By now, Zendaya faithfuls have surely laid eyes on her latest project, Malcolm & Marie, a collaboration with her Euphoria showrunner Sam Levinson. The film, co-starring John David Washington (yes, Denzel’s offspring), was released in early February to almost universal criticism from reviewers and casual viewers alike. The movie was panned as shouty to some and hollow to others. But there is much more haunting attributes to this movie outside of its tone.
They say you should write what you know, and it seems that Levinson took this to heart in the writing of this screenplay. He himself is a former addict, so in pulling from his own experiences he once again pigeonholed Zendaya into the addict role for this feature. The main difference in this film is that, unlike the character Rue in Euphoria, Marie is a recovered addict. This should have been a minor detail, but instead it becomes the entire crux of the film’s conflict: Marie is upset that her lover, rising Black filmmaker Malcolm, failed to thank her in a speech he gave at his movie’s premiere. She claimed that such a lapse in judgment was in poor taste considering the film’s striking similarities to her own struggles with addiction.
The film takes a bitter turn with Malcolm’s characterization. For nearly the entire film, he rages at white critics’ consistent misunderstanding of his work, complaining in overlong monologues about how his films shouldn’t be politicized simply because he is Black and his characters are as well. On paper, this is a fair complaint — Black creators in Hollywood uninterested in historical dramas or civil rights trauma porn often have to fight tooth and nail to portray Black characters in simple slice-of-life films and TV. On this front as a Black viewer, I understood where this gripe was coming from.
However (and this is a big however), the issue in this film was the way in which Levinson, a white man, wrote Malcolm’s monologues around this pain point. I won’t even get into the fact that Washington is shouting for about three-quarters of the film — edging into Angry Black Man territory. It seemed that Levinson was simply using Malcolm’s character to make a rather elitist point about critics from his own point of view.
As Malcolm states aggressively throughout the film. he takes issue with the politicization of his Black female protagonist by white critics eager to “understand” the Black experience. He accused “the white girl at the LA Times” of reading his film as some cautionary tale about racism in the medical system as opposed to a story about an addict trying to get clean. He insists the latter was his intention, but he harps on the fact that white critics are eager to “make things about race” for the voyeuristic inclinations of white audiences. Marie points out the obvious flaws in his argument — namely that his maleness was causing him to ignore the intersectionality of Black female identity and that the review was still a positive one — but Malcolm is too egotistical to hear her. The thing is, I don’t think Levinson realized the irony in his own writing.
When we think about the similarities between Malcolm and Levinson himself, it is hard to see the film through any other lens. Levinson, like Malcolm, made a piece of media about a drug addict based on someone else’s life. The person Levinson cast to play his addict, like Malcolm, was a Black woman. Because of the layered identity of the actress playing the addict’s character, various critics of all races read the protagonist through a different lens (as they should!). In 2021, critics are becoming more socially and politically conscious. Therefore, if there are non-white experiences in previously uncharted areas of film or TV, they understand that in a basic sense that identity changes one’s experience in specific facets of American life. It seemed that in Malcolm & Marie, Malcolm — Levinson — couldn’t grasp the variance in experience between himself and a Black woman, and frankly didn’t think doing so was required of him as an artist.
With the connections between Levinson and his Black male protagonist in mind, it becomes obvious that Levinson simply Blackified his perspective to fit the actor he cast in the lead role. For that, I suppose we could applaud his awareness. Yet while it certainly isn’t far-fetched that a Black male director could be snobbish with a God-complex (Spike Lee, Tyler Perry hello), in this film the level of energy given to this so-called issue of representation worked as more of a heavy cloak to hide the privileged, white male perspective at the center of it.
Malcolm’s critiques also fall short when we think of the various examples in real Hollywood of Black showrunners that have dealt with the same dilemmas. While Black screenwriters today want to create every day Black characters that simply exist in the world, they also understand that the personal is political. Creators like Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, and even Shonda Rhimes have written very different worlds where Black characters can just be, but they have always remained aware of the social implications of being Black (and for these three particularly, women) in America today. They didn’t compromise identity for formula.
For all of the whinging Malcolm did about not wanting his films to be read as political manifestos on Black life, the subtext of his sniping seemed to be that he wanted his work to be seen through a colorblind lens. For a Black man “woke” enough to acknowledge the unique oppression of Black women, the whiteness in Malcolm’s writing comes through in his ferocious desire for critics to do the precise opposite when reviewing his films. This is because both Malcolm and Levinson feel they have ultimate ownership over the narratives they portray (Levinson specifically because it is his own life’s story in Euphoria), and thus are resentful of alternative interpretations of them.
Levinson’s present fixation on working with Zendaya and casting Black actors in his lead roles is evidently just a ploy, a performative gesture to make him appear more progressive than he perhaps actually is. Malcolm & Marie was a damning look behind the curtain of Oz that Euphoria has served as for two years. We can see Levinson exposed for what he is now: a shaking, mediocre white man desperate to be heard, even when he’s already the loudest in the room.