The movie “Malcolm & Marie” (2021, dir. Sam Levinson) has sparked quite a bit of controversy since its Netflix release on Feb. 5. The film follows a filmmaker, Malcolm (John David Washington), and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya), coming back from his movie premiere, which leads to a long night of fighting after Malcolm forgets to thank Marie in his speech. There seems to be a consensus among the viewers of the stellar performances of both Zendaya and Washington, noteworthy writing, and captivating cinematography. With that being said, a strict divide is drawn regarding Sam Levinson, a white filmmaker, writing a script that addresses the role of Black people in the film industry. This concept raised quite a few eyebrows considering that the characters being Black seemingly does not contribute much to the focal point of the film.
There is a scene (5:58-8:05) where Malcolm and Marie return from his successful movie premiere, and he proceeds to go on a rant about how movies made by Black filmmakers are automatically politicized because of their race. He continues his tirade about the Black experience in the film, highlighting some very valid points but making viewers question: What would Sam Levinson know about this struggle?
This critique turns a lot of people off the movie, which is understandable. He is speaking about an experience that is foreign to him. What gives him the right? And as we have mentioned, Malcolm’s rant about the politicization of Black movies adds very little to the story as a whole. It is not mentioned later in the movie, leading to the question of whether it was necessary to include it at all. We understand that sentiment at first glance, for the inclusion seems a bit gratuitous. However, we believe that writing a film starring two Black actors adds to the overall theme of the film: ownership and authenticity.
Malcolm and Marie’s argument starts because he forgets to thank her in his speech during his premiere. Marie feels disrespected not only because of her contribution during the writing stage (revising drafts, inputting ideas, etc.) but also because she believes that the movie is largely about her. More specifically, her struggle with drug addiction at a young age is the entire premise of Malcolm’s film. While her frustration seems trivial initially, as the movie progresses, viewers begin to see that her complaint touches on much larger issues than not being thanked.
Malcolm is praised for his ability to write and produce such a touching story about real struggles such as addiction and substance abuse, but it is not his story. That’s the basis of Marie’s point. She is the one who suffered from addiction and fought to get herself clean, albeit with the help of Malcolm, but that was her journey. Her experience. Marie brings authenticity to the film. It’s her pain, her vices, her journey that is being broadcast on the big screen for everyone to see. He would not have been able to reach the depth that pulled on the heartstrings of the audience if it were not for Marie. Yet, Malcolm, who has always had a privileged life and has never dealt with substance abuse, is applauded. He’s described as thought-provoking and his work moving. No one is aware that the inspiration of his critically acclaimed film comes from Marie, his girlfriend he forgot to acknowledge. Now we start to see some parallels form between Marie’s critique of Malcolm and the audience’s critique of Levinson. Levinson has received some praise regarding his ability to write a moving screenplay. Who inspired those scenes, however, and why is their inspiration not credited at all?
Of course, the fight does not end there, because Malcolm is the type of man who will stubbornly fight to get the last word. This part of the argument tackles the debate of writing or producing other people’s experiences. Marie argues that he, whether intentional or not, took full credit for her story by not recognizing her significance. However, Malcolm states, in the most demeaning way (but that is a whole other conversation), that the movie is not solely about Marie. He contends that while he has not personally been an addict, he has taken parts of his life and experiences and interjected them into the film. Therefore, the story partially becomes his, giving him the right to produce it.
At this point, we started to think that maybe casting two African American actors and including a monologue about an experience that Levinson would know little about was intentional on his part. The entire movie debates the nuances of ownership and recognition through a dysfunctional couple that portrays both sides of the argument. On one hand, it is not right to take credit for another person’s experience. On the other, there lies the claim that writing about unfamiliar stories is acceptable as long as personal experience is somehow incorporated. Levinson brings this debate to life by writing from the standpoint of two Black people. While Levinson is not a person of color nor has he encountered the hardships of being Black in film, he dealt with addiction at a young age like Marie.
Levinson writing two different characters who, despite their race, represent two opposing sides of the spectrum — one experience with which he is familiar and one with which he is not — is important to his question of ownership. In the grand scheme of things, the movie is not about being Black or drug addiction. These subjects are merely each character’s expertise, their experience. Levinson brings this argument to life with a real-life scenario starring him and the Black actors of this film. The scenario being Levinson writing a screenplay — including experiences that are both familiar and unfamiliar to him — that sparks the same debate around authenticity and ownership that Malcolm’s film causes the night of the premiere. The question that then pops up is whether his use of Black characters to illustrate this was effective or appropriate.
Before we answer this question, we should delve into Levinson’s attempt. Levinson goes beyond the fictional world he created and sets the argument in a realistic situation (a white writer telling a story featuring Black characters). This technique has the potential to make the audience think more deeply about all the complexities associated with ownership and authenticity in storytelling. However—and this is a big however—the audience will give (and has given) up on trying to look for the point as soon as they see a white director writing a screenplay “about” being Black. We put the word about in quotations because the movie is truly not centered around race, as we established previously, but most viewers will perceive it as so. Many viewers tend to reference the scene where Malcolm discusses the Black experience in film and focus on his commentary, as opposed to the issues highlighted in the entire movie. In Malcolm’s universe, the general audience is unaware of Marie’s involvement in his film, which is ultimately about addiction and not race. Levinson and his screenplay parallel Malcolm and Marie’s disagreement in that Levinson fails to mention any collaboration in the storyboarding process. In the end, Malcolm’s conversation with addiction is praised, while Levinson’s mere mention of race proves to be his downfall. Therefore, his execution was not as effective as it had the potential to be. That potential heavily relies on Levinson’s place as a white filmmaker writing about a Black experience, and the resulting conversation about who has the right to a story. If Levinson were Black, the question of ownership within Malcolm & Marie as well as outside of it would no longer be valid because there would be no question of the script’s authenticity.
The question of whether his decision was appropriate is a bit more difficult to answer. It is apparent that the general audience disapproves of Levinson’s actions. We think, however, that it is important to also consider Zendaya and Washington’s feelings concerning his choice. Are they comfortable with it? Did they provide any insights? Not only are Zendaya and Washington both credited as producers for this film, but Levinson also allegedly allowed for a space that welcomed collaboration and constructive criticism. In regard to whether Levinson experienced any anxiety about writing from Black perspectives as a white filmmaker, he stated this in his interview with Esquire UK:
No, because 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 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’s response highlights another motif that parallels the film: acknowledgment. He asserts that this was a collaborative project, partly because the creation process is inherently collaborative, but he only credited himself. It is his name in big letters that we see once the movie fades to black. That is the problem people are having. Most of the backlash this film has received arises from the fact that it is his project. We doubt reactions would have been the same if we saw Zendaya or Washington credited as well for contributing to the writing process. This is comparable to the ‘thank you’ or lack thereof that Marie is upset about. Malcolm did not thank Marie in front of the audience at the premiere. He can talk about her role to a smaller group (like Levinson did in that one interview), but most people will not be made aware of her role. It seems to matter a bit more at the premiere or, in Levinson’s case, in the film’s credits. Would this debate still happen if Levinson simply said thank you?
For both Malcolm and Levinson, it is okay for them to admit that they were inspired by someone else’s experiences. That does not mean that they are any less talented. But when they neglect to credit their inspirations, it is like they are stealing a story, a story that they don’t have a right to, unless given permission. We understand that it’s easy to bash Levinson and consequently the movie, but “Malcolm & Marie” brings to light an important and prevalent debate. We agree that Levinson writing a narrative from the perspective of two African Americans is off-putting, to say the least, yet we think there is more to this film that so many watchers are missing in their initial viewing. We are not asking viewers to disregard race entirely, but we suggest they consider what race represents in relation to the main issue of the film. Levinson’s ability to bring the themes of ownership to life is impressive and we believe he deserves some credit, but certainly not all.