Let’s Talk About It — “Malcolm & Marie”

Sam Levinson’s film “Malcolm & Marie” is the epitome of a white artist’s lack of racial awareness while utilizing racial commentary.

The following review contains spoilers for “Malcolm & Marie.” 

Despite major COVID restrictions, Sam Levinson’s film “Malcom and Marie” was produced mid-pandemic with a relatively small major-motion team and microscopic cast. Although the movie is meant to explore an important night in a couple’s relationship, its bulk consists of four to five main arguments, aggressive shots of making mac and cheese, and the crutch of Zendaya Coleman’s talent. “Malcolm & Marie” is a film that appears excellent but becomes disappointing after the realization that it is a massive display of performative allyship.

“Malcolm & Marie” is laced with a trend of narrative stealing. One of the main arguments in the film surrounds Marie’s anguish over Malcolm’s using her personal experiences with drug addiction as plot material for his award-winning film. Marie says, “It’s the knowledge that I can’t tell my own story anymore. That I can’t articulate all the chaos that lives in here … [she touches her chest] … because you already did.” Marie is disempowered over the reality that she can never tell her own story. Malcolm took all her chaos and tainted it by delivering it as his own, having never experienced it in the first place. Just like that, Malcolm wrests control from his girlfriend, whose narrative can never be retold authentically as her own.

Ironically, Levinson unwittingly commits the same heinous crime of narrative stealing. Sam Levinson, a white writer, wrote this film portraying the experience of Black artists in the film industry. Towards the middle of the film, Malcolm launches into a monologue about a white female journalist covering his movie for the LA Times. Malcolm complains about the “political box” that white journalists put BIPOC creators into, asserting that “everything that a Black creator makes must be political because they are Black.” “Malcolm & Marie” is filled with all the painfulness of being a person of color in an industry so driven by white America. This feels disingenuous because Levinson’s purview of another race’s experience is likely extremely limited. BIPOC creators can no longer reclaim their narratives in an authentic manner because their stories have been stolen, re-written, and marketed by white creators first. Just like how Marie will have trouble reclaiming her own personal narrative due to Malcolm’s narrative stealing, BIPOC creators will undergo a similar fate thanks to Levinson’s appropriation.

In addition to narrative stealing, Levinson also reinforces stereotypes about people of color, thus committing a microaggression — what Lexico dictionary defines as an “indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.” The microaggression is prevalent when Malcolm delivers severe rhetoric towards the white journalist, furthering the stereotype that black men are aggressive. Tori DeAngelis, a freelance journalist, comments on the harm microaggressions cause in her article “Unmasking ‘Racial Microaggressions.’” She describes an incident on a plane where a white flight attendant asked two BIPOC colleagues, who entered before three white men, to move to the back of the plane to ‘better balance out the plane’s load.’ When the BIPOC colleagues reacted negatively to the subtle comparison to the ‘move to the back of the bus’ sentiment, the white attendant denied the similarity. The flight attendant’s carelessness in this situation trapped her into committing a microaggression, which is paralleled by Levinson’s carelessness when he allows Malcolm’s aggression to define his character. 

Furthermore, Levinson doesn’t stop there; he uses Malcolm’s character to defend his actions as a white director. As Malcolm speaks on taking aspects of Marie and putting them into the movie, he justifies himself by saying, “But Marie, it’s not just your experience, it happened to the both of us … The experience doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to everyone who watched it happen.” Levinson, in this example, displays his ignorance and the heart of this microaggression. BIPOC audience members should not have to accept Levinson’s sense of entitlement to their narratives as a bystander, when they directly face racism everyday. A film that genuinely cares about giving BIPOC narratives a chance in a white industry would have combed through its script with a micro-lens and excised microaggressions. 

Overall, in a movie that features the gifted Zendaya Coleman and impeccable cinematography, it’s disappointing to have the biggest takeaway be the writer/director’s display of performative allyship. 

Director: Sam Levinson
Starring: Zendaya Coleman, John David Washington
Release Date: Feb. 5, 2021
Rated: R
Grade: C-

Image courtesy of LEVEL – Medium.