Review: Malcolm And Marie
Caitlin Barr reviews Netflix’s latest release Malcolm And Marie, starring renowned actress Zendaya.
“It’s not a film about race. No. It’s about shame, it’s about guilt, and how that shit is inescapable.” John David Washington’s line, spoken five minutes into Sam Levinson’s new Netflix release Malcolm and Marie, does a good job in summing up what his film aims to be. And the script is so self-referential that I’m not actually sure whether or not that was the point.
Malcolm and Marie, the first film to be entirely written and made during the Covid-19 pandemic, follows its two leads in near-real-time after they return from the premiere of Malcolm’s new film. Tensions rise thanks to Malcolm’s ingratitude and Marie’s desire to prove herself to him, and we learn a great deal about the couple’s history.
The film can easily be accused of putting style over substance, but does that matter when the style is so beautiful? Stunningly framed shots rendered on sumptuous black-and-white 35mm film are married with the enchanting acting chops of John David Washington and Zendaya, whose chemistry is electric. Still, I would argue that the screenplay is so pretentious and dubious that disappointment will be the key feeling I take from viewing it, rather than marveling at the visuals and the wonderful performances.
One key scene was particularly strange, as Malcolm went on a tirade against white reviewers who assume that any work by a black director is inherently political. This is a perfectly reasonable argument to make, and I fully appreciated Malcolm’s stance of irritation at being treated differently because of his blackness. The whole film so far had felt like Sam Levinson subtly (or not so subtly) inserting himself into the character of Malcolm. I assumed the director was drawing on his experience as a black filmmaker, however, when I looked him up and discovered he was white, the whole scene seemed hollow and bizarre. Don’t get me wrong, I think both John David Washington and Zendaya are amazing in their roles and it was certainly refreshing to see two black characters given so much screen time – but it seems odd to me that Sam Levinson chose to represent himself (as that seems like what he was looking to do) as a black man rather than a white man.
The screenplay is somewhat ruined […] by the fact that every single moment of tenderness was immediately negated by a drawn-out rant…
Discussions of race in the film, while interesting and thought-provoking, seem to be from a white man’s perspective in hindsight, which is deeply ironic given that Malcolm goes into detail about the white saviour trope in media. But: ‘this is not a film about race’. Perhaps Levinson was making a point that I missed amongst all the yelling and insults, but it felt distasteful.
Levinson’s reference to the male gaze felt strange too, given that at the moment Malcolm is polemicising on it, Marie is lying seductively, nipples poking through her shirt, the camera essentially objectifying her. Again, was that the point? References to other women who do not appear on screen from Malcolm’s past seem to solidify this slightly misogynistic tendency, whether it is supposed to be an ugly facet of Malcolm’s character or a genuine belief of Levinson’s.
The screenplay is somewhat ruined by this and by the fact that every single moment of tenderness was immediately negated by a drawn-out rant from Malcolm about how difficult his life was. These monologues got tiring after a while, however brilliantly John David Washington was at capturing the erratic mood. I assume both characters are supposed to be unlikeable (Malcolm more so than Marie, in my opinion), and that’s a trope I’m getting a little weary of. While the film ended on a highly ambiguous note, I would have loved to see some nicer moments in amongst the rage and borderline-abusive insults. 100 minutes of whining and shouting got tiring.
I wish I had more to praise in Malcolm and Marie than some nice angles, a banging soundtrack, and a couple of Oscar-bait performances, but I don’t think I do. It’s a shame that a film that seemed so interesting fell so short of my expectations.
Malcolm and Marie