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The highly anticipated movie Malcolm & Marie, starring Zendaya and John David Washington, debuted recently with a flurry of reviews: the good and the bad, the film fanatic and the Euphoria viewers united. In short, you can think of this Sam Levinson directed and written production as a Euphoria “special edition” episode (the only prop missing was the glitter). I can sit here and explain to you the ways in which the cinematography created camera angles that made you think twice about ignoring those passionate film degree majors; or monologues that reminded you of the well executed back and forth performance that you would normally see in a Shonda Rhimes’ original series. However, that analysis would be selling the reader short. Since you don’t know me nor I you, let me make this review worth your while. 

There is always the challenge of something that is highly anticipated, not meeting the expectations given. Like many potential viewers, I was intrigued by the fact my Shake It Up! co-star is now headlining beautifully shot productions such as this one. Malcolm & Marie showcased both actors’ ability to move through dialogue during their never ending argument, an argument which is now a topic of discussion for viewers. 

It is an argument that is triggering to witness—as it consists of relentless gaslighting and verbal abuses from the character of “Malcolm” to a recovering drug abuse survivor in the character of “Marie.” However, before getting lost in the midst of technicalities and performance, what are the conditions that make “Malcolm” and “Marie,” and furthermore, what makes a story such as that desirable in the eyes of viewers?

When watching these two characters talk “at” each other, I couldn’t help but think of scholars like James Baldwin or Audre Lorde who speak on the very reasons “Malcolm” and “Marie” as characters are battling each other and themselves. 

“Malcolm” rattles on and on to “Marie” about wanting to be more successful than the other real life Black film directors he is in competition with. He rants about how he is the best with the most original ideas for scripts and movies, and how he is the best person to tell stories of Black life, all while searching for the validation and uplifting praise of his girlfriend, “Marie.” When she does not give it to him, “Malcolm” becomes enraged and begins to verbally abuse her with insults and gaslighting phrases to make her feel guilty. As a viewer, I could not help but think of the fact that the character of “Malcolm” is essentially battling stereotypes and expectations whiteness has put on him but he has chosen to prove wrong—a battle that is never won or worth fighting for. Yet, this battle consumes him, making him self absorbed, territorial and stuck inside a very bleak, lonely box. He has consumed the need to prove that he is better than whiteness, by making himself a character that is only preoccupied with “Black life” but the difference is that he is obsessed with proving it, explaining it, rather than telling a story to a Black audience. This obsession that consumes him is the reason he is so horrible and abusive to “Marie.” She is his only punching bag and validation holder, and in his need to be “just as good” as whiteness allows, he takes on the territorial role of thinking “Marie” is a possession of his. 

As for “Marie,” her character represents something James Baldwin would also note as a character who is being buried alive by the illusory expectations that are placed on someone trying to make sense of this world we live in. She is battling for her existence, quite literally, in her argument with Malcolm and in trying to stay sober. He belittles her existence but her character is pushing back on his notions and well as the ones he has internalized and projected onto her—notions that are the same reasons Malcolm feels he must push against to “prove himself.” They are both battling for their existence, and in doing so, we see an hour and a half of toxic screaming matches with pretty camera shots. 

Sam Levinson thinks he is very slick in making two Black characters be his mouthpiece to interpret questions you can clearly see he, himself, is trying to make sense of. However, making a film with two Black characters stuck in one house, verbally abusing each other, implies what he really thinks of pain. The story as a whole did not allow room for depth to get to know the characters or how they’re relationship to each other was. To write a story about pain, you have to allow the characters to show, not tell their pain, and this film failed to allow both characters to show us their pain or, more importantly, what they are fighting for. I am always very weary of films which are eager to explain their positioning in the world and not tell a story that exists in their positioning in the world. I am even more weary of films where Black characters cannot be anything more than their trauma or hardship. Malcolm & Marie had the potential to be more but what it gave was perhaps an insight into the complexities of telling a story of two characters in internal strife with each other and their worlds. Perhaps, for now, that was all the film could make room for.

If I'm not writing, I'm most likely baking. Writer, activist, main character, political disruptor. Literary student at The New School. Follow me on IG @uptown_princess
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