“Malcolm and Marie” features exceptional acting and screenwriting, raising interesting questions about storytelling


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As the first major production to adapt to shooting limitations set by the pandemic, “Malcolm and Marie” features only two actors, solely focused on capturing the verbal altercations happening on a particular night.

One of this year’s most heavily anticipated films, “Malcolm and Marie” opens with an artist reveling in his own vanity.

Malcolm (John David Washington) is a filmmaker on a high from the positive response to the premiere of his new film. But his celebration abruptly ends when his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), reminds him that he forgot to thank her in his acceptance speech that night. The seemingly honest slip-up brings to the surface larger issues in their relationship and triggers a long heated argument, as both characters’ personal flaws clash and intertwine in this emotionally aggressive film.

Written and directed by Sam Levinson, the creator of the hit series “Euphoria” that also stars Zendaya, “Malcolm and Marie” mirrors the same level of violent intensity, but with a gentler investigative voice that allows viewers to dive deep into the intricacies of the two self-righteous, yet endearing characters. As the first major production to adapt to shooting limitations set by the pandemic, the film features only two actors, solely focused on capturing the verbal altercations happening on this particular night. The lack of a traditional plot structure is charming and intimate, and surprisingly never gets boring.

Zendaya and Washington are sensational in defining their characters’ fears and intentions with an ongoing series of monologues that rattle back and forth like a tennis match. Zendaya plays Marie, a woman with a difficult past as a drug addict who seems to lack a deep sense of self esteem and clings to others to corroborate her sense of importance. She never seems to find this validation in Malcolm, who is obsessed with being recognized as an artistic genius, and lacks the mental capacity to uplift others.

These narcissistic qualities blind Malcolm from seeing other people’s perspectives, ironic, given this is precisely the opposite of what he claims his movie is doing. His film is about a young woman whose struggle with addiction closely resembles Marie’s own past, yet he consistently denies that it is in any way based on her. In doing so, he indicates his refusal to listen to the very person whose story he is telling.

Washington does a good job of mocking Malcolm’s ego with comedy at all the right moments. In contrast to much of the rest of the film industry, “Malcolm and Marie” features a masculine character being hysterical with his desires, a role usually reserved for belittling women.

A significant portion of “Malcolm and Marie” focuses on the response Malcolm gets from critics at his premiere: generally positive, but grossly oversimplified. He feels that the media ignored the artistic aspects of his film and wrote it off as merely political commentary, just because it’s a movie about Black people.

Malcolm is frustrated by this response, and for the most part he is right. Society is unable to imagine a world where Black people make art that is not solely based in their oppression. However, Malcolm does seem to exploit his female lead at times. He depicts her with excessive nudity, and his immediate dismissal of this criticism ties back to the way he ignores Marie despite her perspective being essential to his film.

One of the biggest questions “Malcolm and Marie” raises is whether it should be okay to tell a story that is not your own. In order to portray an underrepresented experience, you must commit to uplifting the voices of that group, rather than making it all about yourself and your artistic ambition. Malcolm, however, cannot stand the thought of the reception being redirected towards a broader message than just himself.

Levinson, a white man, has seen some controversy himself for doing exactly this: telling a story that is not his own and hiding behind Black characters to promote a message that is questionable coming from a white man. Malcolm’s belief that the message of his work should be the same regardless of who it comes from is a reasonable complaint from a Black filmmaker in a white industry, but a bit eye raising coming from Levinson. Ultimately, Levinson is saying he should be able to write freely about Black people and women without fear of repercussions.

Levinson’s irresponsible portrayal of outside perspectives is problematic, no matter how impeccable his writing may be. His characterization of Malcolm is motivated by Levinson’s desire to shape his own societal statement, and by failing to consider the effects or the accuracy of his depiction, Malcolm essentially becomes a figurehead for Levinson’s personal grievances. We see this often in the film industry: marginalized groups are only represented when it benefits the privileged people who are behind these movies and tv shows.

The controversy that comes with appropriating someone else’s story for creative purposes is front and center in this film. “Malcolm and Marie,” with its stunning writing, exceptional acting and rightfully-received backlash, never answers these questions, but it asks them, and perhaps that is enough.