Let’s Talk About Malcolm & Marie.
A black filmmaker reviews a movie about a black filmmaker.
When I first heard the buzz about Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, I was excited. The film (written and directed by Levinson) was shot in black and white on 35mm film, which is rare. The cinematography was visually beautiful, and the performance of the lead characters were stunning. What wasn’t so great however, was the screenplay.
The movie started with a stunning dolly shot of Malcolm dancing in his living room. Levinson aimed to make a strong statement about the visual appeal of the movie early on. He delivered in this area. However when the actors began to speak, all hopes of the movie living up to its full potential slowly dissipated. Early on, I no longer cared about any of the visuals or the acting.
It’s not because the actors weren’t good. Quite the opposite actually. Zendaya delivered as Marie, a headstrong and fully recovered drug addict who has a bone to pick with her fiancé. John David Washington delivered as the toxic, egotistical mentally abusive boyfriend who relentlessly attacks Marie. When it comes down to it, not even the best of visuals or acting could pull the movie up from the sinking ship of self centered writing by the director.
In the opening scene it is revealed that Malcolm is a filmmaker and he and Marie are coming home from his movie premiere. It is during this scene that Malcom’s character starts ranting about film critics, politics, and systemic racism. Watching a black filmmaker casually scoff at the topic of systemic racism was weird and aggravating, to say the least. Black directors don’t brush off systemic racism, they tell stories about it. Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, and Spike Lee are just a few examples.
Systemic racism is usually an underlying theme in black filmmakers’ movies because it is a reality for black people. Levinson, in his screenplay, falsely reduces it down to a political topic. This is not an authentic black view of systemic racism. This is a white person writing about how they perceive systemic racism through a black character.
Racism is not strictly a political matter, it is an objectively moral matter that often gets politicized. Levinson conflates the two because he hasn’t experienced the reality of racism from a black perspective. Because of this, he cannot grasp racism as being anything outside of the realm of politics. This is a common way of thinking for most white people, and explains why they tend to equate anti-racism with communism.
Malcolm also says that his movie is first about a girl on drugs, and not about a girl being black. This is a common argument that white people tend to make against black people. They ask questions like “why does x,y, and z have to involve race? Why does it have to be about skin color and not x, y, and z first?”
They (along with Levinson) fail to grasp the concept that being black is indeed a part of our identity. A movie about a black girl needs to reflect how racism would impact her as a black woman because it’s a reality. A black filmmaker wouldn’t take issue with talking about being black, because it is a part of his identity. They also wouldn’t take issue with bringing this to life on the big screen or answering questions about it. On the contrary, most black filmmakers aim to raise awareness.
Most white people don’t understand this because they don’t see themselves in terms of color. They see themselves as objective, and don’t think in terms of having a white identity. Levinson makes this critical mistake and projects it onto his black character when Malcolm rants about not being black but just being a director. Levinson should have had more in depth conversations with black people to better understand how they view themselves in terms of their identity as black individuals. The character Levinson wrote seems to want to shy away from his identity, and not embrace it.
Furthermore, through Levinson’s writing a bigger picture becomes apparent. The screenplay parallels events in Levinson’s own life such as being a filmmaker, and having a white L.A times film critic write an unsavory review about his last film Assassination Nation. Malcolm's character constantly rants against the white girl from L.A. times who gave him a bad review. It’s clear that he’s projecting himself onto the character. The question is why choose black characters to do so?
It seems like he’s using the blackness of the characters and the concept of racism to shield himself from bad critic reviews. He’s daring critics to come against him since it’s black characters talking about racism. He’s essentially weaponizing racism and exploiting black people. He’s doing what he pointlessly attempts to rant against in his screenplay: politicizing and weaponizing racism and using the characters’ blackness as a crutch to do so.
This worries me. With films like Get Out, Moonlight, and 12 Years A Slave achieving monumental success, are we going to see a trend of white writers attempting to write stories about black people (and doing so inaccurately ) as a means to a career boost? Black films have won awards because they are good, authentic storytelling from a black perspective. They are allowing the viewer into their imagination to see life through their eyes. Levinson’s screenplay feels like an attempt at capitalizing off of black people and using them as a means to further his career.
Will we start seeing this more often in the future? Considering the film industry's long wrap sheet with exploiting and inaccurately portraying autism in films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Forrest Gump and the recent Music, I would say it isn’t too far-fetched to think so. After all, none of the films listed above actually had autistic actors starring in these roles. In the near future will black writers and filmmakers still be writing movies about their own history and culture?