‘You wanna hurt me Marie?’ the chilling words spoken during an unfolding fight in the early hours of the morning following Malcolm’s big move premiere, ‘I can hurt you ten times worse.’ The first feature film to be entirely written, financed and produced during the COVID-19 pandemic, Malcolm & Marie stars Zendaya and John David Washington as a failed actress and growing filmmaker respectively in this ‘story about love’ filmed in stunning black and white. The two titular characters beautifully epitomise what it is to be in a relationship where love and hate are inextricably bound up within the same person.
Opening up to the one you love most about your deepest secrets and most shameful traits can only be made worse when that very information is used as ammunition against you in a late-night argument. And that’s exactly what happens as Malcolm and Marie are confronted with the worst parts of themselves only to find out their partner was thinking the very same of them all along. Everything is fair game, and nothing is off limits making some scenes excruciating to watch as violent words are hurled with no remorse or sensitivity. The film explores the raw complexities of an all-consuming relationship with an unflinching dialogue that is hard to imagine any other two actors pulling off with such sincerity and ease.
Scenes are often shot through barriers of glass windows, counters or sliding doors separating the couple while they speak. Never has a transparent house felt so closed and claustrophobic. Zendaya’s screen presence manages to gravitate our attention no matter where she is in the frame. When John David Washington is constantly ranting, pacing, demanding our attention, Zendaya’s coiled body is what our eyes are fixed on; what is really bothering her tonight?
And yet despite having the formula of a story about love focusing on two people struggling to hold on to each other, the undercutting reality of Levinson’s writing gives the film a racially political spin when, ironically, that is exactly what the characters are trying to denounce. In viewing Malcolm’s successes and limitations as a filmmaker through the lens of white critics, race and racial identity is automatically offset as he begins to question what being black has to do with the stories he tells as a filmmaker.
The question itself is a fair one; do black films always need to have a political message? Malcolm believes not, but Marie is quick to call him out. And while this is an important argument to be had, it is difficult to separate the words coming out of Malcolm’s mouth from Sam Levinson’s own views on critics and the industry. Somehow it feels wrong to have Levinson use John David Washington as a mouthpiece to filter through his thoughts on the industry in a way that is perhaps more palatable (coming from someone already oppressed by the system due to race) than coming from a relatively privileged white man?
Malcolm points out that cinema ‘needs to have a heart and electricity’ and Malcolm & Marie certainly has plenty of both. It’s just a shame that much of it was stifled by Levinson’s too-felt presence.
Featured Image Source: Still from the trailer via Netflix / Youtube