At a glance, Sam Levinson’s 2021 film Malcolm & Marie has all the components of a critically acclaimed drama. It’s shot in black and white (which, besides being beautiful, reminds the audience that this is a “serious” film), stars two very talented actors with promising careers (John David Washington as Malcolm, Zendaya as Marie), and is a film with something to say about filmmaking. Malcolm, a director who gets into an argument with his long-suffering girlfriend Marie after an awards ceremony, weaves his problems with contemporary cinema and film criticism into their fight.
Stories with something to say about the film industry usually play well with critics, but Malcolm & Marie has been almost universally panned. One review described it as “a very talk-y movie that takes aim at film criticism and its relationship to Black art in the most muddled and perplexing of ways: through the convoluted dialogue of a white director (who also happens to be the son of another famous director), filtered through two black characters,” resulting in “a sudsy, exhausting drama about a couple that probably shouldn’t be together, and is only just now admitting the quiet part aloud.”
Reviewers are divided over the quality of actors’ performances, but one thing nearly everyone agrees on is the main problem at the film’s core; Levinson. As the review above explains, much of Malcolm’s tirade against film critics (in particular, a “white lady from the L.A. Times” who reviewed his last movie poorly) seems lifted directly from Levinson’s personal issues with the industry. Note that Levinson’s last film, Assassination Nation, was poorly reviewed by Katie Walsh, a white lady from the L.A. Times.
Even worse, Levinson’s ire towards negative reviews of his own work are expressed by a black character. As one critic for The Independent put it, “there are many moments where it feels as if Malcolm, who is a Black Hollywood director, serves as a mouthpiece for Levinson’s own opinions on race and filmmaking – making them harder to disagree with. The points made about reviewers are far from anti-racist or even progressive . . . but because they’re coming out of Malcolm’s mouth, we’re tempted to believe they are grounded in his experiences as a Black man.”
The problems with Malcolm & Marie as a film are perhaps less interesting than this question; is it alright for white writers to write non-white characters? It’s certainly not a new question, as this 2016 article from The New Yorker on the anxieties of writing outside one’s ethnicity demonstrates. On the one hand, the idea that we should limit fiction in any sense is troubling. If fiction is supposed to cultivate empathy, then writers should not only be allowed to but be encouraged to write characters unlike themselves. Otherwise, we end up with white writers only writing about white characters, contributing to an already homogenous artistic landscape. At the same time, white writers can easily fall into traps when they appropriate the voices and experiences of non-white characters. White writers can become defensive when this is brought up, and accuse non-white writers of attempting to silence or muffle art. But as writer Viet Thanh Nyugen explains, “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.”
When asked about writing black characters as a white man in an article for Esquire, Levinson responded, “I have faith in the collaborative process and in my partners that if I write something that doesn’t feel true, that JD or Z [John David Washington and Zendaya] don’t respond to or feel to be honest, that they are going to say something and we’ll work it out. I didn’t have anxiety in that sense because I have too much respect for the collaborative nature of filmmaking.” Levinson is perhaps misrepresenting the power actors have on set, and while filmmaking is a collaborative process, Levinson still has power as director and sole screenwriter at the end of the day.
It’s very easy to make Levinson into a symbol of everything wrong with white male directors, but obviously the problem goes beyond just him. While Malcolm & Marie was written with the intent to prod film critics, it has provoked a larger conversation about the ethics of race and representation, a conversation as contentious as (though much less exhausting than) the one at the heart of Levinson’s film.