How Malcolm & Marie Is Redefining Independent Film
I was not going to watch this movie. Netflix was pushing it on me which made sense: it’s Zendaya, John David Washington, and Sam Levinson, but it also has 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, 53% on Metacritic, and 6.7/10 on IMDb. There was some talk about it being a revenge film targeting critics and there also wasn’t the best said about the script, though everyone seemed to agree that the acting was incredible.
Truth be told, the second I see a Rotten Tomato score of less than 80% I will probably keep scrolling to find another thing to watch, and if the score is below a 70%, there is slim to no chance I will think about whatever it is again. Tonight though, someone who knows me very well looked me in the eyes and told me she knew I’d love this film. I am so glad I listened to her. Whether you find this film enjoyable is beside the point, but whether you find it has depth and purpose is where there seems to be somewhat of a divide that is very telling of the time we’re living in.
To start, it’s important to highlight that this entire group of makers kept the film independent to be able to share actual ownership between the crew and the cast as well as charity.
This film was Zendaya’s idea. She shared how she approached Levinson with it in the New York Times,
“What if we just shoot something, you, me and Marcell [Rév, the cinematographer who worked on the movie and also on “Euphoria”]? If there was a world where we made something we were proud of and we could sell it and hopefully get everybody paid and take care of our crew in that way, that would be the ultimate winning goal for all of us.”
Typically, only a few individuals share ownership of a movie that many, many people contribute to. This traditional structure is classic capitalist wealth inequality applied to a movie production scale. It’s rare to see film shared in the way Malcolm & Marie is and it would be revolutionary to see it applied more frequently and to other industries.
Levinson further elaborates on this structure in a cast interview with Indiewire:
“Film making is a collision of identities [and] perspectives and if we are able to do it in a way that’s fair and if people are able to share in the profits of it, if we’re able to not only use voices but actually give people credit and profit then we can carve a way forward in this business, but we need to talk about it.”
John David Washington added towards the end that,
“It redefined independent filmmaking for me.”
Most stories shared in this life, whether through film, writing, or visual art are, in part, someone else’s. It seems to me that adults are resistant to acknowledging this and sharing ownership of any creation. We live in a culture constantly telling us it’s better to make it only on our own and when we do tap into collaborating, rarely do we follow-up with fair compensation or credit. We are so fixated on proving independent success and worth. The person at the top is always the most visible.
Everything about this film asks us to think about that. It’s a dialogue about hearing, understanding, reflecting, and crediting the voices involved in creating. It’s about the importance of being accountable to and honouring our relationships — professional, personal, or otherwise. The film shows us that in subscribing to the idea of independent success, one has to walk all over their loved ones to get to the top and when they do make it, they are so insecure they can’t even thank the people they couldn’t have done it without. Thus the dynamic of Malcolm and his muse Marie.
When Malcolm and Marie start getting into it, she pings us with this line,
“I was a world of emotions you’ve never seen so close.”
Marie drives home the idea that having a muse is a cop-out. She potently explains how Malcolm is so insecure about his identity that he’s incapable of reflecting on it enough to have something new to say, so he uses her identity instead. He says his film is about shame and guilt, and she asks him, “What do you know about shame and guilt?” She says later that if he knew anything about it firsthand, he would be too worried about how it would look to others. Even if he got a glimpse of it he’d probably not have the courage to live with it.
Malcolm and Marie’s dynamic is so much more than a muse and artist or a person in a relationship with a narcissistic man. It’s a performance that slowly establishes who we are as viewers by whose voices we hear, whose voices we listen to when we decide to listen and asks us to think about what we take away from those voices.
Marie’s voice is important to Malcolm only when he feels she doesn’t see him the way he sees himself. Seldom does he listen when she’s talking about the disconnect between the perception he has with the reality that is. Malcolm doesn’t care about Marie; he cares about what Marie thinks about him. He’s an illusion of love, an illustration of lust: when we desire only for the other’s affection in love, it is never for anyone else but ourselves.
Marie tries to explain to him what re-telling a story that is not yours does to the person to whom it belongs. Now that her story is told, she can’t tell it, at least not detached from his version. These moments are so powerful because they relate so closely with what we know story-telling to be.
How many stories are missing the voices of people who experienced them? Mainstream history and media are written by self-proclaimed victors, not the victims. The accounts we experience as an audience, as the general public, are always missing the most important voices, and to add them in after the fact already discredits their experience. When that voice is finally heard it’s often so much quieter than the man who decided to tell it first and it needs multitudes of other voices to qualify its truth.
Let me elaborate on what I found in reading Malcolm & Marie reviews. A lot of the reviews circle around the script not being ground-breaking. BBC says “one great scene doesn’t make a great movie”. Many reviews talk about it being a drawn-out romantic drama, and then there are the bits about the film coming at critics.
Most mainstream reviews of this film are by white critics, predominantly male, who blatantly take away the autonomy of Zendaya and Washington. They do this by assuming that the two Black creatives’ autonomy was taken by Sam Levinson, the white male director, and that this film wasn’t a collective effort. I’m not sure if they feel as though by saying this they are proving to the world how self-aware and anti-racist they are, but not following up these claims with the voices of Zendaya and Washington themselves proves the opposite.
No doubt, BIPOC, female, and gender diverse voices being silenced by those in power has been and still is a problem in film-making and everywhere else. It’s fair and healthy to be wary of white directors and the power dynamic that ensues from their position. But, hence my focus on the financial make-up and encouraging you to read/watch Zendaya and Washinton’s accounts of making the movie before jumping to the harmful conclusion that because they are Black and working with a white director, they couldn’t have had a say in anything that the viewer is experiencing and that they must have been Levinson’s puppets.
The exact thing these critics are accusing Levinson of is actually what they themselves are inflicting on the artists. Their quick-to-the-draw, printed, public impression is now the story that Zendaya and Washington have to spend their time counteracting in their interviews.
Zendaya continues in the New York Times,
“in real life, we do have the credit, this is ours, and John David, I and Sam equally own this film. It’s not like it belongs to someone else and I just got cast in it. He wrote it for us too, and I think if you’re going to write something, you have to acknowledge experiences of the [Black] character you’re writing. I thought a lot of conversations I had with Sam came through.”
If anything, a reasonable critique could have been focused on equity in the sharing of ownership. For example, the possibility of giving Zendaya a larger portion of the film than Levinson. But, to give a thoughtful, deeper review, critics would have had to do something that isn’t built into their job description or anyone else’s working under capitalism, they would have had to take their time.
Zendaya also mentioned,
“I really enjoyed being a producer. And I enjoy this idea of hopefully one day being able to make the things that I want to see, the roles that I want to see for Black women.”
It would be nice to read a mainstream review celebrating the genuineness of this young woman’s creativity and talent, encompassing the complexity of the project and celebrating a group of people trying to make change.
The Art Critic
Marie and Malcolm talk a lot about a critic from the L.A. Times. There are assumptions that this critic is Katie Walsh who reviewed Assassination Nation, another one of Levinson’s films. In an interview with Vulture, she comments on Malcolm & Marie saying:
“You see these flashes of brilliance and then it descends in this contradictory, messy way. Perhaps that’s the point: that these conversations are messy, whether they’re conversations about relationships or conversations about criticism. But I don’t know that I got anything too illuminating from it.”
Critics critique in such strategic ways. Katie’s Twitter fans praise her for her grace in this interview. When we make something philosophical or generalize, there is an undertone that implies objectivity that sounds graceful. However, it’s perplexing when critics and their readers believe that what a critic has to say is objective in the slightest.
The problem with the idea of objectivity is that it’s rooted in white supremacy.
The essay I’m currently writing is not objective. Malcolm & Marie is not objective. Not because it’s poorly made but because nothing is objective, and subjectivity is not a bad thing. But denying that we are subjective ignores our responsibility to acknowledge our complacency within everything that makes us who we are.
We see the world through the lens we have, through every experience we have had. To claim that a person could see something objectively is frankly a self-centered, elitist, impossible standard, one that leads us to harmful impact even when we have the best intentions. The best we can do when we approach forming opinions is try and unlearn what we’ve known but understand that unlearning does not erase our identity. I will always be white and benefit from that whiteness. My unlearning allows me to strategically use my privilege to another’s advantage but I will always have the responsibility to understand the space I take up and the voices I choose to listen to, share, or talk over. In unlearning we give ourselves a tool to critically think and reflect, nothing about us is ever subtracted to make us in any way a neutral, objective voice.
When we go to our news outlets, we’ve got a sense of who is right or left-leaning, who owns who, and what agenda they’re pushing. In the art conversation the lines feel blurrier, but they really shouldn’t be. The issues I have with critics are similar to those I have with some white feminist theory that claims its viewpoints are for all instead of targeting a perspective as being for some specific individuals and acknowledging your social location within your work. This attitude is white supremacy in action, thinking that the white voice is the right voice and encompasses the best interests of all. What part of the critic’s profession is rooted in colonialism? By my standards, quite a lot of it.
The Problems With Negative Reviews
Before we rip something to shreds or critique it negatively, maybe we should ask ourselves why our voice matters in the conversation we are inserting it into? Maybe it does matter — but also, possibly, if you’re not coming from the underdog’s team, your voice might not be necessary.
If we don’t like something there are many reasons why that may be so. Most of the time, and especially in this day and age of sharing our thoughts immediately on the internet, if we don’t like something it’s for reasons outside the technical components that we could argue could be objective. When a bad review can start or end someone’s career, critiquing art should not be an easy job. It should be endless self-reflection and evaluation before we dare put words to paper claiming them to be universal.
Critic Katie Walsh makes mentions in her interview she purposely did not review the film because she acknowledges her bias and that she watched it “in a blur”. Yet, she doesn’t shy away from giving Vulture what she thought of it- an informal review, but a review, nonetheless.
“So whether [Malcolm & Marie] is directed at me or critics in general, I think [Levinson] should have disguised it a little bit better. If he had had the foresight to make it a different person or a different publication, then the film wouldn’t be seen as a revenge movie. And we wouldn’t be talking about this.”
When people have horses in the race they can’t help but make the race about themselves. To build a career off of critiquing and not be able to accept critique in return speaks volumes about the culture of art. As if the critic is the authority figure, immune to a critique of their work, immune to the idea that they could also improve in their role as a cultural critic. We know how hard authority figures resist questioning the meaning and making of their authority.
Matt Goldberg for Collider had a different opinion on it saying,
“…as a critic, I never really felt offended or called out by these scenes because I didn’t take them at face value. It feels like what Levinson is trying to do is not editorialize against critics as much as showing the depth of Malcolm’s insecurities.”
Both Walsh and Goldberg miss the mark. I want to add Levinson’s voice to this conversation as he mentions in the aforementioned interview with Indiewire,
“The role of the critic is often the role that Marie has… If we’re not open to critique, we can’t grow as artists — and, more importantly, as human beings.”
Goldberg is right in noting Malcolm’s insecurities. Never once in the film does he consider he should take a long look in the mirror and change something about himself. Never once does Malcolm reflect on his motivations, his intentions, or his patterns to become a better partner and person. But to have viewers stop there, seeing this movie as only a two-dimensional back and forth representation of a relationship keeps these creators in the same box they were skillfully writing themselves out of.
Our understanding of this film illuminates our inability to see past what we know and dive into the idea that there’s a lot about what makes us human we don’t know how to deal with. If we did have the courage to admit to that, we could pause, reflect, and make reviews of art a bit more productive by critiquing ourselves in the process and skip the part where we blame the art for our lack of self-awareness. I’ve been thinking about the outdated, inaccurate phrase, “those who can’t do, teach”, considering what may be more appropriate is, “those who can’t do, unconstructively critique”.
It was a long movie, and my suspicion is everyone who didn’t think it had depth quite possibly is more like Malcolm than Marie. They are just as uncomfortable looking at themselves in the mirror and are intrigued enough by another’s passion to make a career off of them, but not willing to meet them there.