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Malcolm & Marie: What Happens When White Directors Write POC Characters

by Charlotte Wunderlich

An early product of the COVID-19 quarantine, Malcolm & Marie is an attempt at a realist look into a failing relationship. Sam Levinson writes and directs the film following the conversations of a couple on the fringes over the course of one evening turned early morning. John David Washington stars as Malcolm, a filmmaker who can never be satisfied. Opposite him, Zendaya stars as Marie, the fed-up and underappreciated subject of Malcolm’s inspiration. In black and white, the film illustrates the couple in a seemingly romanticized version of their life together. Turmoil ensues after Malcolm’s first big movie premiere where he forgets to thank Marie in his speech. This is the initial cause for their first of many cataclysmic fights throughout the movie. 

A focus throughout the film is the concept of critics overlooking black artistry by misinterpreting their artistic choices because of their race. Malcolm spends a large majority of the movie lamenting this exact issue, almost as a meta-commentary by Levinson. After all the ranting, I’m left with the sense that Levinson isn’t actually telling us anything profound about this experience but only pointing it out as an observation. Maybe this is because, as a white director, he can only observe and acknowledge this very real occurrence but cannot personally understand it. 

Marie fuels Malcolm’s fire on the matter by criticizing him for his next project being an Angela Davis biopic, which contradicts his argument, but he rejects this by exclaiming loudly, as always, that this is irrelevant because it is his choice to create what he wants, highlighting his arrogance and dismissive nature. Marie’s unwillingness to cave under Malcolm’s somewhat tyrannical position in their relationship is admirable, but you have to wonder: Why is she still with him? There is really nothing about Malcolm’s character that viewers can find redeemable; he is in the wrong. This made the film feel very obvious and uninteresting because we have no choice but to dislike him. 

One of the most commendable aspects of the film is the monologues given by Zendaya’s character, Marie. One of the least, however, was the writing. I am a fan of realist takes and I appreciate watching something that captures real life in a way that feels genuine, but this film was not that. I could feel it trying to play off of the emotions portrayed by the actors, but the writing didn’t allow them to push past awkward and out of place lines to form a believable union. The reasons they argue are legitimate, but the dialogue felt somewhat contrived and far-fetched, like they had written a script before starting their argument and had taken time to piece together every little phrase.

Just before the final scene, Malcolm gets in bed with Marie after hours of tumultuous arguing and whispers, “I’m sorry,” then, “Thank you.” Marie replies with, “You’re welcome.” In the morning, Malcolm finds Marie standing outside perfectly framed by their bedroom window, and they stand side by side until the credits roll. The intentional question of whether they will stay together is left looming in this final scene, but not in an open-ended, up-for interpretation kind of way. For a movie that follows only two characters and focuses specifically on their relationship, the character development lacked the believability required for us to fully engage in the film. In my mind, Zendaya should break up with Malcolm in that last scene just to give her some sort of character arc. Because we can’t know what happens, though, the whole movie feels somewhat pointless. Will they repeat this fitful night again next week to no avail? 

For a film of this kind, the characters are everything. When they aren’t created in a way that pulls interest and hope out of the viewers, there is no sympathy or admiration. “Malcolm & Marie” captures our attention with fancy outfits, loud arguments, and mentions of controversial topics such as black artistry, mental health, and addiction. While these are personal and relatable topics, there is no genuine connection made between character and viewer because it is difficult to see the characters themselves as genuine at all.

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