between the two.
However, it would be hard to write an honest review without mentioning one of the things the characters have in common: both are African-American. Despite Malcolm being a great filmmaker regardless of his skin, he is pinned as a Black artist while Marie is seen as his loyal girlfriend. However, Levinson works hard to make sure that their backgrounds and personalities do not stereotype the lovers. Malcolm was raised comfortably with a father as a college professor while Marie turned to drugs after a hard early life, abandoning what would’ve been a successful acting career.
Meanwhile, the film demonstrates the challenge of African American artists, who struggle to make their art anything more than a political statement in the eyes of their white critics and peers. In turn, they are expected to represent the whole of the African American community—even though their race is one of the only things shared among all of them. This burden forces creators like Malcolm into a box; they must stay inside the drawn lines if they want to make a “poignant” statement about ethnicity, poverty, drugs, or anything else typically associated with African Americans. The monochromatic cinematography itself brought to light the contrast between their skin color and their white clothing.
Malcolm and Marie exemplifies films made during the pandemic, and its discussion about race parallels the Black Lives Matter movement while exploring what it means to be part of the African-American community. Although the movie may unintentionally bore the audience at times, the themes that come through are worth talking about, especially when the nation is questioning its conscience and attitude towards marginalized communities.
Malcolm and Marie is available on the Netflix streaming service. Rated R