‘Malcolm & Marie’—the couple is toxic, toxic…but the film is innovative

by Merecedes J. Williams
For New Pittsburgh Courier

In most cases, when a couple slips into their pajamas, grabs a box of instant mac and cheese, pours a glass of Satan’s juice, and turns on some James Brown, you can bet there will be an argument. You know, one of those arguments built on resentment where old issues are dug up from 2006, a small appliance or shoe is thrown, and tissues just will not clean up the tears.

That pretty much sums up “Malcolm & Marie” on the surface. But co-stars and co-producers Zendaya and John David Washington peel back so many layers to the dynamics and multi-dimensions of Black love. On the surface, Netflix’s newest virtual box office film is about a movie-maker and his actress girlfriend the night of his big movie premiere.

On a deeper level in the film, jealousy, insecurity, and poor communication all play serious factors in an emotional roller coaster. “Malcolm & Marie,” as a couple, are toxic, toxic. So dysfunctional that it begs the question, “Do couples like this really exist?”

The relationship is so unpleasant you will re-evaluate your own relationship, asking yourself, “Are we ‘Malcolm & Marie’ toxic?”

For my husband and I, it was clear that copious amounts of trauma, distrust and personal struggles might be the foundation for “Malcolm & Marie,” but not for every couple.

What did rise from the dark ashes of this black-and-white film are two incredibly talented stars who played a significant role in creating “Malcolm & Marie.”

Writer and director Sam Levinson, Zendaya and Washington joined me and other members of the African American Film Critic Association for a virtual roundtable to discuss “Malcolm & Marie.”

For all three, this passion project is about more than the White woman at the L.A. Times or an inaugural film. “Malcolm & Marie” is ironically two actors expressing their cinematic creativity who also play two industry people fighting for their autonomy and acceptance in Hollywood.

“This film is as Indie as a film gets,” said Zendaya.

The 24-year-old actress did not have many people to answer to when creating “Malcolm & Marie,” providing her with “equity and ownership in the film.”

Both Zendaya and Washington said they felt safe and free on set even during the pandemic. “It felt like a summer camp to explore,” said Washington.

Not too often do Black actors have the power to go on set and let movie executives or directors know how to move forward with a project. Zendaya and Washington were afforded a rare opportunity, and it paid off.

In September 2020, Netflix acquired the worldwide rights to the film.

The “Malcolm & Marie” cast and crew shared a portion of the proceeds of the sale with Feeding America, a nonprofit network of more than 200 food banks that feeds more than 46 million people. That is huge for an independent film where the cast only consists of two Black actors, who also produce.

I believe it is this movie-making freedom that solidifies their on-screen chemistry. Zendaya and Washington are extremely compatible, and despite the age difference, the sparks are evident. I would not mind if they became an item in real life.

While we are on the topic, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a 36-year-old dating a 24-year-old. Consenting adults can easily navigate through relationship waters with merit and maturity.

Because the film had one setting, I struggled with the length of “Malcolm & Marie.” But I understood the unpacking of the movie required the time for some explaining, some powerful monologues, and openness for multiple interpretations.

“Malcolm & Marie” is available now and currently No. 3 in the country on Netflix.

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