Sam Levinson’s decision to write Marie’s nonstop degradation so fastidiously shows his willingness to use Black women with little care for our actual survival.
CW/TW: This piece contains minor spoilers for ‘Malcolm & Marie’, discussion of substance use, mental illness, attempted suicide, emotional abuse, ableism, and trauma.
What gives a white director-turned-writer the right to play around in Black trauma? What gives him the right to write the marathon abuse of a Black woman and then sell that shit to Netflix? In Sam Levinson’s latest production, Malcolm & Marie, Levinson uses the mistreatment of a Black woman to shock and provoke, at the expense of Black women everywhere.
Malcolm & Marie is an almost two-hour excursion into the toxic, abusive relationship of Malcolm (John David Washington), a Black filmmaker, and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya). On this particular night, Malcolm has just premiered his new movie, a feature about a young Black woman named Imani and her journey through substance use and recovery. Upon returning to the glamorous house that his producers provided him, Malcolm is elated as his film has been positively received but quickly subdued as he protests the politicization of his new movie; Marie looks on even-tempered and cold, making Malcolm a bland bowl of Kraft Mac and Cheese.
It’s clear that Marie is agitated about something, but we’re not sure what. After being badgered by Malcolm to divulge what’s bothering her, Marie reveals why she’s upset: while Malcolm thanked a myriad of people at the premiere, he neglected to thank Marie. The slight is even more egregious considering Marie’s experiences with addiction, mental health struggles, and recovery are captured in detail in the film. Her trauma, her pain launched his career while she can’t even receive a nod of recognition. And there begins the fight.
There is a bilious ease to the way that Malcolm is able to berate Marie, leading her to offer somewhat of a warning to Malcolm that he is incapable of de-escalating arguments before it is too late. But Malcolm doesn’t stumble. Malcolm barely hesitates. Despite the specificity of Malcolm’s insults, he has them ready, as if they’re cataloged. His jabs are all pointed at her deepest insecurities: her waxing and waning mental health, the importance of Malcolm’s past relationships, her sometimes shaky recovery, her lack of a film career. The casualty of his cruelty is astonishing. Malcolm doesn’t fight to bruise Marie’s spirit. He fights to kill it. All while scarfing down a bowl of macaroni and cheese from across the room, as Marie points out.
The whole “argument” (it almost feels too lopsided to call it that) is searing, but some of the worst moments are the detailed ways that Malcolm lunges at Marie. Marie is not allowed to make observations about their relationship or challenge the narrative that Malcolm has assigned to their “love” without Malcolm blowing up; Malcolm isn’t trying to understand Marie, he wants to fight, warning Marie that she won’t “win” the arguments she supposedly starts.
In one pivotal scene, as Malcolm and Marie are kissing on the couch, Malcolm makes a comment that Marie should’ve never given up acting. Upset, Marie later disputes the idea that she “gave up”; according to her, Malcolm is extremely needy and was barely there to support her and her craft. Malcolm comes back, lecturing her about how her “inabilities to get [her] shit together” aren’t his fault. Of course, during this speech, Malcolm finds a way to throw her drug use and suicide attempt back in her face, screaming that Marie is, in fact, the suffocating partner in the relationship. According to Malcolm, he has to deal with the fear that Marie will “hang everything on [his] life” and start “drinking on Xannies” and “[try to cut her wrists] with a pair of fucking nail scissors.”
As Marie retreats to take a bath, Malcolm then comes back to point out every way that the film isn’t inspired by her despite previously admitting the film wouldn’t be as good if they weren’t together. Walking through different scenes of the movie, Malcolm graphically describes all his other relationships that actually made it into the film: Jess, Jayla, Kiki (the dancer who he “fucked the shit out in the penthouse suite of a Marriott”, the one whose picture Malcolm saved in a photo album at home), Leah (someone who actually deserved a “thank you”, Malcolm says), and Tasha. Not only to remind Marie how little she contributed to his first commercial success, but also to make sure she knows that she is “not the first broken girl [he’s] known, fucked, or dated.” She’s simply another woman in Malcolm’s rotation.
Marie can be mean too. She does say that Malcolm and his work are mediocre, and calls him a fraud. She calls him a “thief.” She calls him a “fucking con man” (to be fair, this is to serve her argument about Malcolm’s theft of her experiences to make his work). And sometimes, Malcolm can be kind; as he reminds Marie during their argument, Malcolm has been there for Marie through her drug abuse, when she went to rehab, during her relapse, as she cheated on him. But Malcolm’s sweetness feels (and is, as argued by Marie during another fight) transactional—within their relationship, but also within the script.
Levinson positions Malcolm as arrogant, obnoxious, and mean, but he stayed with her through her rock-bottom. Malcolm is verbally abusive and cruel, boasting that he can hurt Marie “ten times worse” than she can hurt him, but he says he loves her. And Malcolm is sorry. He is so sorry. And all he wants to do is celebrate with Marie, the “love of his life.” But Marie’s jabs never sink to the level of Malcolm’s. Whatever trauma Malcolm has isn’t used against him for the sake of being right. He isn’t gaslit. His struggles aren’t mocked. The brutality from Malcolm hangs in the air unmatched.
There are points in the movie where Malcolm treats Marie with such disdain, such contempt, that it’s hard to imagine Levinson writing this script without some pleasure. Lines from Malcolm like “I can snap you like a twig” in a monologue about how he can beat Marie in an argument aren’t out of place necessarily, but feel like an extra pile on (dialogue that doesn’t add much) that Levinson crafted for the sake of writing it. Part of the pleasure is in getting to completely control how another character feels. Part of that pleasure comes from nailing the language of such insults. But part of the thrill is the gratuitous interest in seeing a Black woman get pummeled with such vitriol. Malcolm’s twisted investment in debasing Marie translates to Levinson’s own deeper satisfaction.
At one point during the film, Marie tells Malcolm that he constantly takes shit too far. “You could’ve won without all that shit,” she says. “You could’ve won with 20% of what you said, but you cannot help yourself.” Marie’s point about Malcolm is not only absolutely right but also applies to Levinson as a writer. Instead of making his point about the turmoil in Malcolm and Marie’s relationship and moving on, Levinson has to take it three steps further by upping Malcolm’s cruelty. Levinson has to “twist the knife.”
30 minutes into the film, Malcolm has already called Marie “psychotic.” Malcolm calls Marie “delusional.” Malcolm calls Marie “unstable” and says that he is “concerned for [her] mental wellbeing” when she airs her feelings. “You’re fucking intolerable.” A “fucking mental patient.” All of this cruelty, for what? The tirades Levinson writes don’t give us any new insight into Malcolm and Marie’s relationship or how Malcolm views Marie. For all their arguing and “passion,” the movie ends with the couple going to bed together and waking up, likely to continue their toxic relationship. It’s cruelty for the sake of being cruel with nothing gained when the bloodbath is “over.”
Most of what Malcolm says remains unexplained and unjustified. The only excuse Malcolm (and Levinson as the writer) can give us is that they were fighting so, of course, some regrettable things are said. But why so many cutting remarks? Why such savagery? Levinson never really answers these questions or the huge, invisible question mark of why he’s allowed to write such relentless abuse of a Black woman on screen. Especially as Black women are disproportionately victims of domestic abuse, Levinson doesn’t seem to recognize the gravity of his choices. You don’t get to use our suffering as entertainment. You don’t get to write detailed accounts of our abuse as a fictional reflection on toxic relationships. These depictions matter.
Malcolm & Marie is draining to watch. Almost two hours of dysfunction with so little gained. The constant emotional abuse without anything actually happening makes for a tedious, agonizing watch. Levinson’s decision to write Marie’s nonstop degradation so fastidiously shows his willingness to use Black women with little care for our actual survival. In the worst circumstances, Levinson writes Marie’s pointless abuse with pleasure. In a slightly better scenario, he writes it with the detachment that only someone privileged enough to have never been in Marie’s position as a Black woman can. In any case, Levinson allows the wanton abuse to serve as spectacle, thinking little of the way Black women are thrown around and thrown out in real life.
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