In the month many people are focused on love and romance, “Malcolm & Marie,” dropped on Netflix Feb. 5. It stars Zendaya and John David Washington and is written and directed by Sam Levinson, the creator of Zendaya’s show “Euphoria.” “Malcolm & Marie” was one of the first projects filmed in-person after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Unlike the typical romance movies released in February, this is not a happy love story nor a date-night movie.
The story follows one evening in the life of Malcolm, a filmmaker and his girlfriend Marie as they peel back their facade and dig into the ugly parts of both themselves and their relationship as a whole. From start to finish, the pair argue on a near-constant loop.
I genuinely enjoyed the film. I was drawn in early on and it kept my attention for all 106 minutes. However, it was hard to watch the aggressive and extremely toxic depiction of Black love. This film is not a representation of the concept of Black love as a whole, rather about one single couple’s virulent relationship.
Minutes into the film, the audience’s assumption of perfect romance is thrown out the window. The couple fights viciously with ease, like it’s something they’re accustomed to. There are no pretenses of Cupid’s bows and heart-eyed naivete.
As the film’s trailer said, “This is not a love story, this is the story of love.”
Though it is at times infuriating — for both the audience and the characters — to hear the painful jabs and circular arguments, Washington and Zendaya deserve all the praise for bringing their A-game and delivering their lines with heart-wrenching honesty.
The film begins with Malcolm and Marie coming home from the premiere of his latest film, a film based largely off of Marie’s life and their relationship. Malcolm’s jubilantly dancing around the house, celebrating a successful premiere was enjoyable to watch.
But right from the start, it’s clear Marie is unhappy.
Though Malcolm thanked a multitude of people during his premiere speech, he forgot to thank Marie. Not only was she his inspiration for the movie, but she was his woman, someone who was there and on the journey with him. They quickly fall into a fight that continues off-and-on throughout the rest of the film.
Malcolm and Marie are messy. Perhaps they shouldn’t be together, but for some unknowable reason, they are stuck in a revolving cycle of abusive love. They are not a couple whose relationship should be idealized. The way they go back-and-forth at each other is ugly and often painful to watch.
However, in an exaggerated fashion, the film explores some of the struggles people run into when sharing their lives with one another. At one point in the film, Malcolm digs at Marie, and later in the film, she tells him it made her wish she hadn’t shared so much of her life with him.
This beautiful Black couple is deeply broken below the surface.
With the knowledge that “Malcolm & Marie” is a film Zendaya specifically asked Levinson to write, as well as collaborating on the story herself, the fact that a white man wrote this story is something I bumped up against. There are levels of Blackness, and specifically Black love, that non-Black people don’t have an understanding of, so not having this story told by a Black person seems like a missed opportunity to me.
Black love is something we don’t often get to see in movies and television. In many cases, Black people in media are coupled up with white characters or other non-Black characters of color. As we focus on Black joy in the wake of violence against Black people in 2020 and celebrate our culture during Black History Month, part of me bristled at how negative this movie about a Black couple in love was.
Love isn’t easy and is often messy, so it is understandable that Levinson, Zendaya, and Washington would choose to tell this story, especially as it provided a lot of meat for the actors to dig into. The film is not without its joyous and romantic moments, just maybe not as many as one would like.
Despite the film’s negative portrayal of love, it is gorgeous to look at and entertaining to watch — if more for the actor’s magnificent performances than the story itself.