By Nicole Veneto
This film offers a much more nuanced and self-reflective conversation about authorship, authenticity, creative inspiration, and the role of film criticism than any of its detractors are willing to admit.
There’s no way I can judge Malcolm & Marie (Netflix), the latest feature from Euphoria showrunner Sam Levinson starring Emmy-winner Zendaya and John David Washington, from an objective perspective. This isn’t because the film practically dares critics to say anything bad about it (and they have), but because Levinson’s previous film, 2018’s Assassination Nation, is a personal favorite. It’s a bold film that engaged me on a personal and political level like few films have — a zeitgeist-defining vision of the digitized mob mentality and sexual panopticism that’s become so pervasive over the last decade. I even wrote a scholarly article defending Assassination Nation amid its polarized critical reception. Interestingly, its most ardent haters were neither right-wing pundits nor terminally online teenage boys posting Groypers on 8chan, but self-proclaimed media “feminists” who furiously objected to the idea that a movie written and directed by a white, heterosexual cisgender man (son of Oscar winner Barry Levinson no less) would dare to pass itself off as feminist in the wake of #MeToo.
The critically acclaimed Euphoria is cut from the same controversial cloth as Assassination Nation, the main difference being one’s a premium cable drama series starring an established young actress (Zendaya) and the other’s an independent black-comedy horror film fronted by four lesser-known (but uber-talented) actresses. Malcolm & Marie is a much smaller production notable for having been written and filmed during the COVID-19 lockdown. Shot with a skeleton crew on location at the beautiful Caterpillar House, Malcolm & Marie follows the titular couple — up-and-coming director Malcolm Elliot (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie Jones (Zendaya), an unsuccessful actress — in the early morning hours after the premiere of Malcolm’s new film Imani, a drama about a young black woman battling with addiction. While a jubilantly drunk Malcolm anxiously awaits the critics’ response, particularly one from “the white lady at the LA Times” who reviewed his previous film negatively, Marie quietly seethes over her partner forgetting to thank her at the premiere. Bad, yes. But this latest blunder is the tip of the iceberg. As the night drags on into an increasingly ugly dispute, it’s revealed that not only is Imani essentially based on Marie’s own struggle with drugs, but the film was initially conceived as a collaboration between Malcolm and Marie, who would play the titular role.
Between Marcel Rév’s scrumptious black-and-white cinematography and the no-holds-barred verbal brawl delivered by Washington and Zendaya, it’s impossible to discuss Malcolm & Marie without drawing comparisons to the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Like Mike Nichols’s 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s play, Levinson’s film utilizes an embittered couple’s domestic dispute to probe, with brutal intensity, the dysfunctional (and culturally sanctioned) power dynamics between men and women. The first scene feels like an overt homage to Woolf, in which an old-school credit sequence is set against an opening long-shot where we see the couple returning to their lavish home. The two are barely in the door before Malcolm’s pouring himself another drink and yelling at Marie from across the house to make him mac and cheese. But whereas George and Martha’s volatile marriage in Woolf is exacerbated by the intrusion of a modish young couple, Malcolm and Marie’s relationship is savaged by themselves, assisted by the fraught dynamic between filmmakers and film critics.
This is where the hullabaloo over Levinson comes in. Malcolm’s fixation on “the white lady at the LA Times” and her interpretation of his work is likely a jibe at LA Times reviewer Katie Walsh, who gave Assassination Nation a scathingly dismissive review, smugly referring to Levinson as “dude” and calling the film an “exploitative claptrap” that “objectifies” its teenage characters. Considering I also took issue with Walsh’s review (I genuinely wonder whether we watched the same film), I can’t blame Levinson for alluding to the critique in Malcolm & Marie. To me at least, Walsh’s review exemplifies a tendency toward bad faith interpretation in post-#MeToo “feminist” media criticism: a film’s worth and intentions are reduced to toting up the identity-markers of its director. Accordingly, any male filmmaker who dares to make a movie about young women or LGBTQ youth will a) fail miserably and offensively by virtue of being a privileged cishet man, and b) must only be doing so out of leering opportunism and not a genuine place of empathy.
I find this to be a knee-jerk presumption, especially as it’s been applied to Levinson. Movies are never the work of a single person; they are inherently collaborative efforts between actors, cinematographers, production designers, editors, etc. Levinson is admittedly aware he lacks firsthand experience being female, LGBTQ, nonwhite, or anything he’s not. Those who’ve worked with him consistently describe his approach as highly collaborative and receptive to their creative input for this exact reason. There’s no denying Levinson’s a beneficiary of Hollywood’s nepotism (the same can be said of Olivia Wilde and Sofia Coppola), but his readiness to share writing credits and ownership over what he helms contradicts the idea that he’s stupid, pretentious. and completely tone-deaf.
The upshot is that this film offers a much more nuanced and self-reflective conversation about authorship, authenticity, creative inspiration, and the role of film criticism than any of its detractors are willing to admit. While Malcolm and Marie mostly agree that the “white lady at the LA Times” shouldn’t “hang everything on identity,” Marie persistently reminds Malcolm that criticisms of his work don’t come from nowhere. She gives power to the argument that identity and lived experience can translate more authentically onscreen. In fact, she ultimately sides with the “white lady at the LA Times” against Malcolm’s bullshit claims that his work is neither inherently political nor unconsciously appropriating women’s trauma for creative inspiration. Malcolm & Marie is not a bad film. There are legitimate accusations for reviewers to make, notably the use of black actors to vent a white filmmaker’s frustrations with critics. But it genuinely saddens me to see how eagerly people are to jump to the worst conclusions about Levinson’s intentions. Considering the intense restrictions under which it was made, dismissing a film as gorgeously shot and finely acted (Zendaya more so than Washington) as Malcolm & Marie is disingenuous, a disservice to cinema and to criticism.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.