starring Zendaya, John David Washington
written and directed by Barry Levinson's son
by Walter Chaw An eight-minute diatribe is the noxious centre of Sam Levinson's intolerable ego trip Malcolm & Marie, distinct neither for the obnoxious volume at which it's delivered nor for the hollowness of its content, but because it manages to stand out at all, coming as it does in the middle of the other shouted invectives that form the rest of it. In this diatribe, flavour-of-the-moment, hotshot movie director Malcolm (John David Washington), on the night of the premiere of his well-received debut, reads a glowing early review by "that white lady at the L.A. Times" and rails on about "woke" culture and how he, as a Black director, is only compared to other Black directors as opposed to people like William Wyler and Billy Wilder? Does he mean real directors, or does he mean white directors? Does he mean that he doesn't like to be compared to John Singleton and Spike Lee because they are not good, or because they are Black and what he does, what Malcolm does, is entirely independent of his identity as a Black man? Is he suggesting that he has no identity as a Black artist? And if he's not suggesting that, is Levinson, the unimaginably-privileged white son of Hollywood royalty (Oscar-winning Barry is his dad)? Why is either Levinson or Malcolm complaining about this straw lady also talking about how Malcolm's film addresses trauma, recovery, and violence towards women? Is this not the one area in which she should be "allowed" to opine?
I don't watch Levinson's HBO series "Euphoria" because I despise his Assassination Nation, a "withering" satire about wokeness, revenge porn, homophobia, gun culture, and the Hypocrisy of Suburbia--all of it starting with a call-out to The Shining as a kid wearing an American-flag hockey mask pedals his tricycle down the middle of our new collective haunted hotel of main-street racial/sexual/identity animus. The question, again, is what a person who benefits enormously from the wrong side of these issues is so angry about and, furthermore, why he's using the demographics most at risk of exploitation by people like him to ventriloquize his grievance at not being allowed to exploit them free of criticism, if never any real consequences. Were a Black woman to make a film that fails as spectacularly as Assassination Nation--stylistically, ideologically most of all--she'd never, ever get another chance to fail like that again. Levinson's garbage is "risky" in the way Ricky Gervais's stand-up is risky, except Levinson puts on the faces of the people he wants to say the things he'd like to say in the ways he'd like to say them. Get Out was a documentary about certain corners of Hollywood; Assassination Nation is a comic bombing with his best material and blaming political correctness for a genuine, universal weariness/wariness of punching down.
Apparently, Malcolm's movie loosely adapts the life of his partner Marie (Zendaya), and his failure to publicly thank her in his introduction is the spark that lights the fight that lasts the entire film. The obvious comparison this movie courts is to Mike Nichols's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but that was a white intellectual skewering the hypocrisy and interpersonal/class brutality of other white intellectuals. Malcolm & Marie is a white, decidedly not intellectual filmmaker skewering white critics who can't separate a Black artist from his Blackness. Even if you grant that this is a problem rather than a bias that can only be addressed by what might be a period of overcompensated course-correction for a century of ignoring or diminishing these issues, why is Levinson the conveyer of this message? If this is an important cause for a true ally, maybe spend some of that sweet HBO dosh to foster someone else to write and direct the movie that addresses it. Perhaps this is a consummation devoutly wished by Zendaya and Washington--perhaps not. More likely, Malcolm's complaint is Levinson lobbying to be "allowed" to do and say whatever he wants without being challenged by that bitch at the TIMES who, whomever she is, probably hasn't had an easy time getting to where she is in another male-dominated field. But sure, let's shame not just critics or white critics, but white women critics who are actively working through their cultural blinders. I mean, look, no one is stopping anyone from making Green Book. Knock yourself out. Go nuts.
Malcolm & Marie is exhausting for no useful purpose whatsoever. It's "Trapped by the Blowhard Dimestore Social Philosopher at the Party: The Movie." Washington spends the whole thing shouting, while Zendaya fares slightly better because she spends half the time shouting and the other half whispering earnestly. There's a scene where Marie's in the bath when Malcolm comes in to torture her with his long romantic history of dating damaged women whose experiences he's farmed for his ART, and the power disparity on display is deeply disgusting. Malcolm is disgusting. Unrelievedly so. There is never a moment in the picture where I saw him as a person: not when he's calling Marie a crazy junkie whore and not when he's saying the same about white lady critics who liked his movie. To be fair, although I thought Marie was on the side of righteousness for having her feelings hurt by not being mentioned by her boyfriend at an important juncture, at no point did I see her as a human being, either. Liking is beside the point. I mean, I don't like anyone in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but I did empathize with them. They seemed like broken people. They didn't seem like a Punch & Judy show put on by a spoiled brat. All Malcolm & Marie inspired in me is revulsion. These aren't characters engaged in a drama--they're mouthpieces engaged in an inexplicably-martyred person's harangue.
Levinson, not unlike John Lee Hancock in The Little Things, pulls in classics by Black artists to try to find some emotion in a thing that he might understand on some level has no emotional pull. What loud noises evoke, after all, is not the same thing the representation of genuine interaction evokes. So Levinson uses James Brown's "Down & Out in New York City" and Dionne Warwick's "Get Rid of Him" and Archie Shepp's "Goin' Home" and Outkast's "Liberation" in a way more "appropriation" than appropriate. Continuing what he started by casting Washington and Zendaya, he's borrowing black bodies and voices to make the case that he shouldn't have to bother with things like identity politics because, as an ARTIST, he's above that. Anyone should be able to tell anyone's stories, he argues in Malcolm's appropriation of Marie's story, and white lady critics shouldn't talk about a director's race because race doesn't mean anything. It especially doesn't mean anything if you're a white man--and a blatant recipient of generous nepotism who's never been passed over or asked to hit a higher standard because of the colour of his skin or the acceptability of the pronouns he uses.
This is the approach to Malcolm & Marie that is about its creator and its content. The approach that only engages Malcolm & Marie free of the context Malcolm introduces at maximum spittle is that this film is the same fight cycled ad nauseam between two actors who are never anything other than actors in a picture that is at once beautifully lit (by Marcell Rév) and, with one possible exception, blocked and shot with a dearth of innovation. Nichols, one of the stage's great directors of drama, made every shot meaningful. Except for a moment where we watch Marie piss while Malcolm dances to the Godfather of Soul, Levinson's direction manages to tell none of the story. It's a shame because spaces in closed-room dramas--like those in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as it happens--are not only loaded symbolic touchstones but essential in opening up what is at its heart just a block of words. I'm hazarding that it's okay to compare Levinson to Nichols because Nichols is not Spike Lee. Or maybe I should be comparing him to Lee because Lee is not the same race. How does this work? It doesn't work. Neither does the block of words that is nothing that white lady critic at the LOS ANGELES TIMES hasn't heard before, every time she opens her mouth to talk about something some rando thinks is out of her lane. Anyway, no one is stopping anyone from jerking off. Cancel culture ain't a thing. Do it on camera, though, and no matter how violently you try to bully someone not to, someone should probably say something.