The divisive film Malcolm & Marie, starring Zendaya and John David Washington, follows a raw, toxic conflict between a filmmaker and his girlfriend that ensues after his latest film’s premiere.
Before anything else, it’s important to note that this film is not for everybody. Malcolm & Marie is highly stylized. It has a stage play-like quality to it, in addition to its notable film-noir traits.
Aside from the black-and-white photography, the more challenging aspects of Malcolm & Marie are the long length of film’s shots and the lack of background music. A bit of effort and some strain on one’s attention span is needed to watch this movie, but it’s well worth it.
Zendaya and Washington deliver captivating performances. Both are able to portray a wide spectrum of emotional layers that expertly weave into the narrative. They maintain a consistently high level of intrigue and emotional depth throughout the entirety of the film, which is a testament to their skills as actors.
Plus, there’s something truly stunning about seeing Zendaya and Washington’s talents in a film-noir aesthetic. If nothing else, the presence of film-noir elements evoke a sense of timelessness. However, it’s gratifying to see two African-American actors step into a style that, in its prime, was geared toward white actors and white stories.
That said, a divisive quality of this particular story – that’s received a great deal of backlash from film critics – is a topic that crops up periodically throughout Malcolm and Marie’s conversations.
Between the fighting, Malcolm and Marie outright mock film critics and the way they politicize films instead of focusing on the art. Their criticism is quite brutal at times, but not entirely unfounded.
Despite whether one might agree with their point of view, the critic-hating conversational interludes are unrelated to Malcolm and Marie’s tumultuous relationship and function mostly as a device for pacing. They serve to break up the conflict and give the viewer an opportunity to cool down before the next round of vicious arguments unfold.
Granted, there is an attempt to tie in Malcolm and Marie’s grievances with film critics into their relationship issues. But the connection that’s made is underdeveloped, and therefore misses the mark writing-wise. Even so, that particular shortcoming is offset by the leads’ performances.
Outside of that one narrative flaw, the writing is decent, if not solid. The dialogue is great, and the core premise of the couple’s argument is good enough.
The writing is not mind-blowing or revolutionary, but it does its job. In this case, the narrative only has to refrain from impeding the actors, and it did just that.
Malcolm & Marie is worth viewing for the performances of Zendaya and Washington alone. While it might not be the kind of film someone would throw on to unwind and be entertained, it’s something to see at least once.
Published in Volume 75, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 25, 2021)