Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm & Marie

2021, R, 106 min. Directed by Sam Levinson. Starring John David Washington, Zendaya.

REVIEWED By Selome Hailu, Fri., Jan. 29, 2021

Writer-director Sam Levinson’s titular Malcolm (Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are gorgeous: draped in glitzy designer fashion, living in a too-perfect Hollywood home, attending exclusive parties, mingling with big names. Underneath that exterior, they hide a mess of baggage, abuse, and manipulation. Unfortunately, though, it isn’t the kind of mess Levinson intended.

Malcolm, a film director, rages about how critics are the bane of creativity, blaming “the white girl from the LA Times” for the underrepresentation of Black filmmakers, while hypocritically never paying mind to what Black critics may be up to (hey, I’m right here!). His girlfriend Marie, whose history of addiction Malcolm fictionalized for the screen without giving credit, points out when “the white girl” has made a point. She makes Malcolm see the value of the authenticity that his critics look for. Still, she seems to agree with him on the whole, and doesn’t take a clear stance on Malcolm’s insistence that his films need not be political. Neither character emerges as a moral compass, nor do they reach any meaningful conclusions together, leaving the film’s own ideology inconsistent and illegible. Does criticism matter? Is film inherently political? Is Malcolm & Marie political? Levinson doesn’t seem to know, instead rerouting Malcolm’s relentless aggression to Marie.

Zendaya’s moving performance might have made the film worth it for me. She flows through unthinkable restraint to gratifying outbursts and back again, all with the seamless “authenticity” her character fixates on. And while Levinson’s dialogue doesn’t match the depth of the character (did she really need to call Malcolm both “an emotional terrorist” and “emotionally obtuse” in one movie?), Marie’s heart is the screenplay’s constant anchor. It was beyond difficult to watch her endure 100 minutes of Malcolm’s cruelty. But seeing a woman with such a painful past able to recognize her partner’s verbal abuse and name it as such felt rare and refreshing.

Clever diegetic needle drops advance the plot, and lush, famous vocals are met by images of equal weight. Rich lighting and delicate framing enhance the actors’ presence onscreen. All in all, Malcolm & Marie is less a coherent narrative than it is a beautified slideshow of ideas. These ideas are often compelling – but still, just ideas. I’d say more about the things I wish Levinson had done, but he seems antagonistic to the ideas of any critic. I, for one, am not inclined to change his mind.

In theatres now, and available on Netflix Feb. 5.

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More Sam Levinson Films
Assassination Nation
Dark satire lets social media tear us apart

Richard Whittaker, Sept. 21, 2018

More by Selome Hailu
Inbetween Girl
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Sept. 10, 2021


Malcolm & Marie, Sam Levinson, John David Washington, Zendaya

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