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Netflix's Malcolm & Marie, released February 5, 2021, is the first Hollywood feature to be entirely written, financed, and produced during the pandemic. The film, which unfolds like a stage play, is a bare-bones romantic drama with only two actors, Zendaya and John David Washington, each of whom also helped produce and finance the project.
The plot intimately follows the unrestrained, passionate relationship between Malcolm, an up-and-coming writer/director, and his younger girlfriend, Marie, who is in addiction recovery. The entire film takes place in their temporary rental home and is essentially a 106-minute argument between the couple on the night of Malcolm’s film premiere.
A theatrical film
Written, produced, and directed by Sam Levinson, Malcolm & Marie is an admirable feat with the bold aesthetic of black-and-white film. Levinson, who has been vocal about his own struggle with drugs, delivers an emotionally driven plot about a relationship, where every scene holds a distinct, pulsating energy, ranging from subdued to transparently in-your-face.
The movie is an actor and writer's dream, ripe with rich monologues and endless emotional twists and turns. The intensely eloquent and dramatic dialogue and gestures initially feel like things that would be more at home on stage than on film, but as the intimate format envelops the viewer, this theater-like quality results in a more dynamic and compelling film.
The intricate script and the stars’ well-executed performances ping-pong the audience between empathy for both characters. Malcolm and Marie are each wrong, right, terrified, arrogant, and imperfect, but their connection thrives even as they push each other to the limit with their words, in a pendulum of emotions. The couple's acute observations express the pain, love, and bad habits that exist in romantic relationships.
Malcolm & Marie received criticism surrounding Levinson as a white director and writer making a film starring Black leads, with a script briefly commenting on race. While this dynamic initially made me uncomfortable as well, the film is ultimately about relationships, and was developed with heavy collaboration between Levinson, Zendaya, and Washington.
Zendaya has stated in interviews that Levinson is her favorite writer, and it’s not their first time collaborating: Levinson created HBO’s Euphoria, for which Zendaya won a 2020 Emmy for lead actress in a drama series. In a New York Times interview addressing the backlash, Zendaya describes her positive experience working with Levinson. “John David, I, and Sam equally own this film," she explains. "I thought a lot of conversations I had with Sam came through."
Malcolm & Marie is the result of intense collaboration between Washington, Zendaya, and Levinson. But should Black actors be scripted and directed only by other people of color? Can a white writer write only for other white characters? That’s not an artistic world I want to live in.
As an Indian American, I sometimes feel nauseated when watching a film starring Indian people that was written by some white guy. But the criticism the successful Malcolm & Marie is facing doesn’t feel justified. Despite some flaws, the film is a work of art, its blemishes mirroring the humanity of its lead characters and making it even more interesting and precious.
Image description: A still from the black-and-white film Malcolm & Marie. Actors John David Washington and Zendaya are shown in profile, their faces close together in an intimate yet restrained pose. Washington sits on the floor, leaning against a couch, and Zendaya appears to be in his lap, facing him.
What, When, Where
Malcolm & Marie. Written and directed by Sam Levinson. Now available to stream on Netflix.
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