Malcolm and Marie, a new Netflix film starring Zendaya and John David Washington, is described in its marketing materials as “an achingly romantic drama” about a filmmaker, Malcolm (Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) as they argue over the course of an evening following his successful movie premiere. Unfortunately, there is nothing aching or romantic about Malcolm and Marie

Instead it feels more like a repetitive, exhausting collection of acting exercises that makes rather shallow observations about both the nature of art making and relationships than a fully realized story with three-dimensional characters.

The idea for the movie came from phone conversations between Zendaya (who is a producer on this film) and Sam Levinson, who she worked with on the HBO teen drama series Euphoria, and for which she won an Emmy playing a troubled teenage drug addict.

Produced, shot and edited entirely under pandemic precautions, the movie — written and directed by Sam Levinson (who is white, I’ll explain why this matters in a bit) and lensed by director of photography Marcell Rév —  is filmed in inky, high-contrast, 35mm black and white, resulting in some truly gorgeous frames that look like timeless photographs. 

The look of the movie is the best thing going for it. The camera swoops and swirls around the two of them as the evening stretches on and the two of them yell, scowl, scoff, rant, perform endless monologues, and kiss each other, and start the cycle all over again during the course of an evening. 

Washington does bring a wonderful physicality to the role, demonstrated in the introduction of his character dancing around a beautiful, if sterile, glass house in Carmel, Calif., to the sounds of James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City,” coming down from the high of successfully premiering his film, which he based partly on the life of his actress girlfriend Marie, an addict in recovery.

Courtesy of Netflix.

He’s so high off his own supply that he fails to notice Marie’s insouciance, which quickly gives way to barely controlled contempt as she smokes cigarettes in a gorgeous designer gown and makes mac and cheese from a box. When she finally tells him, coldly, firmly, that he forgot to thank her at the premiere, it sets off a repetitive and frankly exhausting cycle of arguing, making up, then arguing again, which is comprised mostly of Malcolm ranting about being labeled political because he’s Black, mansplaining the function of cinema, and verbally berating Marie as weak and not willing to work hard enough to be successful at her own craft.

Malcolm complains about being compared to Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins, while wondering why no one compares him to William Wyler, who directed the sword-and-sandal classic Ben-Hur. He later rants about critics fundamentally not understanding the artmaking and filmmaking process, and namechecks several directors (all white) whose motivations for their artistic choices he argues remain largely unknown. 

This is something I found the most curious and grating about Malcolm’s character and what showed, to me anyway, Levinson’s fundamental misunderstanding of Black creatives.

Black artists, especially Black artists in the public eye, have long eschewed relying on white acceptance and the white gaze for validation of their art. John Singleton didn’t make Boyz N The Hood for anyone other than the people he grew up with. Julie Dash didn’t make Daughters of the Dust for the white gaze. Haile Gerima, Bill Gunn, Charles Burnett, Kasi Lemmons, Zeinabu irene Davis, Dee Rees, Euzhan Palcy, Darnell Martin, Theodore Witcher, the Hughes Brothers, Steve McQueen and— to name check the only two Black directors to be mentioned in Malcolm and Marie—Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins, have never made movies for the white gaze. 

They made movies for their respective communities, to tell stories that were being largely ignored, to give a piece of their personal histories and imaginations back to their audiences. I have a hard time believing that a 30-something Black filmmaker, an elder Millennial living in an age of Issa “I’m rooting for everybody Black” Rae and Steve “I don’t make films for white people” McQueen, would be so fixated on what a “white lady critic from the LA Times” had to say about his work that he would spend most of an evening ranting about her and other similar white ladies to a girlfriend he may or may not be breaking up with. 

And I also had a hard time believing that, in 2021, a Black filmmaker would think that not being considered “political” would be the ultimate form of artistic freedom. He spends much of the movie arguing what cinema is supposed to do and how it’s supposed to function, but that sentiment ignores the fact most Black artists have been artistically successful (even if not commercially successful) precisely because they haven’t cared about those rules, that they ignored conventional wisdom, pushed the boundaries of the medium, and simply stayed true to themselves. 

Malcolm at one point says about filmmaking, “It doesn’t need a message, it just needs a heart.” This feels more like Levinson rebuking his audience and critics alike. But what happens if a movie doesn’t have a message or a heart either? Then what?

Where is Malcolm’s community? Perhaps if we had a better understanding of Malcolm in context of a larger community —which still could have been conveyed even within the confines of this one evening in this one house—we would understand why he would be so concerned with what a white person who doesn’t even know him thinks of him.

Courtesy of Netflix.

Similarly, despite Zendaya trying her best to breathe life into such a one-dimensional character, we don’t have a real sense of Marie other than she is a recovering drug addict and an unsuccessful actress. She is very good at sulking and looking wounded, but is undercut by the limits of Levinson’s writing. 

“Once you know someone is there for you and loves you, you never actually think of them. It’s not until you’re about to lose someone that you pay attention,” she says at one point, which feels like a kind of facile observation about relationships for someone who has had the kind of life experiences her character has had. Again, where is her community? 

It’s almost as if Levinson is afraid to let things breathe. He has filled the film to the brim with reams of monologues because he doesn’t seem to fully trust that sometimes silence and body language can say more than what endless rants can. And also, who actually speaks solely in monologues? At no point do Malcolm and Marie talk over each other or interrupt each other or stumble over their words. The effect comes across as overly formal and not really believable.

One of the few effective sequences in the film is when the camera steadily holds on Malcolm’s face, looking tired and vulnerable, as he tells Marie he loves her, not because he needs her, but simply because he does. Marie silently listens and reacts, holding his gaze while she sits in a bathtub, close to tears but not crying. 

It’s one of the only emotionally resonant parts in the film, one of the only parts in this nearly two-hour film that gives even remotely a sense that these are two people who have loved each other for five years, who have a sense of history that goes past this endless evening. However, it’s a brief moment, and the movie slips right back into more monologues, more mansplaining, more makeout sessions and more emotional cruelty. I suppose Malcolm’s endless rants are supposed to make him seem passionate and committed to his art but given Washington’s overly self-conscious delivery, it comes across as forced and shallow.

I am honestly not sure what we’re supposed to take away from this movie. It’s clearly paying homage to other films in the “Heterosexual Couples Yell At Each Other” genre, most notably Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Faces—both of which have better performances and better writing. 

And Levinson is trying to make some muddled— and frankly outdated points— about what it means to be a Black artist working within a field that remains largely white and male. But ultimately both Malcolm and Marie feel less like flesh-and-blood artists trying to work out what they mean to each other as both lovers and collaborators and more like mouthpieces for Levinson to lash out against critics and the very function of criticism itself.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.