One thing is for sure if you watch Netflix’s “Malcolm & Marie,” you either love it or hate it. Writer and director Sam Levingston created a film sure to elicit an emotional response from the audience. “Malcolm & Marie” stars John David Washington and Emmy winning actress, Zendaya. Shot entirely in black and white during the pandemic, the film opens with the couple returning from Malcolm’s movie premiere. The evening takes a turn for the worst with one simple question from Malcolm to Marie. “What’s wrong?”
From there, the viewers become voyeurs, getting an up-close and personal view inside their relationship. The view is not pretty or romantic. It is painful, harsh, and toxic. There is a saying that suggests we hurt the ones closest to us. John David Washington and Zendaya brilliantly illustrate this with their incredible performances. Do they love or hate each other? The truth is both.
Malcolm is a filmmaker on the brink of success with his movie premiere. He is on cloud nine, returning from an evening filled with accolades. However, he cannot escape the feelings of insecurity as he wonders what film critics will say about his art. Interwoven through the film, “Malcolm & Marie” has biting critiques about film critics. Of note is the criticism and commentary on white film critics who judge black movies. Washington’s monologue on white film critics is interesting, considering the dialogue was written by a white man.
Malcolm does not want to accept his potential shortcomings or insecurities as a filmmaker. On this evening, Marie decides she has heard enough and proceeds to tell Malcolm a truth he does not want to accept. None of his impending success would have happened without her. She’s angry and hurt. Malcolm did not even have the presence of mind to thank her at his greatest moment.
Marie is a woman who carried resentment, hurt, anger, and insecurity inside until this night. She is the supportive girlfriend, the one whose pain Malcolm leeched to create his masterpiece. How dare he not even thank her? After all, without her life story, would he even have a film? Levinson says the film made him think about what partnership meant. Whose work is the priority in a relationship? What contributions we bring to our relationships, and how it feels when those contributions are not acknowledged.
What happens next is an 80-minute verbal sparring match between Washington and Zendaya. Each, belting out incredible monologues, ripping at the souls of one another. Washington and Zendaya displayed incredible chemistry. The visceral and hard-hitting dialogue from both were painful to watch. Not because of the acting, which was flawlessly executed, but because of the writing. The insults and the raw revelations by the couple hit below the belt. It was beautifully acted dysfunction and toxicity.
Zendaya owns this role as Marie. Her performance is masterful. She says so much in the scenes where she says nothing at all. In some of the most intense moments in the film, she brilliantly captures a woman seething inside. Her rage, pain, and hurt is palpable as she speaks to Malcolm. She is methodical with her verbal daggers, speaking to Malcolm slowly and controlled to ensure Malcolm feels every cut she wields his way with her words. Marie questions her worth in this relationship, and audiences wonder why she stays.
Malcolm is a man throughout his life who has taken from every woman he has been involved with. He uses all of it and creates a film that will likely lead to a successful career as a filmmaker. That success came on the backs of the women in his life, including Marie. Malcolm is fueled by his ego as he spews some of the most brutal insults to the woman he loves when she challenges him. His love is complicated some may say, narcissistic even. In one of the most intense scenes in the film, Washington beautifully portrays wanting Marie to see what he sees when he looks at her. He captures the pain of a man trying to love a broken woman. Haunted by her past and desperately seeking affirmation from her man, Marie drains Malcolm emotionally at times.
“Malcolm & Marie” jumps from love to war throughout the film. The couple becomes turned on by their arguments, jumping into one another’s arms between verbal sparring. They joke and laugh over cigarettes and shared views on film critics. These short moments provide viewers a glimpse of their intense love affair and the connection between them. It is love, but it does not appear to be healthy. It’s love between two flawed and haunted individuals.
As I watched in judgment of these two characters going at each other like two boxers in a ring, I could not help but notice some familiarities. I know couples who go for the jugular with one another in arguments. I know couples who cut each other with their words while disagreeing. I know women who sacrifice so much for their spouses or partners’ careers, only never to be told; thank you. I know men who love their broken wives and girlfriends so much that they find themselves exhausted trying to lift their self-esteem. That is what made this movie so disturbing. Was it so out of reach or so toxic that it becomes unrelatable? Or does the fact that we know couples like this make this movie even more uncomfortable to watch?
“Malcolm & Marie” is currently streaming on Netflix.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSandersOfficial.