Contains Spoilers for the Netflix film Malcolm & Marie
Malcolm & Marie, the 2021 Netflix film written and directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, is the kind of movie that could only be a must-see event during a pandemic. It’s a bare-bones, black-and-white, single-location drama with only two actors on screen, and a script that mostly tackles how films take inspiration from real-life subjects and the toll it has for these inspirations. It’s a typical festival-ready film that would rarely make it to general theaters, rendered a hit because of a dearth of new media.
Admittedly, I did not like Malcolm & Marie. To be fair to the film, Zendaya and John David Washington are excellent performers who bring some of their best work. The direction from Sam Levinson is inventive in making use of its limited setting. But the writing is so strangely formal and dull, filled with regurgitated ideas about filmmaking and criticism that feels so out of place against the more compelling narrative thread about the unseen consequences of taking inspiration from someone for your story.
The film takes place after the premiere of a film by Malcolm (John David Washington), and while he is feeling victorious because of its positive reception, his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) is fuming at him because he forgot to thank her for her contributions, including inspiring the story and the main character itself. What follows is argument after argument where Malcolm defends himself and his film as Marie points out why she deserves the thanks, and the uneven balance that their relationship seems to have. There are lots of pivots, but Marie is basically asking Malcolm why he didn’t give her that bare minimum for all that she did for him—and why she’s in the relationship with him in the first place.
A significant portion of Malcolm & Marie is about how critics (and people) generally interpret movies. Filmmakers have been making movies about how people interpret their films for a long time: off the top of my head, there’s Sullivan’s Travels, a 1941 comedy about a film producer who wants to direct a “serious” film after a career of successful comedies that he doesn’t feel fulfilled making; there’s also 2008’s Tropic Thunder which satirizes Hollywood whilst talking deeply about what it really means to be an artist in society (is it about awards? Prestige? Money?). There’s a lot of films about how we interpret films (Adaptation.? 8½? Cinema Paradiso?), and Malcolm & Marie tries to follow that tradition.
That thread culminates around the middle of the film, where, after reading a positive review from “the white girl from The LA Times,” Malcolm rants about the state of film criticism today. He argues about the current system’s lack of depth and the tendency of critics to presume the intention of the author as well as projecting their feeling onto the work. He absolutely hates the fact that critics just make his work political when it’s not supposed to be. Marie just listens on and laughs as he screams out his frustrations to the air.
I disagree with Malcolm, but it’s interesting to note that the film might actually disagree with him in this regard, too: Marie tells him later that the choices he made for the film, including focusing on the crumbling American healthcare system as well as making the story about a drug-addicted woman trying to get clean, does put a lot of political subtext to the story he is telling. There are also things that are beyond his control—like being born Black, a man, and to an affluent middle-class family—that skews his perspective on the story he told, which showed up visibly onscreen. This is indicated by an implied scene of abuse that he decided to shoot with the woman topless, which Marie argued was unnecessary and distracting the viewers from the gravity of what was happening. Malcolm could not defend it as an artistic choice.
That part of the film in itself was not that compelling. Some of the scenes do feel like the kind written by a filmmaker wanting to strike back at critics giving them badly-written reviews. In one scene, Malcolm disregards (or feigns ignorance to) important ideas of film criticism like The Death of the Author by talking about how critics ignore the intentions of the author and instead inscribe their own meaning to it. Probably because it’s a terrible opinion that a lot of classrooms can easily refute, the film uses Marie to throw away his complaints in favor of a more nuanced perspective into general film criticism, something about how the critics aren’t wrong but that Malcolm is just sensitive to criticism. And because it takes up a significant time of the narrative, it drags the film down. It’s boring and it’s been done before, and it takes away from the more compelling parts of the narrative.
The really interesting part of Malcolm & Marie digs into Malcolm’s film, which was partially inspired by Marie. This was a movie with some of her experiences and stories, a film that Marie was supposed to star in herself before life got in the way, and one that Malcolm is receiving a lot of acclaim and success for. She argues that the film would not be half as good if it wasn’t for her input and experience—that he’s taken her life story and made it so that she herself cannot tell it when the time comes. Now, she can’t tell her story the way she would want to, and she doesn’t even get to benefit from this film since she doesn’t get thanked for her contributions nor did she get to be the lead like they originally planned.
It’s an interesting thing to tackle, especially considering how many films out there are “inspired by” or “based on” a true story. What do those people being tackled think about their real, complicated lives being fictionalized and simplified and turned into art? What are some of the consequences that happen when they see something like their own overdose, or a harrowing moment of abuse, depicted onscreen for the entertainment of the public? Would they have told it the same way? Cast the same people? Would they have let the film happen if they had any control over it?
Inspiration is a grizzly thing. Listening to Marie talk about how the movie depicts her life made me think of other films that were based on or inspired by true events: 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do with It is Tina Turner’s biopic, and she is on record as saying she dislikes how the film portrays her as the victim of her own story. Michael Oher, the Super Bowl-winning subject of 2009’s The Blind Side, dislikes the fact that the film “portrayed [him] as dumb,” and has stated that the film made people judge him and might’ve made his football career worse. And while the Notorious B.I.G. had passed away for more than a decade before they made his 2009 biopic Notorious, his protege Lil Kim hates the way she was played in the film and how her relationship with Biggie Smalls was depicted.
Malcolm & Marie’s best moments try to reckon with the unseen and unintended consequences of using real people as templates for a story. As the film progresses, Malcolm’s slights towards Marie become larger and more heartless: Malcolm forgets to thank Marie publicly for her help; Malcolm decides to hire someone else to portray a role that he wrote for her; Malcolm tries to take full credit for the film without taking into account the unpaid and unsung labor that Marie put into the film to lend it authenticity and a solid emotional core. All of these actions accumulate to Marie feeling used and neglected by the one person she trusts and cares for.
Suddenly, you can see the kind of toll that this film has taken in her life. It’s not hypothetical anymore: her sacrifices and fuck-ups paved the way to his success. To Malcolm, it seems like her life matters less than his film; and beyond any patriarchal readings that this may have, it also makes his proclamations of love ring insincere because it does seem like he was just using her for his benefit, even if it wasn’t conscious.
Malcolm & Marie is a very average film with some rather dull rehashes against film critics, but its commentary on how filmmakers and storytellers treat their inspirations in favor of a more palatable story and characters is quite insightful. Films are always political, and films will always affect the people that inspired them in ways that might be detrimental to their existence. It’s on the filmmakers and writers themselves to take responsibility for the stories they tell and try to do right by their subjects through handling it with the respect and sensitivity that it deserves.
That doesn’t mean that they should devalue their art and message in favor of making their subject feel good, but it seems like that’s always the struggle in making films about real-life people: you either do right by your subjects or you do right by your story.
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