Malcolm & Marie

John David Washington and Zendaya in Malcolm & Marie.
John David Washington and Zendaya in Malcolm & Marie.
Photo: Dominic Miller/Netflix


Malcolm & Marie




3/5 Stars


Malcolm Elliot (John David Washington), a filmmaker, returns home from his film premiere with his girlfriend Marie Jones (Zendaya). Throughout the night, their relationship is tested as they discuss themselves, their relationship and the film.


Malcolm & Marie is a film that's impossible not to talk about because that is what it is – a film about talking. With laborious monologues and venomous quips, it is easy to see the point the film was trying to get across, but the weakest point was what the movie was anchoring itself on – the script.

Formulated and shot during the early months of the pandemic, Malcolm & Marie attempted to create something simplistic and artful, while still making important points. But while the film is certainly stunning, and gives us a lot to think about, I think it would have benefited from a longer writing period with a few more drafts while this seems like it was rushed out and tried to do too much.

The film begins with the pair returning from the premiere of Malcolm's film. Marie heats up a macaroni and cheese for him, and you can tell immediately from her body language that something is wrong. We don't have to wonder for long as she reveals that she is upset that he did not thank her in his speech. I've always wondered what goes on behind closed doors after someone forgets to thank their partner in their acceptance speech, my mind always goes back to Hillary Swank forgetting to thank Chad Lowe when she won her Oscar for Boys Don't Cry. But as the two discuss this we learn that there is more to it, Malcolm had borrowed so much from Marie's life in his writing of the film, the least he could do was thank her for inspiring him.

The first half an hour of the film is really compelling. The commentary feels a bit trite but still interesting enough, it makes you feel as if it would have been a lovely short film or play, but the problem lies once the film meanders on. The points the characters were trying to make seem repetitive, and after a while, you feel as if you just want to walk into the room and shout, 'Enough now!'

This was clearly based on a lot of films about deep dives into relationships like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and even reminded me a bit of the film versions of Tennessee Williams' plays, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The problem with this was that it wasn't so much of a dialogue as it was a series of monologues, which means that we didn't get exciting back-and-forths between the characters, and I think that their chemistry would have been much more electric if it was written more like a conversation.

One of the first monologues that Malcolm gives is about white critics' understanding of Black art. This is extremely poignant as the industry is dominated by white-critics, and while there is the tendency to put Black filmmakers into one block (the critic compares him to Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins, and he responds with, 'What about William Wyler?') If white filmmakers are allowed to move genres, why can't the same be expected for Black filmmakers? Why can't films by black filmmakers simply be enjoyed without searching for a timely angle? There have been recent drama films such as The Photograph and Sylvie's Love that have told human stories that go beyond the confines of racism, but it still feels like it is authentically black stories, unlike Malcolm & Marie, which was written and directed by Sam Levinson, sounds like a white man's perception of how a Black filmmaker would feel.

When the trailer first came out for the film, there was a lot of discourse online about the age gap between the stars – John David Washington (36) and Zendaya (24). This seems to play into the themes of the film, though. We are told that Marie was a drug addict who got clean when she was 20-years-old and that Malcolm met her while she was in the midst of her addiction. Malcolm, however, was already a man of the world, having had many relationships before Marie. Marie serves almost like Malcolm's muse, inspiring him in his work. But how healthy is this dynamic? Malcolm is clearly the one with the power  – he is the successful one; he is the older one; he is the seemingly talented one. And Marie is the perfect women to have by his side  – she is supportive; she is beautiful; she has enough stories to keep him busy. We have seen powerful men in Hollywood with young women on their arms for decades. What do the women get out of these relationships other than exposure and nice things? This is less about a relationship and more about the dynamic between an artist and his muse.                    

One can draw many comparisons between Malcolm and the writer and director, Sam Levinson. Levinson also forgot to thank his wife at the premiere of his film, Assassination Nation, a film which got a less than favourable review from the LA Times. Writer/directors often use the actors in the films they create as a stand-in for themselves, Noah Baumbach did it with Adam Driver in Marriage Story, Greta Gerwig did it with Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, and Woody Allen does it with almost all of his films. But what makes this different is that Levinson is using a Black man as his mouthpiece, their experiences are not the same. A running bit in the film is Malcolm's distaste for a 'that woman from the LA Times', if a white man played Malcolm and he spent most of the film lamenting about a particular woman it would be seen as misogynistic but Malcolm has to deal with his own form of oppression, so it somehow an easy out for Levinson to use him to air out his own frustrations.

A lot of hype has been around Zendaya's acting, and even though she is mesmerising in certain scenes, I still don't think this is her best work. There are a handful of Euphoria episodes when she's done a better job. Her performance (and Washington's) definitely elevate the film, but it still feels very opening night at the theatre, with how they are overacting and spiralling through their monologues.

However, one cannot help but be transfixed by the cinematography. Shot in black-and-white on 35mm film by cinematographer, Marcell Rév who also works with Levinson and Zendaya on Euphoria, it so sleekly and beautifully done that it almost gives another air to the film. It looks like a piece of art, and the camera work combined with lighting and the costumes (which were provided by the actors themselves), sort of transports you into Malcolm and Marie's world, you feel like you are in the fight with them.

This film had a lot of potential. But it was also created under challenging constraints. Malcolm & Marie would greatly have benefited from more time and more resources. If this was part of the trilogy of Levinson's quarantine work (the first and second being the Euphoria specials) this was the weakest one by far. The script needed more drafts before being filmed, and the actors needed more rehearsal time to get their chemistry flowing.

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