As much as Sam Levinson’s new film Malcolm & Marie, which arrives on Netflix today, has been advertised as an emotional two-hander à la Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage or John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz, it’s actually a three-hander. The titular male protagonist played by John David Washington is up all night fighting with his model girlfriend (Zendaya) after he forgets to thank her at the premiere of his new film, for which she claims to be a primary muse. But there’s another character who emotionally unsettles him as much, if not more than the woman we see him battling it out with on screen: the white lady from the LA Times.
We initially hear about this woman, who could be a direct reference to actual LA Times film critic Katie Walsh (who panned Levinson’s 2018 film Assassination Nation) or a fictional representation of whitewashed media, in the first 10 minutes of the black-and-white chamber piece set in the couple’s stylish, Usonian home. Malcolm is doing victory laps around the living room after a warm, in-person reception to his movie. But he quickly begins to dread how his art will be received by critics, particularly white journalists who he anticipates will group him with other Black filmmakers like Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins and solely “make it about race.” He tells Marie, who’s outside smoking a cigarette, that he simply made a story about a drug-addicted Black girl trying to get clean, not an “acute study of the horrors of systemic racism in the health-care system.”
At this particular moment, it’s hard not to picture Levinson, the film’s writer and director, eagerly typing out what seems to be a long-awaited retort to criticisms of his Emmy-winning HBO show Euphoria, also starring Zendaya, about a teenage drug addict who happens to be Black but isn’t necessarily handled that way by the white auteur. It’s a recurring distraction in a film that fails to develop distinct voices for each of its characters in favor of laborious diatribes that serve Levinson at the expense of his creations. By the time the white lady from the LA Times is referred to as “Karen” in the third act, you feel sorry for the talented Black performers involved in what could’ve been a well-crafted homage to the relationship-in-crisis genre but reads more like a calculated exercise for its angsty white screenwriter.