Malcolm & Marie: Blurring the Lines of Cinematic Expression and Social Commentary

Malcolm & Marie: Blurring the Lines of Cinematic Expression and Social Commentary

Malcolm & Marie is the first Hollywood feature to be completely written, filmed, and produced during COVID-19. With an extensive set of rules that are compulsory to the film’s production, perhaps this encouraged the intimacy of a relationship piece. Set in one location, with a skeleton-crew of only twenty-two people and a narrative that is conducted by its only two characters, this project has cinematic grandeur that is married simultaneously with its insular feel. While the film follows the evening of one couple’s relationship, flustered with hard-hitting monologues, and gut-wrenching punches, Sam Levinson (Director and Producer) still manages to offer some thought-provoking words of social commentary.

Opening the film, Malcolm (John David Washington) has just returned from the premier of his own movie with girlfriend Marie (Zendaya). After its introductory sequence, Malcolm is already predicting reviews to navigate his film through a political lens just because Malcolm is a black director of a film about a black girl trying to overcome her drug addiction. Despite Marie pointing out that he is currently writing an Angel Davis biopic, Malcolm argues that is because he is choosing to make a political film, but “not everything I do is political because I am black.”

The topic of race is evident throughout the film, although this has raised controversy since Levinson is a white man, potentially using Malcolm as his mouthpiece to convey his own opinions. However, Levinson has repeatedly focused on the collaborative nature of his writing and production process with his main two leads, and hoped that had anything seemed inauthentic, Zendaya and Washington would raise concerns.

A discussion of ‘authenticity’ is also something that is raised in the film. Malcolm explains how he believes that,

Authenticity doesn’t matter, your perspective doesn’t matter…recreating reality doesn’t make something interesting, it’s about your interpretation about reality, what you feel about reality, what you reveal about reality…to transcribe a conversation and record it, that’s a YouTube video…it’s about transferring your emotions into something cinematic and moving.


However, Marie claps back that authenticity buys you realism and emotion. The film of the girl trying to get clean is revealed to be based on Marie’s life. As an actress herself, Marie would have brought an authentic expression of her struggles that would have made Malcolm’s film better.

The question of authenticity is something that has long been debated, particularly in academic spheres. Regarding studies of music, Rhythm and Blues is idealised as an authentic musical expression as it’s based on the African-American experience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Authenticity can come from ownership of experience. Without being able to relate to the original source of blues or live as a black person in America, there is a lack of authenticity that is evident when a white individual sings the blues.

Concerning Marie’s point, as the film was based on her life, her ownership of the experience would have added a level of authenticity and emotion that an outside actor wouldn’t have been able to achieve. Considering Malcom’s film as the original source, Marie had a credible relationship to it which would have allowed for an authentic portrayal of a young girl trying to overcome addiction.

Whilst Malcom has a point in that film is an interpretation of reality and not just a play-by-play, to cast Marie as the female lead would have potentially added an extra level of emotion and authenticity — making his film better.

This also seeps into reality with Levinson, as a white man, writing the words of black man. Though as Malcolm points out, was Moonlight so powerful because it was written by a straight man? Is there room for authenticity here? Potentially, perhaps a true appreciation, empathy, and respect may be the first step in writing authentically about a topic you have not lived, preventing a crossing over into appropriation. As Malcolm monologues,

Cinema doesn’t need to have a message, it needs to have a heart and electricity, you can’t have everything spelled out for you. You can’t hang everything on identity… identities are constantly shifting… does the male gaze exist if the filmmaker’s gay… what if they are transitioning and you don’t know it, you can only look back at things and wonder what it all means. It’s a mystery, what drives an artist… Fuck you [at the review in the film] for inhibiting the ability for artists to dream about what life may be like for other people.


In the same monologue, a discussion of race re-enters. The “white lady from the LA times” reviews that Malcolm’s film is one about how the American healthcare system treats women of colour. Malcolm’s rebuttal is that just because the film doesn’t star many people that look like her, doesn’t make it political. He marks a comparison between the political films he loves and ones the white woman calls political, noting the 1989 film Do the Right Thing that was “made at a time when politics weren’t cool, that’s what made it revolutionary.” Is this a comment on today’s society? Is it cool to be woke nowadays? Do big corporations purposefully appear ‘woke’ as a marketing strategy?

On one hand, in a society where the conscious consumer is voting with their money, brands and companies are coming out with political allegiances. The consumer, most predominantly Millennial and Generation Z, is championing brands that they can buy into, and not just idly buy from.

According to a 2018 study by Global Strategy Group, 77% of Americans believe that corporations have a responsibility to take action on important issues. Moving forward from 2020, this growing target audience of consumers are not just looking to idly consume, they are consuming to build their individual and collective identity. To consume a brand is to support it, and Gen Z are notably more conscious of a brand’s morality and how that reflects on their own sense of ethics and identity. For example, if a young person supported a brand that didn’t stand with Black Lives Matter, what would that say about their own identity and political or moral standpoint? A separate study found that 56 percent, of Generation Z consider themselves socially conscious and more than 50% report knowing a brand is socially conscious influences their purchasing decisions.

This emphasis on ethical consciousness arguably started in the 1980s with the corporate social responsibility movement, however, there is a sense of moral egoism that could be said to run through ‘brand activism’. Whilst there is a level of behaviour that companies shouldn’t turn a blind eye to, to what extent is companies taking a stand on social and political issues just forcing opinions down people’s throats? Greater attention needs to be awarded to companies using brand activism as a marketing ploy without looking inwards at the role their own company plays.

Since its innovation, the American clothing company Patagonia has long been committed to supporting grass-roots environmental activism, and even sued Donald Trump for his elimination of more than two million acres of public land in Utah and Nevada. As Footwear News notes: “While most brands would avoid such an overt political stance, Patagonia has the advantage of a long track record that gives it credibility.” This further plays into the discussion of authenticity. It was authentic action that Patagonia took as they have long been committed to environmental causes. When brands just state that they are committed to being more sustainable without any clear or measurable methods, it seems like moral pandering to its consumers from a sentiment of inauthenticity.

Concerning BLM statements of support, Nike is an interesting case. After Colin Kaepernick was dropped by the NFL for taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016, Nike launched a campaign with Kaepernick in 2018.

For some, this was a bold and overtly political stance, one that Nike was clearly right in doing. BLM should be supported unreservedly. Yet, it’s not without questioning Nike’s commitments to diversity within its own company: public records show that in 2019 less than 10% of its 300-plus vice-presidents worldwide were black. Whilst some may only see Nike’s support of Kaepernick as proof they care about social justices, others question how far they can really care about injustices when kids in Asia make slave wages while manufacturing their products.

Whilst it’s obvious that a majority of consumers are paying attention and want brands to stand up against human rights issues, there is a degree of scepticism that still exists when evaluating corporate motivations. Where do we draw the line between authentic activism and flashy campaigns for the sake of appearing woke? As Malcolm suggests in the film, are we living in an age where politics is cool?

Do consumers still care about these companies being moral arbiters of social justice? Marie suggests not. She details how the main lead in Malcom’s film spent the majority of time talking about “the redistribution of wealth and lack of social programs on the red carpet, whilst selling a film for $15 a ticket.” There is an overwhelming sense of hypocrisy here.

You got an actress in a $2000 dress talking about socialism on a red-carpet ‘cos she’s too afraid to admit she’s just a fucking actor. Then you’ve got every entertainment outlet running with her call to arms, her viva la revolution – not because they care or want to spread the message but because they know that there’s nothing that sells more than disgust. That’s what gets the clicks. Nobody cares what you have to say, you play dress up for a living.


Are consumers taking a moral beating from big brands and corporations that, for example, just sell clothes? Especially when these retailers are profiting off the poor wages they pay their workers. These corporations have wealth and positions of privilege to fight the systems of injustices that uphold society. They may release a post of support on social media but if they authentically believe in the injustices they are posting about, surely they should be taking bigger steps as a company to actually fight them. Or is it simply a façade to pander to their consumers?

Is it all just fake, performative gestures to make money from the roots of moral egoism? As proven by multiple surveys and studies, the majority of consumers do want brands to take political and social action, but it’s worth ensuring this comes from a place of authenticity and a commitment to real, long-term plans of action to fight injustices.

How can brands trend #BlackLivesMatter when as of 2020, only four out of America’s 500 biggest companies had a black chief executive? Some have gone further even to suggest that corporations actually play a role in sustaining injustices by faking solutions and passing them off as real.

They are celebrated for sending bottled water to victims of poisoned public water in Flint, Michigan. But they face no consequences for dodging the taxes needed to fix the water system. Moreover, they face no consequences for supporting the politicians who allowed the water to be poisoned in the first place.

Rashad Robinson, The Guardian

So, what’s the point of this movie? There’s a lot of interesting issues raised, including an interesting take on critics. As for the film, there’s no real resolution, perhaps complimentary to the unresolved issues the film discusses.

There is no real takeaway and that is purposefully done by Levinson. There is no consensus, there is no clear outcome or meaning to the film. It portrays these meaningful conversations in a time-capsule of a film. It is emotional, it is thought-provoking and as Malcolm would have wanted, it just makes you feel something. There are sentiments of emotional brutality, lingering intimacy, and egotistical narcissism from Malcolm, believing himself to be above criticism. Though the final punch comes from Marie, she is the emotional centring of the film. Her problem with his narcissism in filmmaking, is the same as with him as a human being. Perhaps the only message of the film is to learn from critique and grow from it; whether that’s as a company from its consumers, or an artist by their critics or just as a human being.

Written by Lizzie Shaw | Illustration by Sanni Pyhäenniska

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