Netflix’s Malcolm and Marie Review: Uncomfortable, Funny, Heartbreaking

Malcolm and Marie a review I am nervous writing considering how Malcolm (John David Washington) lights into the “white girl from LA Times” using words like “systemic horrors of racism”. How can a middle-class Indian woman with a university education in the language of the oppressor comment on a movie about a relationship between a black filmmaker and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya)?

Should it matter? Is art universal? Does knowledge of the artist influence the appreciation of it? These are questions that have been the subject of many learned dissertations and the topic of discussion in many classrooms. Does Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind become any less powerful because it is sung by a white man from Minnesota, who has not known oppression, and heard 50 years later on a university campus in Hyderabad? Does Hamlet’s dilemma become lesser for being written by a white male four centuries ago?

Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s Malcolm and Marie is a fascinating talkathon on life, art and relationships. Returning from a successful premiere of his movie, Marie is annoyed with Malcolm for not thanking her. From there the discussion spirals into places that are uncomfortable, funny, cruel and heartbreaking by turns.

“Because I am a black director and the lead is a black woman, critics try to frame it through a political lens,” Malcolm says disparagingly. Marie feels she has not been given due credit as Malcolm cannibalised her life into his very successful movie that critics are hailing for its authenticity. Malcolm, with his college education, has not known the depth of despair that Marie was plunged into during her addiction, overdose, rehab and relapse.

When Marie says, it was “not a literal theft, a spiritual one,” Malcolm counters with “Even feedback from you comes with an IOU!” When the LA Times review comes out and Malcolm bellows, “A paywall?!” it is sure to strike a chord with all digital natives. His praying the critic “gets carpal tunnel so she cannot write garbage like this” evokes full-on sympathy for the writer and revulsion for Malcolm being an entitled jerk. We root for Marie in Malcolm and Marie as she says, “Nobody cares what you have to say, you guys just play dress up for a living.”

Malcolm and Marie
Netflix's Malcolm and Marie Review: Uncomfortable, Funny, Heartbreaking 2

The discussion on art and the nature of criticism is far more interesting in Malcolm and Marie than the shoehorning of that reading into the status of the relationship between the two. Marie’s leap from the LA Times’ review of the movie to her (Marie’s) critique of Malcolm as a partner is awkward.

As Washington and Zendaya are the only two people on screen the entire time in Malcolm and Marie, in this first movie to be entirely written, financed and shot during the pandemic, their performances have to be riveting. And they most certainly are in this gorgeously shot, black-and-white film. Though the performances in Malcolm and Marie might seem a tad studied, there is enough on-screen to grab one’s eyes and keep them.

Malcolm says, “The mystery is the point,” in response to critics trying to deconstruct a work by figuring out what drives an artist. While that is true, wasn’t it William Butler Yeats who demanded, “How can we know the dancer from the dance”? How indeed!

Malcolm and Marie is currently streaming on Netflix.

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A director and his girlfriend's relationship is tested in Malcolm and Marie after they return home from his movie premiere and await critics' responses.

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