Malcolm & Marie, the newest Netflix release from writer/director Sam Levinson, will get a lot of attention from critics. Not because of its ascending stars or its black-and-white cinematography, which might be the usual reasons, and not even for being completely conceived, written, and shot mid-pandemic. No – critics will write about Levinson’s movie because, with an extended, explosive rant about “the white girl from the LA Times,” it practically dares them to.
I can picture many reviewers sharpening their quills and tackling head-on its accusation that they lean on identity politics to substitute for genuine ability to analyze the artform, leaping into the “trap” that might not be set as securely as Levinson expects (while much of Malcolm & Marie plays as self-aware, it seems to miss the irony of homing in so intensely on the Times’ critic’s identity). I will instead focus on the form and content of the film itself, as requested – and though I have my grievances, I do actually like it, so I’ll have to save my fightin’ words for a later day.
Set entirely over the course of a single night, Malcolm & Marie begins with the titular couple, played by John David Washington and Zendaya, returning home from the premiere of Malcolm’s debut movie. Though he is elated and ready to celebrate, she is simmering with anger after he forgot to thank her in his speech, and they both soon realize they’re headed for an argument. But when their discussion of Malcolm’s slip opens up deeper feelings about the nature of their relationship and its role in his career, that argument becomes a fight that carries deep into the early morning.
In its depiction of conflict, Levinson’s film is best characterized as aggressive, a source of both strength and weakness. The script is structured to alternate which partner is on the offensive, and while this ebb-and-flow can feel a bit staged at times, it becomes the guiding principle for the film’s visual approach. The camera is careful not to privilege the perspective of either character over the other: in an early scene, a brooding Marie sits and smokes while Malcolm excitedly paces the room behind her, and the camera splits time between them, tracking with him for one lap before spending the next fixed in front of her. Not only does this keep us invested and engaged in their back-and-forth, it truly highlights the talent of the actors, who get to spend as much time on screen listening as they do talking.
Or yelling, rather. Malcolm & Marie is a loud film, so much so that when the two aren’t talking, there’s usually diegetic music doing it for them. The point of each exchange is made in the biggest way possible, and while there are some nuggets of insight to be found in their dialogue, they make more of a mess digging for them than was required. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami, both similarly “talky” movies, have a great deal more to say (just the value of political filmmaking, I guess). But the exploration of the tricky relationship between one’s personal life and their creative process, especially when coupled with the script’s reflexivity, is enough to keep this reviewer positive on the whole experience.