There's No Such Thing as Fighting Fair In 'Malcolm & Marie'

The Netflix film starring Zendaya and John David Washington is not the Black love story you were looking for.

Feb 5 2021, 12:00pm

As the old Biblical adage goes, “Love is patient, love is kind / It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” Malcolm and Marie, the couple we spend a few hours with in the new Netflix film of the same name, seem to be set on doing the opposite. When they get in a room together, they are easily irritated, sharp-tongued, and petty, with a scorecard full of their partner’s indiscretions. Fire and ice, they make any quarantine fight with your significant other seem tame, and though it can be hard to watch the moments when they seem to disguise their rage for each other as love, the Sam Levinson-directed movie is as captivating as it is heartbreaking. 

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Malcolm & Marie, out today, is not the film that is setting you up for a picture-perfect Valentine’s Day with your sweetheart; nor is it the celebration of Black love you were probably looking for. Instead, the film explores what happens in relationships when a photo falls and the frame shatters; just like the lovers themselves, you’re left focusing on their flaws instead of the bigger picture.

Malcolm, a promising filmmaker (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return home after the premiere of Malcolm’s highly anticipated new movie about Imani, a 20-year-old woman with a drug problem who is trying her hand at sobriety. This is the biggest night of Malcolm’s life, and yet, Marie is more excited about her smoke break than Malcolm’s achievement. It’ll be a long night before we understand why the two are not seeing eye to eye. 

Malcolm and Marie are the only people who exist in this world, giving the audience a front-row seat to their undoing. Washington and Zendaya are also the only two performers on set, due to Zendaya asking Levinson to write and direct a film during quarantine (Both she and Washington are credited as executive producers). At times, their rapport conjures the same intimacy of Rue and Ali’s banter in the Euphoria special, which isn’t surprising considering the HBO show and Netflix film share Levinson, Zendaya, and cinematographer Marcell Rév. The result is an explosive display of toxicity, on both of their parts—one that also leaves us cringing at the moments when they remind us a little too much of ourselves. 

We quickly learn that Malcolm and Marie are not the sort of lovers who finish each other’s sentences. The first thing that gets under Malcolm’s skin is the feedback from white critics, particularly a backhanded compliment from a woman at the LA Times at the premiere. “She kept saying I’m the next Spike Lee, the next Barry Jenkins, the next John Singleton,” Malcolm says. “I just looked at her and was like, What about William Wyler?” And although the fictional critic's comment was certainly a reductive one to make about a Black creator, the conversation it sparks between Malcolm and Marie establishes their personalities: Marie is the realist, arguing that he’s spending time worrying about a review that, at that time, hasn't even been written yet, while Malcolm is an overthinker. They approach the same scenario vastly differently. 

The ironic thing about Malcolm’s commentary on white criticism of Black art is that reviews of this film (the one we're watching, not the fictional one) will certainly fall prey to exactly the sort of underdeveloped analysis that Malcolm is talking about, like this characterization published by The Globe and Mail: “It’s an obnoxious gripe about everything and anything that is so devoid of wit and imagination that it ends up being about nothing at all.” Critiques of this kind, which we will surely see more of, betray the unspoken assumption that a film starring two Black performers has to be about something. But Malcolm sees the work of all creators, and particularly Black ones, as something that doesn’t always need to be politicized. “Cinema doesn’t need to have a message; it needs to have a heart,” he says. 

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He could just as easily be talking about Malcolm & Marie. The film's bare-bones set-up, with two actors in one location, only amplifies the emotion. And at the end of the day, the film seems to suggest, these particular characters aren't victims of the outside world so much as they are victims of each other and themselves. 

One question is all it takes to launch the couple into an emotional war zone. “Did you have fun tonight?” asks Malcolm at the beginning of the film. Marie dances around the question until we learn what’s been bothering her: He forgot to thank her during his speech, an action that Malcolm says he’s apologized for throughout the night. Thus begins a long verbal tennis match in which characters and audience alike wrestle with the question of who is in the "right" here. But is there anyone who is right in this situation? 

“It’s not just about you forgetting to thank me, Malcolm,” Marie says. “It’s about how you see my contribution, not only to this relationship, but to your work—specifically in a movie you made about my life,” she says, revealing that she was the young woman who inspired his film. We learn a lot from these spats. The things they say to each other reveal more to us about how they view themselves, and each other, than a script that doesn't revolve around long, meandering dialogues might.

And although they fight long and often, these exchanges tend to saunter back into a slightly sexual rhythm. There are no love scenes between them, but they do use their intimacy—a kiss here and there, some too-close-to-call oral scenes—as a way to undo the hurtful things that were said moments before. Unfortunately, those moments are not enough to make us ignore that Malcolm and Marie are trying to hurt each other on purpose, with each jab getting a little more disrespectful than the last. 

Malcolm takes a lot of credit for the life that Marie is living now. He says he took her to rehab to help with her pill dependency and stayed with her through her depression, a relapse, and then a brush with infidelity. The notion that he might have deliberately forgotten to thank her is lost on him, because to Malcolm, validation is key to her sobriety. “God forbid I forget to thank you at a fucking movie premiere,” he says. "You come home, you start a fight, and by morning you’re drinking, on Xannies, trying to cut your wrist with a pair of fucking nail scissors." Just when we thought it couldn’t get worse than this— Malcolm using her lowest moment, a suicide attempt, as fodder in an argument—we learn that he included the scene he is describing in the film as well. 

Seeing these moments onscreen feels so invasive that Marie considers it a “spiritual theft.” “God forbid you end up alone and have to dream up another original idea—what are you going to write, Malcolm?” she asks. “You might not be the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins, because those motherfuckers had something new to say.” Marie knows Malcolm’s insecurities just as much as he is aware of hers. She calls out the disconnect between his films and his upper-middle class family and college education; not only is he “mediocre,” but he’s more privileged than the white critics he hates. To her, Malcolm didn’t cast her as the lead on purpose, out of fear that he wouldn’t be the star. But by doing that, he robbed her of the opportunity to tell her own story. 

But Malcolm insists that, despite the similarities, Imani is based on the women he loved before her. “You’re not the first broken girl I’ve known, fucked, or dated.” It is easily Malcolm’s most merciless monologue, rattling off a laundry list of moments shared with past lovers spoken with the eerie chill of someone who has run out of fucks to give. By the end, though, he does reveal that part of Marie he borrowed for the film: her "inability to fathom that there’s someone on this planet Earth who just loves her despite her not loving herself.” 

Over the course of the night, they continue to kiss and make up, but Marie’s last monologue is proof that no matter how much they reconcile, the scars remain. “All I wanted tonight was a thank you, and that’s it,” she says. “Thank you for your notes, your experience, your patience, and your authenticity you bring to this film. Thank you for being a drug addict. Thank you for being clean.” Her three-minute makeshift thank you speech shows she isn't just looking for recognition for her contribution to the film; she wants to be seen for the ways she contributes to their relationship every day, even mundane tasks like making coffee and doing laundry. It is the first glimpse of what the couple might look like when they’re not arguing. Malcolm is left so speechless, his last words of the night are simple: “I’m sorry. Thank you.”

Some people will surely critique the film for offering yet another narrative of Black love as trauma, without offering much of a safe space for either party involved. We’ve been force-fed that narrative for way too long, and Malcolm & Marie does little to unravel it, even if it does offer some compelling food for thought on the relationship between art and life, and who gets to own somebody's pain—the person who lived it, or the person who helped them through it? But I’d argue that it’s a beautiful film, if only because of the emotions it evokes. Their love is undeniably toxic—there’s no romanticizing that—but it does teach us that we could all stand to be a little more kind. To Malcolm’s point, not every film with Black characters has to be some form of counter-programming. Some films are just supposed to make you feel. 

Tagged:

Netflix, zendaya, john david washington, COVID-19, malcolm and marie

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