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REVIEW: ‘Malcolm & Marie’ Is The Project That Will Elevate Zendaya To Hollywood Iconic Status

The film, also starring John David Washington, is a sultry exploration in both heartache and heartbreak.

Fair warning: Malcolm & Marie is not a love story. Those anticipating the release of this movie, out on Netflix Feb. 5, as a potential date night or pre-Valentine’s Day flick might find this confusing, given that the marketing for Sam Levinson’s story leans into a sexy 35mm black-and-white format and sultry, jazzy score. But Malcolm & Marie is not an appropriate choice for a Netflix and chill night because Malcolm & Marie has zero chill. 

The movie, directed, written, and produced by Levinson in secret in 2020 between June 17-July 2 under intense COVID protocols, is the byproduct of inspired thinking. According to lore, Zendaya, who became the youngest best actress Emmy winner ever last year for Euphoria, (also created by Levinson) wanted a way to keep crews of the HBO drama working. So, she called Levinson, asked him to write something, and within six days he’d crafted this tale of an epic lovers’ fight. 

John David Washington was chosen to play filmmaker Malcolm, with Marie his put-upon girlfriend. Netflix bought the movie for a reported $30 million, giving all who worked on it income during an otherwise bleak time Zendaya and Washington both serve as executive producers but it is Zendaya who emerges the hero of this beautifully rendered but frustrating film both on camera and behind the scenes. 

Indeed, Washington plays Malcolm with unabashed gusto, but Zendaya is nothing short of spellbinding in Malcolm & Marie, in spite of the ways the film sometimes punishes people for sticking with it. 

When the film begins, the couple has just come home after the premiere of Malcolm’s latest work. He’s on a high: more than a little bit tipsy, feeling the rush of critical applause, and still drinking––an aggressively male, obnoxious tornado of energy.

Marie, conversely, is cold but cordial, channeling her funky mood into the mac and cheese she’s making for her man before bed. He is intent on rooting out the source of her saltiness and huffs and puffs at her until the truth comes out. It bothered her that he didn’t thank her in his speech, she tells him, and thus begins an explosive, almost two-hour argument that stretches our patiences and our capacity to care for either of these two people. 

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Things get heated, and nasty. Over the course of the night, their vulnerabilities and insecurities are laid bare, as are gripes about the white-dominated film industry. Long-simmering resentments of each other turn into knives. Yet, most of the venom comes from Malcolm, who provokes Marie in ways that border on abusive. Malcolm has legitimate beef with (white) critics, their perception of Black artistry, and their function within the system. We are primed to see the big idea in Malcolm & Marie as a meditation on the relationship between art and observer, as well as the socio-political and capitalist forces that influence creativity and public opinion. But the more compelling and frankly heartbreaking story is about their doomed, one-sided relationship.

The Silent Assassin

Marie’s contributions to Malcolm’s movie, and his life overall, have been dutifully dismissed and, even as she makes him comfort food to quell her own justifiable anger, he continues to berate her and belittle her value. Some of the most satisfying scenes come when Marie slices Malcolm with careful, precision cuts to his fragile masculinity––some so forceful you’ll want to stop the film to catch your breath––but it’s painful to watch her get back in the ring with him when it’s apparent she ought to leave.

More than once, you’ll ask yourself out loud why these people are still together, and no satisfying answer ever emerges. They seem like opponents duking in an MMA match rather than people united by genuine appreciation for each other, and to watch a Black woman crawl over barbed wire to get the basic acknowledgment of her contributions to this Black man’s success becomes triggering.

RELATED: Watch Zendaya’s Emotional Emmy Speech

Washington has said in interviews that he felt like a novice performing with Zendaya, and it’s clear why. From start to finish, she’s a quiet force, able to convey complicated emotions with the most minute movements of her face. The film is gorgeous, a visually sensual experience simmering with glamour. Given Zendaya’s motivations in making it as well as the technical wizardry required to pull it off, it’s another huge win for her. But its message is muddled, and its characters are mired in a conflict that has no satisfying resolution. They keep flinging hurts at each other until they exhaust themselves, and us. 

You could watch it with your bae, but only if you needed a template for how not to love. 

 

Malcolm & Marie debuts on Netflix on February 5. 

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