Malcolm and Marie and What Most White Critics got Wrong
Can critics accept a film about the trials and tribulations of a Black relationship without politicizing it?
Malcolm and Marie isn’t for everyone, but those who love theater and well-directed, well-written, and brilliantly performed one location films are going to love every second of this tale that explores one couple’s complicated and dysfunctional relationship.
Malcolm (John David Washington) is a filmmaker, Marie (Zendaya) is his model girlfriend. Their race is always at the center of this film, as it should be. It’s their story, told through a very specific, relevant, and needed lens. I'm afraid I have to disagree with some critics who say this film is a modern version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” It is not. That analysis is a simplified lazy attempt at categorizing this film, and it’s entirely off the mark given the noticeable racial differences between the two movies and the in-depth exploration of how race in Hollywood affects, in no small degree, the way Black couples deal with one another within that space. Malcolm and Marie isn’t about male patriarchy either. At times it seems it can be about the deep psychological issues that draw people to one another. In this case, the couple’s race measured within a creative space dominated by Whites and how that dynamic shapes their relationship.
The script, written by Sam Levinson, isn’t written as a typical three-act, and it’s fine considering that the performances and direction form a unique arc that keeps us on the journey. There are no major revelations and no resolutions revealed; no highs, no lows, lots of middle, lots more fighting, making up, and more fighting. For me, the script starts in Act Two and remains in Act Two to the end. However, there is so much here that works, and I can’t understand the negative reviews from critics. Could the reason for that be partly because the script speaks to the problems of White critics who critique Black films? From the looks of the Rotten Tomatoes score and reviews, the answer may be yes.
(An excerpt from the screenplay by Sam Levinson.)
Afterward, I talked to like six critics… The white guy from Variety, loved it. The white guy from Indiewire, loved it. The white girl from the LA Times, loved it. She kept saying I’m the next Spike Lee, the next Barry Jenkins, the next John Singleton… And I just looked at her and was like “What about William Wyler?”
And you could tell for like three whole seconds she was thinking,
“Was William Wyler black?”
And then she realized, “ohhhhh… that’s racist too.” And her whole face got so flushed… like so red. I was dying. And then she kept tripping over her words and like, saying the movie was so emotional that she couldn’t think straight. (beat)
But what was interesting is you could see that because I’m black and the movie stars a black woman she was already trying to frame it through a political lens. And the reality is it’s about a girl who’s trying to get clean. Are there certain obstacles because she’s a black woman, fuck yeah..? But it’s not a film about race. It’s about shame and guilt and how that shit is inescapable… And it’s annoying that so many of these journalists can’t help but flex their fucking college educations -
For me, the central question of this film is:
Can we accept a film about the trials and tribulations of a Black relationship without politicizing it?
In this case, we must politicize this film because it isn’t just about a Black couple going through a difficult phase in their relationship; it’s about how that relationship functions within the Hollywood space. If Malcolm and Marie are the protagonists, then Hollywood and its critics are playing the antagonists here. Watching this film made it seem like Sam Levinson was intentionally creating an infinity mirror effect with both his writing and directing choices. Because on the surface, the obvious is never obvious. Instead, the more we think it’s about one thing, it stretches its boundaries and all the ideas in it.
We know Marie (Zendaya) is upset initially, and the reason isn’t revealed until much later. On the other hand, Malcolm (John David Washington) is reveling in his Hollywood moment, singing and dancing around a large modern duplex house lent to them by the production company that financed his movie. Marie is in the kitchen, begrudgingly cooking up some boxed Mac and Cheese as they await the reviews to pour in. Maybe if one is paying too close attention to the dialogue, you will begin to feel as though Levinson is telling us what to focus on:
But my problem with her even before she wrote this dumbfuck review is the same after reading this dumbfuck review… She’s not looking at the film, the ideas within it, the emotions and the craft. Cinema doesn’t need to have a message, it needs to have a heart, an electricity. Idiots like this reduce everything to zeitgeist political messaging and hyperbole. Films shouldn’t tow a party line, they should be messy and fucking confounding. They should disturb you and move you — you should walk away wandering what it actually fucking means… Morons like this sap the world of its mystery, they want everything spelled out with ABC blocks. And they’re terrified to embrace anything potentially dangerous because they’re constantly trying to predict the culture.
But my advice is not to focus on just one thing while watching Malcolm and Marie. Embrace everything: the choices the actors and the writer/director offered, the black and white film, the age difference, the size of the space they seem to lose each other in, the verbal abuse that is shared so easily, the lack of sex, casting Marie as a light-skinned Black female, to Malcolm being cast as a dark-skinned Black male, to the boxed Mac and Cheese, to the choice of songs played, to the incessant cigarette smoke, to the laughter shared, to the ending where we watch them in the distance, standing alone. Yes, enjoy the messiness, which I believe will challenge a generation of audiences so used to the traditional three-act Marvel mega-blockbusters that they may very well tune out. Engage with every part of this brilliant film and let it have its way with your emotions, intellect, bias, racism, feminism, and patriarchy. Let it challenge you.
And if the writer’s ideas don’t do it for you, watch just for the performances because Zendaya and John David Washington are both a tour de force. They are both grandiose, funny, passionate, and electric together.
And one more thing, fuck the critics.
Linda Nieves-Powell is a professional writer and a member of the Writers Guild East. Her novel “FreeStyle” is published by Simon and Schuster, her short story, “The Fly Ass Puerto-Rican Girl from the Stapleton Projects” is published by Akashic Books. Procter and Gamble commissioned Linda to write the “Nueva Latina” monologues, a stage play for Orgullosa, its social media brand. Her award-winning play, “Yo Soy Latina” has performed at over 400 colleges in the U.S, off-Broadway, and at the Tony-award winning regional theater company Crossroads. Her full-length screenplay “Six of Me,” was a semi-finalist at the 2013 Sundance Screenwriting Lab. Linda has studied TV Writing with Alan Kingsman. She is currently developing the screenplay, Idalis and Selenis Go Freestyle.