Malcolm & Marie Hates Film Criticism — Here’s What Two Film Critics Hate About Malcolm & Marie

Photo: courtesy of Netflix.
This post contains spoilers for Malcolm & Marie, now streaming on Netflix. 
A few minutes into Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie, Marie, played by Zendaya, warns her tipsy boyfriend on the verge of another tirade. “I promise you, nothing productive is going to be said tonight,” she says exasperated. In a different film, this line may have been a relatable, self-aware observation about the exhaustive nature of fighting with your long-term partner into the wee hours of the morning. In writer-director Sam Levinson’s tedious vanity project about a couple yelling at each other for two hours, it serves as a laughable foreshadowing of the script to come.
When Malcolm & Marie was first announced in July, it sounded like a promising salve from the pandemic in the form of a mysterious, pared-down, beautiful film starring Levinson’s Euphoria collaborator and muse, Zendaya, and John David Washington (both are also producers). The combination of two of the brightest Black talents in Hollywood and a secret project shot during the pandemic that didn’t involve Zoom recordings was enough to get our hopes up. Sexy Black couple squabbling in a confined space? Sign us up. But what Levinson delivers is not what was advertised. And even Zendaya’s extraordinary talent (she manages to be riveting throughout a film that is mostly unwatchable) can’t elevate the material to anything remotely worthy of her magnetism. As for Washington, his character Malcolm is such a reprehensible human that it’s hard to tell if it’s his performance that is lacking or if the bigger problem is what he’s been given to work with. Malcolm is basically the incarnation of that gif of Denzel Washington, his dad, pounding his fist on a table — but meaner, louder, and more insufferable. 
It gets worse. Not only is the script unworthy of its talent, Malcolm & Marie is barely about Malcolm and Marie. Instead, it’s a screechy commentary on the value (or lack thereof, in Levinson’s opinion) of film criticism and what it means to be a Black director in modern-day Hollywood… written by a white man. Levinson tried his best to render what we do obsolete but as two writers who critique films, and as women (one Black, one white), we have some things to get off our chests after watching this film. 
What was your overall reaction to Malcolm & Marie?
Kathleen Newman-Bremang: Frustration. And “great gowns, beautiful gowns.” 
Anne Cohen: It was really exhausting to watch. And it was way too long. 
What expectations did you have going in? How did it differ from what you had in mind?
AC: I expected hot people in a beautiful house having a big fight about their relationship. I would have been all here for that. But the insertion of all this preachy pontification is distracting and takes away from what was fundamentally an interesting concept. Just the fact that it stars Zendaya and John David Washington, two Black actors in this unbelievable house, wearing these unbelievable costumes, that in itself makes a statement. You don't have to say the statement.
KNB: It really hit me the first time Malcolm goes on one of his tirades about race. And my whole body just deflated. I thought, oh, this is just going to be Sam Levinson going off. Oh no. I wanted to see two fine ass Black people arguing because that's how it was sold to me. It's not set in quarantine, but if you're in a relationship and you've been in lockdown with your partner, you’ve probably been fighting. That's relatable. I wanted to watch a cathartic two hours of these two people digging in deep about the troubles in their relationship. That is not what we got. We got a toxic man yelling at a woman partially about their relationship but mostly just lecturing her — and us — about racism in the film industry. 

 First of all, Black people don’t sit around talking about white people and what they think of us that much. We just don’t.

Kathleen Newman-Bremang
What starts out as a fight specifically about Malcolm and Marie’s relationship turns into a broad conversation about race in Hollywood. Did you buy it?
KNB: First of all, Black people don’t sit around talking about white people and what they think of us that much. We just don’t. There’s a difference between popping off on Twitter about white gatekeepers and systemic oppression in the industry in which you work and how that can manifest in awards or criticism, and going home to yell at your Black partner about it for hours. They have this massive conversation where Malcolm is basically screaming about the state of film criticism and his place as a Black man in this world to Marie, but through a white lens. It just did not feel real. At all.
AC: A similar example of this to me is X-Men: Dark Phoenix — which was written and directed by a man, there was this line in it where they made Jennifer Lawrence say, "By the way, the women are always saving the men around here. You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women” I remember sitting in the theatre just being like, What? That's not how women talk to each other. We're not like, "Fuck the patriarchy!" at every brunch. 
KNB: It also felt like a lot of these conversations didn’t play out the way a couple who had been together for five years would be talking to each other. First of all, if my partner started in on an exhausting late-night diatribe about the state of the world, I'd be like, "I've heard you go on this rant before. Shut up."
How do you feel about Sam Levinson, a white man, writing this script for Black actors? Did it feel like he was just using them as mouthpieces for his personal grievances? 
KNB: This was the most egregious offense. He’s preaching about “identity politics” and how film critiques about authenticity can affect Black creators… as a white man. The sheer caucacity of this script is astounding. Sam Levinson needed to save these opinions for his therapist or his journal, or troll a Twitter account — whatever he needed to do to get these egocentric, careless and frankly embarrassing thoughts off his chest, hiring Black actors to say them to try to shield himself from criticism was not the move. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, “Take us out of it.” 
So much of the script felt like an essay written by a disgruntled fan boy on Reddit — but one without a thesis. 
AC: Malcolm does make some points, but they don't hit right. “Who gets to make what” is a good conversation that we never get to see because he's being so defensive: Malcolm makes the argument that anybody can make a movie about anything. I think that, by proxy, we can extrapolate that Sam Levinson is telling us, “I can make a movie about Black people, and that's fine. You can’t criticize it.”
KNB: Is it about Black people, though? How much of Malcolm’s or Marie’s interior and depth do we really get to see? Malcolm says, "Not everything I do is political just because I'm Black," which I guess is a valid thing to say, but also, is it? Sam Levinson can’t make that point and then turn a movie that could have just been about a Black couple and their argument into political commentary. He did that. No one else forced that onto his film. 
If he was trying to make a point about how much people project onto movies just because Black people are starring in them or have made them especially because of the moment that we're in (white critics love to say “this movie is so timely” about literally anything with a Black person in it these days), he didn’t do that. He took certain topics that could've been really interesting and that we do need to be having conversations about and twisted them into a defensive, neurotic, mansplain-y mess. 
The film has A Lot to say about film criticism. What did you think about that?
AC: All of his whining about film criticism are also clearly directed at one person who trashed one of his films. A woman reviewed his film Assassination Nation for the LA Times and did not like it. What annoys me most about his stances on film criticism is that he thinks that he's punching up when, actually, he's punching down. He's the son of a director. He has a position in Hollywood that's basically guaranteed.To centre the discussion around film criticism on a woman — when women's opinions are already discounted so deeply as critics — feels intentional and vindictive.
KNB: There were times in that script where it seemed like he was trying to critique white feminism and give commentary on how certain liberal white women try to dominate certain conversations about race — which is a valid point to make — but he failed. All he did was tear apart this one woman critic and her opinions and try to invalidate the very existence of film criticism, which is actually the thing that keeps a lot of the issues of systemic racism in Hollywood in check. Black women critics like Soraya McDonald and Angelica Bastien give thoughtful, beautiful critiques and make us think about film in a different way. Their writing is essential to this industry. 
One of our colleagues asked, “Who is this movie for?” and I think that’s such a crucial question. As I was watching this movie as a Black woman I thought, Okay, clearly I'm not the audience. It seems like the audience is a white audience, one that needs to be told about racism or to be told how a Black director potentially feels about them watching his work.

What annoys me most about his stances on film criticism is that he thinks that he's punching up when, actually, he's punching down.

anne cohen
AC: But which white audience? I’m a white woman film critic and it doesn't speak to me at all. As I was watching this movie, I was like, OK, Sam Levinson. You're going to explain how women view the world? No. Do we deserve to have a discussion about certain topics? Sure. We are not immune to criticism, but should that criticism come from this guy? You're the dude who's going to tell me what's wrong with what I do? I think this movie is really for white men. 
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.
Sam Levinson
KNB: If we boil it down and this movie is supposed to be for white men, the problem is a) making a movie starring two Black actors for white dudes and b) even under that problematic premise, he didn't even make a good movie!
Did the script make any valid points about racism in Hollywood? 
KNB: Sam needed a Black woman to be co-writer. He needed somebody to come in and check him on all the blind spots that he has that were so apparent in this movie. To me, this was a white dude who feels like he has a pass because he has a Black friend in Zendaya. 
We’re not disqualifying Zendaya’s contributions to the film as a producer — arguably the best part of it — but if she was in there adding in notes and collaborating on the script as Sam has said, that's not the same as her being an equal to him as a co-writer with the freedom to say, "No, they wouldn't talk like this." There's a power imbalance since he is the director/writer/producer. And if Zendaya did contribute significantly to the script, then they invalidated her by not crediting her. They pulled a Malcolm and didn’t thank Marie properly.
Did he render any critique of the film impossible? 
KNB: I mean, as a critic, I’m sitting here in this conversation saying this movie is inauthentic thinking, well, he's just going to say I'm a dumb critic calling it inauthentic.
AC: That's what annoys me most about this movie: If you're going to engage in a real conversation about film criticism, there's a lot to say. I just don't know that Sam Levinson's the person to lead it.
Let’s talk about the conversation around Zendaya and John David Washington’s age difference. Was it a distraction? 
AC: I actually don't think a 12-year age gap is unrealistic. It makes sense in the context of the story. I could see someone like Marie in her early 20s, meeting this guy and feeling like she needs validation from him and wants to contribute to his process — especially if she is trying to build her identity as an artist wanting to feel like she has as much relevance as he does in the relationship in terms of creative output. That's a real dynamic, but because the film doesn't really focus on that all that much, you’re left stewing about the age gap. Cool, another representation of a young, hot love interest and older man. 
KNB: I also think that any conversation of the age gap would have gone away if Levinson had just written it in. If Malcolm had just said, "You met me when I was 20 years old and you were 32 or whatever and you took advantage of me.” Put that in the script.
AC: They could've acknowledged that they are a walking Hollywood cliché. The fact that this whole press tour has been Zendaya having to justify that she's a “grown up” woman because they never address their ages in the movie is so weird to me.
KNB: I just feel like Sam Levinson didn't do her any favours here. Because if he had written it into the script, she could be like, “Our age difference is part of the story. Just go watch the movie” to any backlash. 
Was there a specific scene that did resonate with you?
KNB: The mac and cheese scene. Marie says something like, "You're fully eating that whole mac and cheese while we're fighting?" That, to me, felt like a real moment, where potentially you'd be in the kitchen having a fight with your man and he would be fucking eating and you'd be like, “How?” I did laugh at that scene. 
AC: It’s the fact that he went back for a second helping mid-fight for me. 
KNB: Yes. That detail was good, which is why the rest of the movie is even more infuriating. Give me more moments like that! I liked when there were glimpses of their chemistry, like when Marie is mimicking how white people talk and Malcolm is belly laughing. Any moments that revealed Marie’s backstory of addiction and rehab were interesting, but we didn’t get a lot of that. 
AC: I saw Malcolm as every asshole I had a crush on when I was like 22. If a woman had written this story, it would have had a different ending. 

KNB: She should have left his ass.

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