The birth of the minstrel show of the early 19th century was an effective means for white men to control the narrative concerning the Black experience in America. Racist, blackface caricatures of burnt cork flesh and exaggerated African features helped to create the deceptive myth of the lazy, happy-go-lucky plantation slave. But more than that, minstrels were popular, exploitative and profitable appealing even to African Americans thirsting for any sort of representation. They were also a subtle and indirect critique of white supremacy as an extremely dull, unremarkable, dominant culture characterized by its single note, anti-Black oppressive violence.
And I’m not suggesting that Sam Levinson–the writer/director of Malcolm & Marie (2021)–is guilty of outright minstrelsy. I’d describe it more as blackface by proxy or low-key Black cosplay. Because, as many reviewers have already pointed out, the premise of the movie strongly resembles Levinson’s own experiences as a filmmaker which I don’t have a problem with. My beef is with his reckless use of Black actors to dress up his bland experiences by normalizing a toxic relationship, endorsing rampant misogynoir, and passing it all off as some form of Black romantic love.
So what is Malcolm & Marie about? Short answer: Marie (Zendaya) feels underappreciated by Malcolm (John David Washington). And maybe my take is a little reductive but therein lies the whole entire conflict for the nearly two hour run time of the movie. The two leads verbally brawl like heavyweight contenders slugging it out in a posh ranch-style getaway. But it is Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm–an egomaniacal Black filmmaker flying high off the critically acclaimed success of his movie premier–who fights dirty. A role that Washington overly commits to, offering no justification for the needless cruelty of his character.
But Marie withstands his verbal abuse and responds not in kind but with the truth. In fact, I was rather annoyed with Marie because I don’t know too many Black women who would’ve put up with Malcolm’s foolishness for that long. It is more likely that their argument would’ve began inside the car during the ride back from the movie premier and ended with Marie telling Malcolm, “Nigga, you ain’t shit!,” as she drives off leaving him standing on the side of the dirt road confused.
The. End. Roll credits. Twenty minutes tops.
Reportedly, Netflix paid $30 million for Malcolm & Marie with Zendaya and Washington sharing executive producer credits with Levinson. So it’s not surprising the trio has defended the film from criticisms concerning the noticeable age gap between Zendaya and Washington, Levinson criticizing critics via Malcolm’s nonsensical rant, and his questionable choice to make the movie about a Black couple. But in recent interviews, Levinson assures us that he had the approval of the two leads. That it was a collaborative effort which still does not make them all equal partners because, unfortunately, Malcolm & Marie remains trapped under the white male gaze.