Malcolm and Marie isn’t just a comment on filmmaking but it’s a film that takes the best advantage of creativity during a pandemic.
I’ve seen a few films so far that have been shot during the Covid-19 pandemic. Or they were finished after the pandemic. In any event, this film takes the prize. THIS is how you direct and produce a film during a pandemic. Every aspect of production was completed between April and September 2020. This is simply amazing and impressive in its own right with a virtual critics screening taking place on January 16.
Malcolm (John David Washington) is a filmmaker and when we first meet him and Marie (Zendaya), they are returning from a Hollywood premiere. Remember those glamorous affairs? Like any filmmaker, Malcolm is awaiting to hear about the reviews and financial success. It certainly doesn’t help that like Sam Levinson forgetting to thank Ashley Levinson at a premiere a few years ago, Malcolm forgets to thank Marie. This isn’t a minor detail by any means but it’s the point that drives the plot forward. Art imitating life! But as we get to know them over the course of the next hour and three quarters, relationship problems begin to arise. In short, they know what to say that will frustrate the other.
Sam Levinson’s film is truly a comment on filmmaking. Malcolm’s experiences in the industry are experiences that other people share in real life. One of the things I appreciate about the film is how Malcolm and Marie also find a way to comment on film criticism. The film criticism commentary segues into commentary on identity. There’s no shortage of frustration here. How one person reacts to a film will not be how another person reacts. But something to ask myself and even more so after viewing is how will the filmmakers or talent react? I’ve seen talent and filmmakers go at it with Film Twitter over disagreements. But at the end of the day, they are people, too. They have feelings just like the rest of us.
This is something that Sam Levinson discussed during the post-premiere Q&A. What’s important to white writers may not be the same thing that’s important to Black writers. Malcolm is pushing back on this idea of what Black people are allowed to tell. Levinson doesn’t believe that filmmaking is a dictatorial medium–he also doesn’t believe in the auteur but “a collision of perspectives and ideas.” Malcolm tests the arguments according to the filmmaker. Levinson calls those arguments a pushback against film critics. This brings me back to a point that I’ve been making for a while now: who gets to write the film reviews? It doesn’t take an idiot to point out who writes the most film criticism. The answer is overwhelmingly straight white men. We are making progress but we’re not there yet.
Early on in the film, Malcolm tells Marie how he spoke with six film critics after the screening. The critics from Variety, IndieWire, and the LA Times were all white. Malcolm points out how the female LA Times critic thinks he can be the next Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, or John Singleton. To which he responds, “What about William Wyler?” This leads to a rather fascinating conversation about seeing film “through a political lens” rather than just being “part of a larger conversation about filmmaking without always having white writers making it about race.” Marie later admits to not knowing who William Wyler is.
While reading the LA Times review after finally caving and buying a subscription due to the paywall, Malcom drops the R word. Come on, now. It’s 2021. Even for a film produced in 2020, the filmmakers and talent should know better than to be using such a derogatory word. But beyond this, Malcolm and Marie have a fascinating conversation while reading the review out loud. It reaches a point in which Malcolm makes himself stop reading the review.
“She’s not looking at the film, the ideas within it, the emotions and the craft. Cinema doesn’t need to have a message, it needs to have a heart, an electricity. Idiots like this reduce everything to zeitgeist political messaging and hyperbole. Films shouldn’t tow a party line, they should be messy and fucking confounding. They should disturb you and move you – you should walk away wandering what it actually fucking means.”
Beyond pissed at the LA Times writer, Malcolm dives into the film’s standout monologue discussing both gaze and identity. This part of the monologue then segues into filmmakers and actors: Ben Hecht, David O. Selznick, Billy Wilder, Ida Lupino, Ed Wood, Elaine May, Barry Jenkins, George Cukor, and Gillo Pontecorvo. Malcolm asks the question of what drives both an artist and filmmaker. The rant ends and they both stop laughing.
It’s perfectly fine that Malcolm has a problem with critics. He would not be the first filmmaker nor the last to do so. I’ve read plenty of filmmaker bios and memoirs that discussed their problems with film critics. Personally, I hate it when I have to pan a film. Should I not write about it or instead write about it so that someone else knows it didn’t work for me? There are so many questions to ask. This is why Malcolm and Marie has set with me long past the end of the end credits.
Overall, I do wonder how accessible it will be to people outside the Hollywood scene. On the one hand, it’s a relationship drama so this should appeal to audiences. I also love the decision to film in black and white. Levinson comments that by the time that people of color begin getting leading roles, the era of black and white filmmaking was practically over. For what it’s worth, I believe this film to be a better film than Mank.
Malcolm and Marie is the rare film that combines romance with commentary on the filmmaking industry in general.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Sam Levinson
CAST: Zendaya, John David Washington